I immigrated to Israel, by myself, at the age of 15, and lived in boarding schools and dormitories for years, shuffling around with all of my worldly possessions in a backpack.
I had to deal — again, by myself — with the various daily situations in which one’s family usually comes to one’s aid. And it seemed perfectly normal to me because that was simply the reality. After all, I had come here by choice; I stayed here by choice, and I belong here — so there was nothing I couldn’t deal with.
I never realized how unnatural my situation was until I had a family of my own.
It has been three decades since the onset of what has come to be known as the “Great Immigration of the 1990s,” during which hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews emigrated to Israel in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The initial waves of immigration included tens of thousands of teens and young adults, such as myself, who came to Israel by themselves through various government programs designed for high school graduates and university students and graduates.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), between 1989 and 1999, about 980,000 Soviet Jews emigrated to Israel, with the one-millionth immigrant arriving in early 2000. Emigration by former-USSR Jews has continued since then, albeit at a considerably slower pace.
My parents, Yelena and Nicholai, are not among the immigrants. Approaching their 70s, they both still work and live in my southeast Russian hometown of Khabarovsk, close to the Chinese border. It is a seven-hour flight from Moscow.
My mother is an electrical engineer who works on government projects, and my dad, who has always been a manager, works as a custodian — and as far as he’s concerned, he still runs things. They still live in the cozy, two-room apartment where my younger brother, Sergey, and I were born.
They first arrived in Israel in 2010, two days before my wedding. It was August, on one of the hottest, most stressful days in my life. My excitement reached the point of hysterics, not only because of the upcoming wedding, but mainly because my family was finally going to meet my future husband. Yes, the first time they met him was two days before the wedding.
My eldest son was already 10 months old the next time my mother visited Israel. I remember a winter, rainy morning at Ben-Gurion International Airport. I parked the car, put my baby in the stroller, and together we went to meet the grandmother who had just landed. He was baffled when this strange woman picked him up, hugged and kissed him, and cried tears of joy for several long minutes.
The fact that my children are growing up away from their maternal grandparents and get to see them only about once a year rips my heart out
The fact that my children are growing up away from their maternal grandparents and get to see them only about once a year rips my heart out — and my parents’ too, as I’ve recently learned. And not one word about the physical and financial difficulty of raising children without any help from your family.
My Sabra — Israeli-born — friends have always found the fact the I live an 11-hour flight away from my parents almost inconceivable, but that’s exactly the situation.
Many in the family-oriented Israeli society may find my decision to be unusual. The nature of Israeli society, which is somewhat derived from the size of the country, is to stay close to home. This is not the case in many other parts of the world, such as the United States, for example, where it’s common to live hours away — by car or plane — from the people who brought you into this world.
But my story is not unique: Tens of thousands of young men and women from the former Soviet Union still come to Israel every year as part of various government programs.
I arrived as part of the Na’ale Program, sponsored by the Israeli Education Ministry and the Jewish Agency, which allows Jewish teenagers from the Diaspora to study and earn a high school diploma in Israel.
Anyone who signs up for one of these government programs makes the same choice, leaving their families behind and coming to Israel alone. The majority also choose to make their life here — alone.
Some 90 percent of Na’ale graduates remain in Israel, but only about 60% of their families follow them here. For teens arriving in Israel through other programs, the numbers are far lower.
Currently, neither the Immigration and Absorption Ministry nor the Jewish Agency can provide information about the exact number of teens from former Soviet Union nations who have come to Israel alone, leaving behind their parents and siblings. One number that is available is that every year, some 2,000 lone soldiers — troops who do not have family or support in Israel, most of whom are from former Soviet Union countries — complete their military service.
“For Israelis, the idea of sending their children to study in a different country is highly unusual,” Prof. Michal Frenkel of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem told Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s sister Hebrew-language site. “Everything here is about procreation and children. Israel also has less of an individualistic culture and you are definitely expected to stay closely connected to your natural environment,” she said.
“At the same time, when you look at former Soviet Union countries, you find that the idea of sending your child to his grandmother’s village was quite common. The small apartments, long working hours, and especially the social situation of being in ‘survival mode,’ would make families think in terms of how to survive the regime and the living conditions,” said Frenkel.
“Add to that the great [geographical] distances in the former USSR, and it becomes easier to understand that it was common to see your relatives only once every few months. And in general, the idea of sending children away so they can have a better life is a survivalist concept. It doesn’t exist in Israeli society,” she said.
