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Russian Jews in the Global City of Toronto: A Pilot Study of Identity and Social Integration1

Expériences de réinstallation d’anciens Juifs soviétiques à Toronto, Canada : comparaison entre les arrivants directs et les migrants passés par Israël
Larissa Remennick
p. 61-81


La communauté des anciens Juifs soviétiques dans le Grand Toronto a beaucoup augmenté depuis 15 ans, à la fois par immigration directe depuis les pays de l’ex-URSS et par re-migration de Juifs russes depuis Israël. Peu d’études canadiennes sur les expériences de réinstallation des Juifs russes se sont penchées jusqu’à présent sur les questions d’identité juive et de modification de cette identité avec la migration. Cette étude ethnique exploratoire est basée sur des entretiens, des discussions de groupe et l’observation des contextes de vie des immigrants avec l’intention de comparer quelques aspects essentiels de l’intégration entre Juifs arrivés directement de l’ex-URSS et Juifs ayant d’abord migré vers Israël. Les récits collectés pour cette étude portent sur différents points : causes de la migration vers le Canada, difficultés d’entrée sur le marché du travail canadien, perception des niveaux de vie, difficultés spécifiques aux couples d’immigrants, aux jeunes et aux personnes âgées, liens transnationaux avec d’autres branches de la diaspora juive russe. Les résultats indiquent des différences notables entre les deux groupes, en particulier dans l’adaptation au marché du travail et les processus familiaux. En général, les migrants de seconde migration sont mieux armés pour le mode de vie et l’économie occidentale et ont plus de points d’ancrage dans la société canadienne que ceux qui arrivent directement de l’ex-URSS.

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  • 1 This research was supported by the grant of the Israeli Association for Canadian Studies at the Heb (...)
  • 2 Immigration to Canada is regulated by the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the latest revisi (...)

1Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Canada has been one of the most active centers of former Soviet Jewish immigration. Apart from Canada’s high living standards, this has been due to several factors, including relative lenience of Canadian immigration policy towards skilled migrants and high human capital of former Soviet Jews reflected in their eligibility under the Point System2. Greater Toronto area (GTA) with its thriving multiethnic economy and rapid urban sprawl has attracted disproportionate numbers of immigrants: over 47% of all new immigrants to Canada have settled in GTA in the late 1990s [Jansen and Lam, 2003]. Amongst other old and new ethnic minorities, the size of the Russian Jewish community in this area grew quickly from several thousand in the late 1970s to approximately 60-70 thousand of today. About 70% of former Soviet Jewish immigrants to Canada reside in the GTA; the rest are distributed between Montreal, Vancouver, and a few other major cities [Brym, 2001]. The continuing influx of Russian-speaking Jews comprises the principal demographic source of growth for the city’s Jewish community typified by advanced middle age, growing rates of intermarriage and low fertility [Cohen, 2001].

2According to the 1996 Canadian census, nationally there were about 16,000 Jews born of Russian/Soviet parents, mostly refugees – arrivals of the 1970s and 1980s [Brym, 2001] These Canadian-born children of Soviet immigrants must be fairly well integrated in the general or Canadian-Jewish mainstream [Basok, 1991] and will be left outside the scope of my current analysis. Within the stream of more recent Russian-speaking migrants (who arrived in GTA during 1990s and early 2001) there are two major groups: those who resettled directly from Russia, Ukraine and other countries of the former Soviet Union (FSU) and those who re-migrated from Israel. Although the exact size of these latter groups is unknown, the secondary migrants from Israel are estimated at 50% to 70% of all post -1990 arrivals [Anisef et al., 2002]. Despite their common background, these two immigrant groups may significantly differ in terms of their recent experiences preceding entry to Canada: one spent their pre-migration years in the tumultuous and corrupt social and economic milieu of late Soviet and transitional countries, while the other has had an experience of living under the imperfect but still more efficient democracy and market economy of Israel. The two groups can also differ in terms of their Jewish identity and family composition (of Jewish or mixed ethnicity) that had informed their initial decisions to immigrate to Israel or move straight to the West. Finally, the group or secondary migrants from Israel have experienced an additional set of challenges and traumas as a result of another resettlement and subsequent socio-economic, linguistic and cultural readjustment.

