On September 29th, SHATIL celebrated 20 years of immigration from the former Soviet Union (FSU) alongside 200 people at Hebrew University. The gathering addressed the central issues facing FSU immigrants today: questions of identity, under-employment and the challenges facing Russian-speaking youth.
The million immigrants from the FSU dramatically changed the social, political and economic face of Israel, but many immigrants still experience serious integration difficulties. Greeting the conference participants, NIF Israel Director, Rachel Liel said: "It is far from a given that after only 20 years we have a lively, effective Russian-speaking civil society. SHATIL and NIF have a lot to do with the emergence of these local organizations, as well as with their transformation from local organizations providing services to social change agents that adopt a more strategic and encompassing approach, outreach to new audiences, organizing, empowering and influencing communities. It is a phenomenal achievement!”
The findings of a new SHATIL-sponsored study on conversion were presented for the first time at the conference. They underlined the challenges still facing the 300,000 immigrants who were considered Jewish in their homeland and immigrated through the Law of Return but are not defined as Halachic Jews in Israel, which affects their rights, status, and, according to the finding, their sense of self and belonging. The study exposed the reasons behind the low rate of conversions despite efforts on the part of the state and a will to convert on the part of the immigrants. These include the demand that converts live strictly Orthodox lives, without having the freedom to choose their observance as other Jews do, and the psychological distress of discovering they are not considered halachically Jewish. The full study will be published in January 2011 and includes recommendations for dealing with these challenges.
Innovations of Russian civil society were celebrated, including those addressing difficult challenges. Marina Zamsky, of the Forum of FSU immigrants in the North, said: "We led a new discourse of culturally-sensitive trauma treatment following the second Lebanon war. Initially, four centers had been established, without a single Russian-speaker on staff and this led to failed treatments. The new discourse benefitted not only FSU immigrants but other minorities as well. We impacted welfare processes and still meet regularly with the upper echelons of the Ministry of Welfare."
One after another, heads of organizations thanked SHATIL, with many attributing their very existence to SHATIL’s support and guidance.
A newly published NIF-SHATIL booklet introducing the wide-ranging civil society organizations working to advance the FSU community in Israel was distributed at the conference. After the huge wave of immigration from the FSU in the early 90’s, “the immigrants understood that the State does not do enough to help them in the difficult process of immigration and integration in their new home and decided to help themselves and their community…and hundreds of immigrants have solved their problems with the help of these organizations,” says the booklet's introduction.