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Adaptation of Jewish migrants from the former Soviet Union in Melbourne, 1975-1999

Thesis

Adaptation of Jewish migrants from the former Soviet Union in Melbourne, 1975-1999

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This study examines the socioeconomic and cultural adaptation of the estimated 7,000 Jews and their relatives from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) who settled in Melbourne, Australia, between 1975 and 1999. They mainly migrated to Australia under specially devised humanitarian visas. Soviet Jews had been subject to discrimination. The Soviet state undermined Jewish identity, transforming it from its traditional multidimensionality that encompassed religion and culture into a distinctive, mainly unidimensional, secular ethnic identity. This research aims to understand the ways that Jews from the FSU settled in the thriving and prosperous Jewish communities of Melbourne with their distinctive identity. The study is socio-historical and employs a triangulation methodology. Sources utilised include the Australian Census and other statistical sources, the Gen17 Australian Jewish community survey with 8,621 participants and six international Jewish surveys, records in four archival holdings of government and communal organisations, 14 life story interviews, three-year participant observation, and local and international newspaper articles. Age at migration was an important factor that contributed to the extent to which Jews from the FSU were able to attain labour market success. Those who migrated to Melbourne after having completed their tertiary education in the FSU were less able to achieve socioeconomic success relative to the Australian-born population. On the other hand, those from the FSU who migrated under 25 years of age experienced considerable socioeconomic upward mobility. Younger migrants were able to achieve a socioeconomic status similar to local Jews in Melbourne, and one considerably higher than the Australian-born population. The cultural adaptation of Jews from the FSU indicates that the identity of many was affected by the local Melbourne context, but that their distinct Soviet secular upbringing remained the primary influence. I argue that in order to compare ‘like with like’, Jews from the FSU—of whom about nine in ten self-identify as non-religious or traditional—should be compared to the non-religious and traditional cohorts in the Melbourne Jewish community. Comparing like with like indicates an increase in their observance of Jewish traditions, although they remain far less observant than local Jews. Their ethnic identity is relatively strong, similar to Australian-born Jews. They indicate, however, a weak feeling of connection to and participation in Jewish communal life. It remains to be seen whether they will transmit their relatively ‘thin’ Jewish culture to their children.
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