In my personal opinion, family values were actually highly regarded in the Soviet Union, where families were small and very close-knit.
In most families, it is customary for the children to care for their elderly parents, and I’ve heard my share of jokes about Russian immigrants who have “a grandmother living in the living room.” Indeed, grandmothers did live with the family, especially during the Soviet era.
When I made the decision to move to Israel, I’m not sure I fully understood how I would feel being away from my family and how this move would impact my life. It’s hard to put into words the yearning and difficulty I experienced in my first years here. I remember crying a lot, being homesick and missing my family, my little brother, and especially my mom, with whom I was very close.
Years later, my mother told me that she fell into a deep depression after I left. I can only understand the mental toll it took on her now that I am a mother myself.
In real-time — and although we used to talk about everything — neither of us said anything about the difficulties we both experienced
“I remember meeting your friends from class on the street and talking to them,” she told me after too many years of trying to be strong on my behalf. “They would tell me how they were doing and I would tell them about you. Then I’d go home and sit down in the kitchen, where we used to sit and talk, and just miss our conversations.”
Even then, I thought that the fact that she agreed to allow me to go on this adventure I so desperately wanted, was her own heroic act. But in real-time — and although we used to talk about everything — neither of us said anything about the difficulties we both experienced.
Neither one of us, it seems, wanted to burden the other. My mother didn’t want to sabotage my attempt to assimilate in Israel and, knowing she was having a hard time, I didn’t want her hurting for me, either.
Still, despite all the difficulties I encountered, the thought of going back to Russia never crossed my mind. I couldn’t disappoint her — or myself.
My father, a man subscribing to the classic introverted Soviet mentality, has never shared with me how my departure affected him. He and I don’t talk about our feelings.
“Most parents who decided to send their children to Israel did so believing it would give [the children] a unique opportunity to pursue higher education and a more successful life than they could have under the post-Soviet circumstances in which all [state] systems, including the education system, disintegrated, which created general uncertainty about the future,” explained Prof. Larissa Remennick, head of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Bar Ilan University.
“It was a daring experiment, but it included the option of coming home if it failed,” she said. “You also have to understand that, contrary to the Israeli parental approach, the Soviet approach underscores the need for children to become independent and responsible at an early age, and believes that a child and a teenager need to experience challenges and difficulties so they can learn to overcome them by themselves and grow up.”
Growing pains and Skype dinners
Leo Golod, 39, a father of four, immigrated to Israel from Ukraine at the age of 15. In hindsight, he said, he would have done things differently.
“I was a Zionist. I wanted to live in Israel, serve in the military and protect the country,” he said. “As long as I was in Na’ale and in the IDF I was fine — I had where to live and what to eat — but as soon as I was released [from the army] there was no one to help me out. I was able to earn enough money to pay my rent, but not to go to university. I couldn’t have survived that financially.”
Still, Golod doesn’t necessarily believe that had his parents followed him to Israel the situation would have been different.
“They couldn’t help me at the time, not financially. Today they can do that because in Ukraine they have their own business, but yes, I would be happy if I had more help with the kids. It’s impossible to advance your career or earn enough when you have small children and you don’t have the option of leaving them with their grandparents if they get sick or when they’re on vacation,” Golod said.
Moria Kantor came to Israel almost a decade ago at the age of 26 as part of Masa Israel — an immersive program funded by the Prime Minister’s Office together with the Jewish Agency. It offers young adults aged 18-30 a wide variety of internship, study, and volunteer opportunities all over Israel, for periods of between five and 12 months.
Kantor, 35, who has a two-year-old daughter, said that “the fact that my mother doesn’t live here and can’t be with my daughter is very hard for me. I don’t like leaving her with her nanny for any longer than I have to because of work. It would be amazing if I could leave her with her grandmother. But the daily reality is that she’s with a stranger who I pay two-thirds of my salary.”
Kantor shares that she and her mother, Tamara, only became close after she had her daughter. Tamara visits Israel once a year, and Kantor and her family visit her on vacations.
The assimilation process is not easy for most Jews from the former Soviet Union. Many have found that their formal education is not recognized by most Israeli employers, though it is recognized by institutions of higher education. They have had to work in jobs that did not match their expertise. The insular nature of this immigration wave, attributed to its massive size, initially resulted in the community forming what was known early on as “Russian neighborhoods” in Israeli cities.
