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Abstract

The aim of this project is to explore the non-assimilation into Jewish American religious life of members of the fourth and final wave (1986-1989) of Soviet Jewish refugees to the United States. In the late 1980s, thousands of Soviet Jews came to the US with the help of American Jews. As is evident in American Jewish publications, though the American hosts expected the Soviet Jews to engage in Jewish religious life in America, they were often disappointed. So why have so many Soviet Jewish refugees not fully taken on Jewish cultural and religious identity after their immigration to the United States? In this paper I argue that despite the extraordinary efforts of the American Jewish community, the Soviet Jewish immigrants of the last wave have not taken on an American Jewish religious identity, in part because American and Soviet Jews have different understandings of what it means to be Jewish. Through a close examination of six interviews conducted with fourth-wave refugees, five publications on the subject of their integration by Jewish organizations, as well as two handbooks published by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society for Soviet Jews about American Jewish life, I demonstrate that the Soviet Jews in the US have created their own Jewish identity based on their experiences of Jewishness in the USSR, and engage in American Jewish religious life only in ways that are useful or meaningful to them in the context of this past. I also show that the American Jewish community has often had trouble understanding this, as is evident in the multitude of publications they have released in which they explore the potential reasons for this phenomenon and search for a solution to bring Soviet Jews into the American Jewish religious community. Within this analysis, I explore the concepts of identity, religiosity, and culture.

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