3In the current article I present and discuss the findings of my recent exploratory qualitative study that aimed at comparison between the above described two subgroups of recent Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants in the GTA in terms of their integration experiences and the role of co-ethnic networks versus mainstream Canadian institutions (such as the Jewish community, workplaces and social services) in the process of social incorporation of these recent migrants. Before describing the study, I will provide a concise background on the two subgroups of Russian Jews in the GTA.

Former Soviet Jews and how they arrived in Canada

On the sending end

  • 3 In 1980, Soviet authorities stopped emigration of Jews (and anyone else) reflecting the end of the (...)

4The last immigration wave of Russian Jews (from 1988 on) was rather unique in its scope and socio-economic profile. Under Soviet regime that from its very inception had proclaimed atheism as state policy, Jews were considered an ethnic rather than religious minority. Indeed, their overwhelming majority was secular and had lost ties with the Jewish religious tradition, the Yiddish language and system of education. After their initial emancipation and ‘mainstreaming’ during the first three decades of State Socialism, from the late 1940s on Soviet Jews experienced the rising tide of institutional and popular anti-Semitism that included barriers to higher education and a tacit ban on their entry into certain occupations and/or promotion [Brym, 1994; Remennick, 1998] The first wave of Jewish emigration in the recent Soviet history (over 250,000 people) took place between 1971 and 1981; an estimated 60% of these émigrés went to North America and 40% to Israel. The period between 1981 and 1988 was a political dead-time zone, when almost no one could leave USSR3. In the years of Glasnost and the subsequent post-communist transition the borders were opened again, with concomitant socio-economic turmoil and the rise of Slavic nationalism and anti-Semitism. These processes prompted mass exodus of Jews: over 1,600,000 have left the former Soviet Union (FSU) after 1988; of those about 62% resettled in Israel and over 30% moved to the US and Canada (the remaining fraction resettled in Germany, Australia and other western countries). By the late 1990s-early 2000s, the pool of potential Jewish émigrés in the FSU has largely drained out, and today Israel and a few western countries host roughly between 5 and 15 thousand of such immigrants per year [Remennick, 2003b; Tolts, 2004].

5While immigration of former Soviet Jews to Israel and Germany was framed under ethnic criteria (i.e. as a privilege of return to their historic homelands, in the German case with an additional goal of redeeming the historic crime against the Jewish people – [Joppke, 2005] and entry to the US was usually under religious refugee status – [Gitelman, 1997], most immigrants from the FSU to Canada were granted visas via the Point System as economic immigrants [Cohen, 2001]. This reflects their high human capital, specifically very high levels of post-secondary education (about 60%). Most former Soviet Jews of either gender had been professionals or white-collar workers, which on one hand made them desired immigrants with eligible occupations and work experience, but on the other posed questions of occupational readjustment in the hosting countries [Remennick, 1998, 2003a].

On the receiving end: Israel

6In Israel, despite the established system of public aid to educated immigrants (free Hebrew courses, fellowships to scientists, assistance in the licensure process, etc.), only under one third of educated newcomers of the 1990s could find jobs compatible with their former training and experience. This is usually explained by both objective economic predicaments (small and saturated skilled marketplace, competition with local professionals) and the lack of relevant skills among Soviet-trained professionals: limited Hebrew and English proficiency, poor computer literacy, no experience in job search and self-marketing [Remennick, 2003a]. For the members of culturally-dependent professions in human services (health care, education), the media and cultural production (journalism, the arts etc.) linguistic deficiency posed a special barrier, but cultural differences in professional practice made it worse [Remennick, 2002b]. Some younger immigrants made a successful occupational switch, retraining for a range of Information Technology jobs (especially during the high-tech boom of the late 1990s); others moved into demanded human services (mainly eldercare). Yet, the majority of last-wave immigrants to Israel had to make their living with semi-skilled manufacturing, sales or personal services; women and older immigrants have experienced especially dramatic occupational and social downgrading. The failure to continue their careers and join their social peers in Israel caused disappointment and identity crisis, with the ensuing poor progress in Hebrew proficiency and general social alienation from the Israeli mainstream among many immigrant professionals [Remennick, 2002b, 2003a)]

