The story of the Jews of the Former Soviet Union is an evolving one. It’s a story of suffering and distress, a story of incredible challenges — many of which were forfeited, equally as many of which were overcome.
But mostly it is the story of a modern miracle.
Twenty-five years after Operation Exodus — nearly 45 years since the first wave of Soviet immigration to the U.S. — the Baltimore Jewish community will come together next month to reflect on the past, honor the present and celebrate the possibilities of the future.
“By all accounts, we probably shouldn’t even be having a conversation about involvement with Russian speakers in our Jewish community,” said Marc B. Terrill, president of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, who is spearheading events known collectively as The Journey, Together: 25 Years After Operation Exodus. “But I am glad to say we are. Therein lies the miracle.”
The first Soviet Jews arrived in Baltimore in the 1970s, a period when the Cold War eased a bit and Jews were given a slightly better chance to leave the FSU; just fewer than 2,000 Soviet Jews arrived in Baltimore then — each with his own story to tell.
One of those was Rafael Chikvashvili, his wife, Lidya, and daughter, Deya. Chikvashvili has a full repertoire of unsettling stories about his life in the Former Soviet Union. There were the three years that he and his family spent as refuseniks [see “In Detail”] and denied permission to leave the U.S.S.R. There were the several days that he was tailed by a Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB) agent and threatened with the kidnapping of his daughter. And there was the period during which the government, in order to get around the policy of not firing employees, dissolved the department of mathematics in which he was an assistant professor and then formed a new department without him. And this was despite the fact that Chikvashvili had already been told that, as a Jew, he would never be made a full professor.
Chikvashvili left the FSU because he desired greater freedom to lead an active Jewish life and he wanted to ensure his daughter would have the ability to pursue the educational and professional avenues she wanted — clear of anti-Semitism.
While his ultimate emigration was itself an intense 10-day journey of unbelievable adventures — he was called a “dirty Jew,” he was summoned by policemen, a Polish woman tried to wrestle his toddler child from him — Chikvashvili was fortunate to get out when he did. For in 1981, the Soviet Union once again all but closed the doors to emigration by Jews.
At the time of Chikvashvili’s arrival, the Jewish community was largely unprepared to shoulder the burden. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and then Jewish Family Services took an active role in helping the immigrants assimilate successfully into the fabric of American life, but it did not engage them in Jewish life, explained Shoshana S. Cardin in her book “Shoshana: Memoirs of Shoshana Shoubin Cardin.”
“They remained on the margins, a community of their own, helping one another,” she wrote.