Reconnect With the People

Culture Shock

The Soviet Jews arrival was like a flood.

“We hardly had time to catch our breath,” recalled Debs Weinberg, who served as a resettlement caseworker in 1989 and 1990.

But resettlement also was a well-oiled machine and a collaborative process. HIAS was responsible for bringing families to Baltimore, literally meeting them at the airport and processing their paperwork. JFS picked up where HIAS left off, offering basic financial and emotional support. Jewish Vocational Services assisted with job placement, the Hebrew Free Loan Association with cash for cars and computers, Operation Housewarming with furniture and the local synagogue and Jewish day schools with the demand for Jewish education and spirituality.

There were sometimes glitches in obtaining U.S. visas, and emigrants were forced to live under difficult circumstances in Vienna or other Eastern European countries while waiting for them to be worked out. At one point, the Jewish community was paying out as much as $80,000 a day to support those Jews in limbo, according to Cardin.

The resettlement, too, cost money. The Jewish community raised the funds — nationally and locally. Cardin recalled that the Passage to Freedom Special Campaign raised close to $75 million in 1989. In 1990, Operation Exodus secured nearly $1 billion for emigration to Israel and the U.S.

And it was not a quick resettlement process. Suzanne Offit was executive director of HIAS then. She told the JT that while immigrants came in with the “right” to apply for a green card, that process took about one year. Then, the immigrant had to wait another five years before he or she could apply for citizenship. And from there, it was another six to nine months until acceptance and naturalization.

Offit described the majority of Soviet immigrants as “educated, ambitious and hard working.” Nonetheless, as Irina Spector, who came to Baltimore from Moscow at age 38 remembers, there was a culture shock.

“It is not even easy for me to explain, but at the time, I felt I do everything wrong,” she said with her still heavy Russian inflection. “It was a very cold winter, and I brought my fur coat from Moscow. They [her colleagues] were laughing at me. ‘What is this kind of coat you are wearing [to work]?’ they asked. It is not that they were mocking me, but it was unusual [in the U.S.].”

Spector transitioned from being an economics professional to working in the mortgage industry, today as head of Community Mortgage Group. But in her first job at Columbia Bank, she was taken aback when her Jewish boss asked her if she was Jewish.

“‘Are you Jewish?’ he asked me. I remember that question shocked me. He said, ‘Don’t be afraid … you are not going to be penalized here. … He was the first one who said, ‘Don’t worry,” Spector recalled. “I always remember his words.”

The majorities of Soviet Jews are success stories and have had incredible impact on the thread of the local secular community. Arrivals became members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Peabody Institute teachers, architects, physicians, professors, top executives, city planners and engineers.

The Soviet Jews leaving the U.S.S.R. were “a brain drain on the Soviet Union,” said Andrew Razumovsky, who is a local software engineer. He told the JT that many Soviets came with strong backgrounds in math and physics, and they have effectively channeled that into the high-tech/information technology arena.

Yana Rachinskaya describes her immigration story as “not that remarkable,” because she said she had family living in Baltimore when she left her home in Azerbaijan. But being surrounded by family and friends is only part of her tale. Rachinskaya knew English but was first placed at a job at the Old World Deli and Bakery, despite her doctorate in geology and environmental science. Working eventually in the medical records department at Sinai Hospital (a second placement), she took advantage of the hospital’s tuition assistance and earned a second bachelor’s degree, this one in health sciences. She went on to study for advanced degrees in genetics and public health. Today, she co-runs Personal Home Care Group, a highly successful conglomerate of companies providing health and home-care services to hundreds of people.

“I was very lucky to have met wonderful mentors along the way,” noted Rachinskaya. “I was a painfully shy young researcher when I started. … The support of [local] leadership and staff helped me to blossom.”

According to the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, in 1986 there were approximately 701,000 Jews in the Russian Republic, 634,000 in the Ukraine, 135,000 in Belarus, 100,000 in Uzbekistan, 80,000 in Moldova, 35,000 in Azerbaijan, 28,000 in Georgia, 28,000 in Latvia, 18,000 in Dagestan, 15,000 in Lithuania, 15,000 in Tajikistan and 5,000 in Estonia.

According to the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, in 1986 there were approximately 701,000 Jews in the Russian Republic, 634,000 in the Ukraine, 135,000 in Belarus, 100,000 in Uzbekistan, 80,000 in Moldova, 35,000 in Azerbaijan, 28,000 in Georgia, 28,000 in Latvia, 18,000 in Dagestan, 15,000 in Lithuania, 15,000 in Tajikistan and 5,000 in Estonia.

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