According to CBS data, this mostly characterized the older immigrants, who wanted to preserve their culture as much as possible. In contrast, the younger generation — both teens who arrived in Israel by themselves and first-generation Russian-Israelis — chose to immerse themselves in their new surrounding culture while still conserving their original culture.
Overall, however, immigrants from the former Soviet Union seem to be happy in Israel.
In 2015, to mark the 25th anniversary of the so-called “Great Immigration of the 1990s,” the CBS released a study gauging the happiness of Russian-speaking immigrants over the years.
According to the findings, in 2002, only 72% were satisfied with their life here and only 29% were content with their financial situation. Some 50% said they were making ends meet and 21% reported living in poverty. But things picked up over the years: In 2014, 83% of Russian-speaking immigrants reported being satisfied with their life in Israel overall, slightly lower than veteran Israelis, 91% of whom said the same.
‘We might have made things more difficult for you’
Journalist and television presenter Noa Lavie, who came to Israel from Ukraine at the age of 22 and has lived here on her own for 14 years, has no regrets.
“This distance allows me flexibility in my new life,” she said. “On the one hand, I can’t trust anyone, but and on the other, I don’t have to answer to anyone, either. I have an excellent relationship with my parents, and I do miss them very much, but I’m at peace with my choice,” said Lavie.
Emotional and financial difficulties aside, the age of the internet and smartphones has made being physically distant more tolerable, as it allows for easy, everyday interaction via calls, text messages and video chats. Still, the nature of these interactions depends on existing relationships.
Lavie, for example, recalled a long-distance family dinner she organized with her parents. “I ordered sushi to my place here and to my parents’ house in Ukraine and we sat down to eat together on Skype,” she said.
While she admits the distance does take its toll (“Both my grandparents died and I didn’t get to say goodbye. All I could do was attend their funerals”), Lavie said she felt she had to move to Israel.
“I never felt like I belonged in Ukraine. I always felt different. Here I feel at home. My parents, however, can’t relate to that and they don’t want to leave a country where they have steady jobs and their own apartment,” Lavie said.
Her parents, she added, don’t help her financially. “On the contrary, I help them. Back in the days of the Soviet Union, my father had a good job, but in the 1990s, when everything fell apart, we fell on hard times. My parents are both at retirement age but they keep working so as not to live in poverty. But their salaries are minimal, and with what I make in Israel, I can help them and pay for their medical expenses, for example,” she said.
Even with their financial struggles, Lavie insists her parents would not be better off immigrating to Israel.
“They will be facing certain poverty here. They have no pension savings, they won’t be able to work and they’ll have no housing. Their monthly [social security] stipend will come to what, NIS 5,000 [roughly $1,400] for both of them? And how much would I be able to help them here? I won’t be able to guarantee my parents have the quality of life I want them to have, and besides, they wouldn’t want to become a burden,” she said.
I can certainly sympathize with Lavie. I never wanted to see my parents, engineers who earn a good living in Russia, come to Israel and find that they have to join cleaning crews to make a living. For that reason, I never encouraged them to immigrate to Israel.
I’ve had countless conversations with my parents about whether or not they “should” immigrate to Israel. These are always very rational, discussions, never emotional ones. Emotions are sidelined when we’re talking about life itself.
I never wanted to see my parents, engineers who earn a good living in Russia, come to Israel and find that they have to join cleaning crews to make a living
Still, I’m always left wondering — was missing their daughter not enough to make them want to try and overcome the difficulties of immigration?
Recently, for the first time ever, I asked my mother that question directly.
She had called me from my brother’s phone, using WhatsApp, sitting with him in what used to be my childhood bedroom, which they still refer to as “Ira’s room.”
“I’m not sure that us coming to Israel would have made it easier for you. Maybe it would have made it harder,” she said with her usual rationale. “Parents who don’t know the language, can’t earn a living — I, personally, don’t adapt well to changes. I’ve had the same job since 1976 and I’ve been married to your father for 40 years. Zionism aside, Israel is a very difficult country to live in. But now that we have grandchildren we feel that we’re missing out on a lot,” she said.
That surprised me. I had never heard my mother regret anything before.
“We only get to see them once a year and on Skype calls, which really isn’t enough,” she said. “We should have come [to Israel], to be close to them and help you.”
This article is adapted from the original Hebrew version, which appeared on The Times of Israel’s sister site, Zman Yisrael.