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Russian Olim Breaking The Glass Ceiling?

פברואר 16, 2010. The Jewish Week: Walter Ruby

Israeli cabinet minister Sofa Landver, an émigré from the FSU, is working to bring more olim to Israel from her homeland.

Since taking over the post of Israel’s minister of immigration and absorption a year ago, Sofa Landver has presided over the first substantial upswing in aliyah in more than a decade, with 16,244 new immigrants arriving in 2009 — a 17 percent increase from 2008. Landver, 60, a former Labor Party member who joined the Yisrael Beiteinu party in 2006, is one of three Russian-speaking members in the cabinet of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. A native of Leningrad who emigrated to Israel in 1979, she was in New York last week to give the keynote address at the second annual banquet of the Brighton Beach-based Russian leadership group RAJE (Russian-American Jewish Experience).

Q: I understand there was an upsurge in aliyah in 2009. To what do you attribute the increase?

A: Who knows why it happened? Maybe it was due to the rise of anti-Semitism around the world, and maybe due in part to the global economic crisis. The fact is that it happened, and that is good.

So it isn’t that your department did anything special to bring the olim to Israel?

No, we did a lot to bring in and absorb olim together with our partners in the Jewish Agency. I think we have worked well together in implementing several programs that were already in existence in the areas of housing, employment and Hebrew instruction. One area we have focused on is better use of the Internet so we are able to be in closer touch with the olim long before they arrive in Israel. We are able to provide them with solid information about what to expect in the areas of employment and housing.

A few years ago, there was an effort made by the Jewish Agency in New York to attract young Russian-speaking American Jews to make aliyah on the theory that they are more closely connected to Israel than their American-born counterparts. Do you support expanding those efforts?

No, I don’t distinguish between the [ethnic] origins of olim. Every oleh is equal. So, I think it is not allowable that there should be special programs for certain olim.

But do you have any special feelings seeing all of these Russian-speaking Jews here today, expressing love for Judaism and connectedness to Israel? 

Of course. Being here today makes me think of what happened so many years ago, when Soviet Jews left the country on Israeli visas, and then dropped out and headed for Ladispoli [a suburb of Rome] and then on to America. At that time, we felt we had lost them completely. But now, to find out that many feel such a strong connection to Israel is a wonderful development. We want them to come to visit Israel on programs like RAJE, fall in love with the country and maybe some of them will decide to settle in Israel permanently.

I attended a conference at Bar Ilan University three years ago at which Russian Jews in a wide range of professional fields concurred that even though Russian olim had made huge progress since arriving en masse 20 years ago, they still confronted a “glass ceiling” in most fields — that Russians could rise a long way, but not to the very top. Has that feeling changed since then?

For some Russian-speaking Israelis, there still remains the feeling that there is a glass ceiling. But today, with a Russian-speaking foreign minister [Yisrael Beiteinu chief Avigdor Lieberman], several other Russian-speaking ministers, and with Natan Sharansky heading the Jewish Agency, there is a growing sense that despite all of the very real difficulties we had in getting to this point, we have finally broken through the glass ceiling. Yet, there is still more to do to make sure we truly become part of the Israeli elite. We are determined to end the feeling that Israel belongs only to the elite — to a few families. It is our country, too

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