"There were no prospects here in the 1980s and '90s, only fear, crime, and chaos. Israel looked great by comparison," says Mr. Kogan. "But they went there, found they don't speak the language, can't get a job and they're considered to be Russians rather than Jews. At the same time, life in Russia has improved."
Rabbi Kogan says some returnees feel conflicted about coming back to Russia. "They want to be Jews, and feel guilty that they've left Israel," he says. "Our task here is to make them feel comfortable with their choices and help them regain their Russian sense of Jewishness. These people have had a long journey. They left the USSR as Jews, but arrived in Israel as Russians. Now they must get used to the idea that here they will be called Jews again, not Russians."
It can't be described as a flood, but the surge of reverse migration has raised hopes among some community activists that the historic Jewish presence in Russia may not be ending after all. At a 2002 Kremlin meeting, Russia's chief rabbi, Berl Lazar, told President Vladimir Putin that "Jewish life is once again on the rise in Russia.... Jews are discovering that they can stay here and live at the same level as anywhere else in the world," he said.
Israel's "Law of Return" stipulates that anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent may claim Israeli citizenship. By that criterion there may still be millions of potential immigrants on former Soviet lands. Israel still officially courts Russian Jews in hopes that a continuing influx might stave off a demographic crisis in which Arabs could outnumber Jews in Israel and the occupied territories within a few decades.
But the outflow, which saw as many as 100,000 Jews leave Russia annually in the '90s, fell to 10,000 last year, says the Israeli Embassy in Moscow.