Israelis from Russia: A voyage from atheism to religion

Despite the secular campaign by Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman, and despite their atheist upbringing, a significant number of Jews who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union have become religious.

al-monitor Israeli Minister of Defense Avigdor Liberman greets the veterans of the Red Army celebrating and commemorating victory over Nazi Germany 73 years ago, at the Knesset, Jerusalem, May 8, 2018. Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images.
Ksenia Svetlova

Ksenia Svetlova


Topics covered

immigrants, soviet union, ultra-orthodox, avigdor liberman, religion, judaism, atheism, russian jews

Dec 18, 2019

In late 2018, Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman dissolved the government he was a part of. Since then, bloody battles have been waged on social media between Liberman’s supporters and opponents. But the opponents in this case are not necessarily part of an opposite political camp. Liberman immigrated to Israel from Moldova in 1978, and a significant part of his electorate are former immigrants like him. The debates for and against his ideas often take place within these circles. In fact, these debates take place in Russian, with the participation of new and old immigrants, who arrived from the Soviet Union or the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Liberman and his demands in the realm of religion and state — civil marriage, public transportation on the Sabbath and enlistment of the ultra-Orthodox — are attacked again and again by those who immigrated, just like him, from Moldova, Russia, Ukraine or Belarus, but hold an essentially different set of values. This group believes that in a Jewish state there is no need for public transportation on the Sabbath, that whoever does not want to marry in the faith of Moses and Israel is welcome to travel to Cyprus or leave Israel — Israeli law enables only religious weddings, not civil marriages — and that the enlistment of yeshiva students is not feasible or really necessary.

The latest figures of the Central Bureau of Statistics on Oct. 29 show that this is a significant group that numbers at least tens of thousands of people, possibly more. It turns out that about 20% of immigrants from the former Soviet Union have become more religious over the years, and that immigrants — both natives of Europe and the United States — are a significant portion — about a third — of those who have become newly religious. This sector of immigrants from the Soviet Union who have adopted a religious lifestyle has two senior representatives in the Knesset: Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Minister for Jerusalem Affairs Zeev Elkin.

Nadia Aizner, chief editor of the Russian-language news website ReLevant, who lives a religious way of life that she adopted after attending a religious school for girls in Tiberias, is not surprised at these numbers. “It’s clear that no one hears about this group or talks about it, since Israeli society doesn’t know how to relate outside of stereotype," she told Al-Monitor. Everything has to be arranged in defined boxes. You are an immigrant from Russia? Then all day you buy at non-kosher shops, reject religion and are probably not Jewish. Other possibilities just can’t be entertained.”

How does one become religious without any background or basic knowledge of Judaism? How does one turn from atheism that rejects the existence of God to keeping commandments and a lifestyle based on faith? What does someone feel who knows they are Jewish because that is what their Soviet passport said under “Nationality” the first time they attend a Passover seder? Of course, everyone has a unique experience. Among the thousands who have become more religious over the years there are those who affiliate with the Chabad Hasidic sect and the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox, the religious nationalists, the Reform, the traditional and those who do not belong to any stream and simply believe in God and keep the commandments. Jews who emigrated from a state that underwent full ideological collapse sought an alternative ideology. Some of them found it in a type of secular nationalism, others connected with the religious component.

“The interest in Judaism was clear and understandable. I remember the growth of nationalism in Belarus during perestroika, which was related to the rise of Christianity. I knew clearly that it was not relevant to me,” Aizner noted.

Choosing religion was not always intentional. In the beginning of the 1990s, children of immigrants from the Soviet Union were directed to religious public schools. In this period thousands of children from that background studied in the religious education system, including in the ultra-Orthodox Bais Yaakov girl-schools’ network, which did not grant a matriculation certificate. Many parents were not aware of this when they sent their girls there. Not all those who studied at these schools became religious and adopted a religious lifestyle, but there are many such cases. “Religiosity is like a musical ear. Either you have it or you don’t. I started to believe in God and have a dialogue with him in the Soviet Union. My school in Tiberias was great. The students helped us and were really nice. It was a positive experience compared to the secular school where I studied before,” said Aizner, who immigrated to Israel in 1990.

Vicky Idzinsky, a sociologist who has studied the absorption of immigrants from the Soviet Union in Israel, told Al-Monitor about another path taken by immigrants who sought belonging. “I studied the young generation of immigrants — ‘generation 1.5’ — that adopted religious customs from their Mizrahi surroundings. Many immigrants arrived in the periphery for economic reasons. These young people who really wanted to belong connected with their environment, and later married into religious and traditional families,” Idzinsky said.

Over the years, many immigrants also arrived at religious towns and West Bank settlements. Today, thousands of immigrant families that bought homes in the settlements for economic reasons live outside of the Green Line. Some of them have been influenced by their environment and adopted the religious lifestyle in order not to be different.

Summer camps run by the Jewish Agency, which were attended by thousands of youth in the post-Soviet era, and the Na’ale program — for minors who immigrate without parents — had a role in connecting immigrants to the religious world. “I was a teacher in Na’ale and I remember things well. Of course in religious boarding schools there was pressure on the kids to become religious. There was pressure on boys to be circumcised. Parents didn’t know what was happening and couldn’t influence them,” Aizner recalled.

In the past decade, about 25,000 immigrants have arrived in Israel every year, most of them from Russia, Ukraine and France. Rabbi Yosef Hersonski, who heads the Jewish Point congregation in Tel Aviv, told Al-Monitor that among the latest wave of immigrants there are many who already became religious in their country of origin. “For new immigrants in recent years, religion is not a war,” he said. “They participated in Jewish community events and connected to it because the Jewish community was a great thing, something that was better than anything else in their lives. For them the connection to religion was the possibility to become a better person. Earlier, immigrants had never experienced religion like this, and now, through us, they are discovering new things, that there is another way. I personally don’t believe that religion and secularism have to fight.”

As usual, reality is much more complicated than the simplistic picture politicians try to paint. Russian-speaking Israelis are not a homogeneous group that exists in a vacuum where time does not pass. Like the rest of the Israeli public, immigrants from the Soviet Union and from former Soviet Union countries have undergone great changes that should be taken into consideration.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from  Israel

East-Med Gas Forum evolves as Israel, Egypt enhance cooperation
Rina Bassist | Oil and gas | Sep 22, 2020
Israeli opposition wants to know: Is there more to UAE deal than meets the eye?
Mazal Mualem | Israeli-Gulf relations | Sep 22, 2020
In Washington, Gantz all about US snapback sanctions on Iran
Ben Caspit | | Sep 22, 2020
F-35 deal with UAE could benefit Israeli defense industries
Danny Zaken | Defense/Security cooperation | Sep 22, 2020