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Recession fuels rise in Russian aliyah

MOSCOW (JTA) – Years after Russian immigration to Israel dipped and then plateaued, the global economic downturn appears to be sending it higher again.

Starting last year, aliyah from the former Soviet Union grew 21 percent over 2008, with 6,818 Russian-speaking immigrants moving to Israel in 2009. In the first four months of 2010, aliyah is up a further 22 percent compared with the same period last year, according to the Jewish Agency for Israel. In Russia alone, the rise has been slightly greater. Last year, 3,244 Russians moved to Israel compared with 2,605 in 2008, and this year’s increase so far shows an even greater uptick: 905 in the first four months of 2010, an increase of about 25 percent over 2009.

Most observers attribute the rise to the global economic recession, which has prompted some Russian Jews to reconsider their future here. The recession has hit Russia harder than it has hit Israel.

Elena, 34, and Alexander, 40, a couple from Moscow who requested that their last name not be published, are planning to move by summer’s end. The downturn has had a dramatic effect on their unregistered family business in commercial manufacturing, they said, with their clients at a bare minimum since 2008.

“We understood there’s no way for us here and decided to make aliyah,” Elena said. “Actually, Alexander has wanted it for the last 10 years, and I was against it. But now I’m ready to admit I was wrong. It’s better for us and for our child to live in a more stable country.”

The couple’s experience is one example of the way the recession has drastically changed lives here, pushing people toward emigration. In most cases, however, the push has been less direct.

“Factors like an economic downturn affect people in a more peripheral way. They just encourage people who are hesitant to make a decision,” said Zeev Khanin, who works with the Israeli Absorption Ministry. “The people who are coming to Israel now would have sat on the fence for years. They could have fallen to either side, and the recession made them chose Israel.”

Muscovite Denis Burin falls into this category. He is slated to leave for Israel this summer with his wife and 9-year old son. Burin’s business is advertising and construction, both of which have been severely affected by the financial crisis in Russia. Burin, however, says this is not why he is making aliyah.

“Definitely my business has experienced a sharp decline in production volume. But it would be wrong to attribute my decision to financial hardship,” he told JTA. “I’ve been considering making aliyah for many years, and I feel now it’s the right time. One has to mature enough for this decision.”

Asked why he didn’t move to Israel earlier, Burin said personal reasons and business prospects in Russia had kept him here.

At Israel’s Absorption Ministry, officials say the increase in aliyah is partly the result of their policies and work.

“We are offering the olim extra funds to aid them in their integration. These funds have been set aside by the Ministry of Absorption and the Jewish Agency,” said Maya Neiger, director of resource development in the Jewish Agency’s aliyah and absorption department.

“With the economic situation in the FSU the way it has been and is at present, it was important to offer a little extra help to potential olim,” she said. “This encouraged people who wanted to make aliyah for many years but haven’t been able to do so.”

Families receive a grant of about $850 and a subsidy of $6,000 toward rent for one year. Singles receive a grant of about $500 and a rent subsidy of $3,000.

Officials at the Moscow office of the Jewish Agency say it’s unlikely the money was a key draw, since applicants for aliyah generally did not learn about it until they showed up at the agency’s local office asking about immigrating to Israel.

Those involved with aliyah also attributed the rising interest in aliyah in part to the decline of political freedoms in Russia in recent years.

“For someone with Jewish roots, Israel is ‘Europe light’: a passport that lets you travel worldwide, double citizenship and a pre-established community of Russian-speaking intelligentsia,” said Elena Nemet, 27, a financial analyst from Moscow who is plans to make move to Israel in July.

“Israel is not ideal: high taxes, hot climate, a heap of religious mess and the constant hazard of war,” she said. “But when I am asked whether I am afraid of terrorism, I just protest that someone who has lived in Moscow for 10 years treats terrorism with a certain fatalism. Anyway, I trust the Israeli secret services more than the Russian ones. Israel is not an ideal country, but unlike in Russia, I don’t feel absurdity there.”