7Another set of tensions experienced by former Soviets in Israel resulted from the ethno-religious divisions of the country and ethnic definition of immigration. As the Jewish religious establishment is not separated from the state, most matters of civil status (marriage, divorce, burial) are regulated by rabbinic authorities that base their decisions on the traditional Jewish legal code - Halacha. Under religious law, only children born of Jewish mothers or those who underwent full Orthodox conversion (giyur) are recognized as Jews. Reflecting high rates of intermarriage at least in two generations of Soviet Jews, many arrivals of the 1990s were half Jewish (on paternal side), quarter Jewish, or non-Jews married to Jews. All these immigrants were legally admitted to Israel according to the Law of Return, but could not enjoy full civil rights in several important domains, and hence often felt second-rate citizens. For many non-Jews (as well as secular Jews) it was also difficult to identify with the Jewish values and traditions that form a bedrock of lifestyle for most Israelis: Jewish calendar and holidays, kashrut (compliance with Judaic dietary rules) in all public settings, the break in public transportation and many forms of entertainment on Friday night and Saturday (Shabat), the proliferation of synagogues, yeshivas and other religious institutions, and the significant influence of religious parties in politics. Many former Soviets raised in the atheist mindset rejected this culture as backward and incompatible with modern democracy [Shumsky, 2002]. Juxtaposed with security problems, economic hardships and occupational downgrading, this rejection prompted a decision to move to the west for not so few Russian-speaking families. As Canada is among the few western countries receiving independent economic migrants, a steady stream of applicants has been stalking the offices of Canadian Embassy in Tel Aviv since the mid-1990s, and an estimated 3,000 to 7,000 left Israel for Canada every year (Canadian Embassy, personal communication).

On the receiving end: Canada

8Arriving in Canada (mainly Toronto), these secondary migrants faced a new set of problems in their occupational and social adjustment. On one hand, they had already lived in a westernized society and had acquired some salient skills that their counterparts arriving directly from the FSU were lacking. They were used to a systematic job search, had some experience in western-type organizations (if they were in a skilled occupation is Israel), many had improved their English as an international professional language. On the other hand, in Ontario these immigrants faced a tight regulation of most professional occupations and the need to undergo yet another reassessment and licensure, if at all possible for foreign graduates. Thus, Soviet-trained physicians (even with Israeli experience) had few opportunities for licensure and practice [Basok, 1997], and many were compelled to seek retraining into paramedical and nursing occupations. Many categories of engineers, regardless of their seniority and work experience in the two countries of prior residence, had to sit for extensive professional exams in order to join Engineering Associations and find qualified posts. Few teachers and other education professionals with Russian (and Israeli) diplomas could be licensed for similar jobs in the GTA schools and colleges. The system of recognition of foreign credentials in Canada generally, and in Ontario specifically, is very cumbersome and erects multiple barriers for qualified immigrants. On the other hand, it creates an artificial shortage of practitioners in many occupations (e.g., physicians, especially in the remote areas) along with the abundance of qualified candidates trained abroad. The resulting paradox is that while selecting immigrants by occupational skills Canada is unwilling to utilize their economic potential [PROMPT, 2004].

9Making things worse, the demographic composition of Russian-speaking immigrants was not particularly conducive to economic success: they were on the average 9 years older than Canadians (mean age of 46.3 in 1996), women outnumbered men by 8-10%, and as many as 25-30% arrived as single parent families [Brym, 2001; Anisef et al., 2002]. Surveys of the late 1990 and early 2000s have shown that about 70% of households of former Soviet Jews had below-median income and about 30% lived around official poverty line [Anisef et al., 2002; Jansen and Lam, 2003]. For comparison, less than 10% of native Canadian Jews live in poverty. The employment opportunities for all immigrants further dwindled after the mid-1990s with economic recession. Relegated once again to the economic (and hence social) margins, many families had to lower their expectations and living standards, at least for the time being. Yet, over time many immigrants in their prime working years tend to improve their occupational status and manage to gain higher returns on their education. By the early 2000s, clear economic polarization has emerged in the Jewish Russian community of the GTA: the successful upwardly mobile immigrants (usually younger and with demanded technology-related occupations) have moved out of the high-rise apartment blocks of the North Bathurst corridor between Finch and Steels (known as the Russian residential enclave) to private houses in Richmond Hill and other affluent suburbs. Older immigrants, single parent families, and the rest of their less successful co-ethnics have remained in the high-rise buildings, often renting and unable to purchase their flats [Anisef et al., 2002].

