Return of the Exiles
Jews suffered severe persecutions in Russia between the glory days of the Russian Empire in the 1700s until the end of Communism in 1989.
During most of those 250 years, only a handful of Jews managed to leave the Russian Empire and reach the Land of Israel.
The pogroms of the late 1800s, however, prompted large numbers of Jews to move to Israel, where they played a critical role in building up Jewish settlements and agriculture in the early 20th century.
World War One and the western-financed Communist Revolution towards the end of the war changed the landscape for Russian Jewry. Some Jews, seeing the writing on the wall, managed to escape to Israel, but most escapees only made it as far as Europe.
After taking full control of Russia, Communist leaders continued the Czarist persecution of the Jewish population, but with a new twist. Instead of trying to convert the Jews, they simply suppressed Jewish religion and culture, and refused to allow most Jews to emigrate.
Between the 1950s and 1980s, only small groups of Jews were allowed to leave the USSR and move to Israel. After the final collapse of the USSR in 1989, over 1 million Russian Jews made Aliyah, where they now make up about 15% of Israel’s total population.
In this initial wave, the highly educated Russian Jews brought with them expertise in medicine, science, technology, music, economics and mathematics, which boosted Israel’s profile in those areas.
The majority of the immigrant wave were European Jews; however, a significant proportion were Jewish groups from Russian-speaking Muslim republics of the former USSR. These included Mountain Jews from Azerbaijan, Georgian Jews, and Bukharian Jews – with each group adding its own distinctive culture to the Israeli mix.
The Russian Jewish community’s arrival in Israel also spurred a significant religious awakening and return to Torah observance among some groups of Russian Jews. Three generations of religious repression in the USSR did not destroy the spirit of Jewish people. In fact, even many non-Jewish descendants of Jews converted to Judaism after arriving in Israel.