Social research on Soviet Jews in Canada

10There is a surprising paucity of literature exploring migration experiences of the recent wave of former Soviet Jews in Canada, especially in relation to differences between direct FSU migrants and the ‘second lap’ newcomers from Israel. Several Canadian authors who write about Jewish life have mainly addressed the issues of Jewish identity and relations between the established Canadian Jewish community and the newcomers [Glikman, 1996; Basok and Brym, 2000; Cohen, 2001]. Thus, Basok and Brym (2000) conducted a semi-structured (i.e. including a number of open-ended questions) survey in a residential sample of Russian-speaking Jews, in which they tried to compare various expressions of Russian/Soviet and Jewish identify between direct arrivals and former Israelis. They report a complex and contradictory pattern of identity change as a result of living in the Jewish state: although initially driven by the Zionist sentiment and the wish to live among the Jews, upon arrival many informants rejected the pressure towards rapid 'Israelization' and distanced themselves from the Jewish traditions and culture (hence their decision to re-migrate). Those who emigrated directly from the FSU were often lacking any interest whatsoever in the Jewish religion and traditions and defined their Jewish identity either as ‘coercive’ (i.e. reflecting ambient anti-Semitism in the FSU) or ‘social’ (i.e. mainly expressed in the wish to socialize with other Jews).

11In Canada, both subgroups have failed to find common ground with the Jewish mainstream, which they perceived as arrogant, universally wealthy and indifferent to their hardships. Few newcomers were willing to participate in religious services and classes or volunteer their time for community causes, but most were eagerly utilizing any kind of material aid and services provided by the Jewish resettlement agency (JIAS) and a few other philanthropies. As a result, the mainstream community has grown more skeptical as to the ability of the newcomers to contribute to Canadian Jewish life. In the words of Director of the GTA Immigrant Services at JIAS Mila Voihanski, “the Russian community doesn’t feel accepted and the established community doesn’t feel appreciated” [cited by Anisef et al., 2002, p. 22]. Some Canadian authors [Cohen, 2001] point to a gradual drift towards the mainstream forms of Jewish life among Russian Jews (e.g., sending their children to Jewish day schools and summer camps), while other scholars [Basok and Brym, 2000] did not identify this trend.

12Another recent study [Anisef et al., 2002] looked into social adjustment of Russian-speaking immigrant youth (ages 15-25), also taking into account their migration history (direct or via Israel). The authors cogently assert that negative labor market experiences of their parents and the resulting low living standards cast a long shadow on the integration experiences of the 1.5 generation (i.e. those who migrated as older children or adolescents). Additional problems ensue from the fact that many immigrant youths live in the households headed by women struggling to make ends meet; the absence of father often means the lack of support and parental supervision. The Russian Jewish community’s dense residential concentration in a rather bleak high-rise apartment area has served to intensify youth anomie, and the absence of accessible recreational and social programs has further decreased their chances for social integration. Those who were (often against their will) moved from Israel to Canada by their parents often define Hebrew as their main language and miss friends and familiar environment they had left behind. Some young men even enlisted to serve in the Israeli army, again going against their parents’ wishes. Conversely, young people who moved to Toronto straight from the FSU underscored their attachment to the Russian culture and felt deep alienation from their Canadian peers. Both groups of young immigrants manifested “fragmented identities they struggle to reconcile in the face of the minimal and shallow ties they have so far been able to forge in their newest homeland” [Anisef et al., 2002, p. 23].

13Drawing on this background, the current study tried to embrace different facets of the social incorporation process experienced by the two groups of recent Russian Jewish immigrants in the GTA, with the emphasis on their occupational adjustment, perceived living standards, family issues and relations with the hosting society.

Study participants and methods

14This research can best be described as multi-tiered ethnography, combining observations of immigrants in different social settings, personal interviews, focus groups and critical reading of immigrant press and other written materials. As I share common ethnic and linguistic background with my informants, I have a cultural access to the Russian-speaking immigrant community. Materials for this study have been collected during my three recent trips to the GTA, during which I visited homes of my informants, observed their family interactions, followed them to Russian grocery stores, schools, community centers and cultural events. In a more formal way, I conducted sixteen in-depth interviews with recent immigrants, of whom ten were re-migrants from Israel (their average length of residence there was 5.7 years, ranging between 3 and 10) and six arrived directly from the FSU. Interviewees were located by consecutive personal referrals (snowballing) with the starting point in my own informal social networks among Russian-speakers and Israelis living in the GTA. Interviews were conducted in the immigrants’ homes or in public places chosen by informants (parks, cafes, etc.). The socio-demographic profile of my interviewees is described in table 1. All of them were of working age (the mean of 42.4) and were employed at the time of the study, either part or full time; only three persons received welfare benefits. Most informants lived in the Russian ethnic enclave in the North of Toronto: about one-third still lived in rented flats, one third owned their condos and the remaining third (usually with longer residence in Canada) lived in private homes in Richmond Hill and other suburbs. Most informants were married and had adolescent or young adult children living with them.

Table 1. Socio-demographics of the sixteen interviewes



Occupation former/current

Tenure in GTA(years)

Family compos.





Divorced + 1 (17)**





Married + 2 (16 & 20)





Married + 1 (8)



student/IT worker


Single + sister (17)





Married + 2 (7 & 10)





Married + 1 (17)



teacher/soc. worker


Divorced + 2 (19 & 22)



auto mechanic/same


Married + 1 (16)





Divorced + 1 (18)



skilled technician/same


Married + 2 (25 & 16)



sales manager/realtor


Divorced + 1 (22)





Married + 2 (16 & 10)



engineer/skilled worker


Married + 2 (22 & 18)





Divorced + 1 (15)



graphic designer/same


Married, no children



nursery teacher/same


Single, no children

* - Direct arrivals from the FSU ; the rest have re-migrated from Israel
** - Ages of the children

15I also mediated two focus groups formed on the basis of entry route, i.e. one with direct arrivals and the other with former Israelis (six and eight participants, respectively). Participants for these groups were invited via ads placed in the local Russian press and community centers; discussions were held in a community center in the evening hours. All the interviews and group discussions have been tape-recorded, transcribed verbatim and analyzed using code-book technique described by Crabtree and Miller (1992). Analysis was based on repeated scanning of the transcripts and constant updating of analytical categories; it ascended from topical to thematic and conceptual levels. At the final stage all materials (interviews, focus group discussions, observations and press excerpts) have been integrated and structured according to the key themes. The resulting data pool refers to 30 informants who took part in personal (16) or group (14) interviews, and also includes hundreds of pages of text as well as photo materials, newspaper articles, etc. Below I present the highlights from my findings arranged by the key topics that emerged in the informants’ narratives on their new lives in Canada. To preserve anonymity of the speakers, I have changed their names, but kept intact other personal details (age, occupation, length of residence in Canada, etc.). All informants also answered a short questionnaire, including their personal details and asking them to evaluate their quality of life (QOL) in Canada versus their prior country of residence (i.e., FSU or Israel) in several important respects. The results if this "bottom line" inventory are shown in Table 2 as rounded percentages among 30 informants. Although this sample is small and non-random, I still decided to include these results, showing some interesting trends.

Table 2: Perceived change in the main aspects of the quality of life (QOL) compared with the prior country of residence (FSU or Israel). Rounded % among 30 informants

Direction of change in Canada

Aspects of the QOL


Did not change


Material well-being









Employment quality









Personal security









Children's Education









Social ties and inclusion









Cultural life









Urban infrastructure



















16The interview and focus group materials pertained to the five general realms: causes of immigration to Canada; labor market choices and limitations (occupational continuity vs. change), relations with Canadian mainstream (including the established Jewish community), living standards (including perceived quality of life as a result of migration to Canada) and family adjustment process (including marital quality, the problems faced by the youths and the elders). Below, I discuss each realm, illustrating them with the quotes from informants’ accounts.

Causes of immigration to Canada

17Most informants stated economic reasons as primary in their decision to move to Canada, perceived as a country of opportunity and high living standards. Some informants admitted that their preferred destination was the US, but as economic immigration there is almost impossible, they decided on Canada as its next-door neighbor. Many of these informants also noted that they had insufficient or spurious information about the full range of differences between the US and Canada in terms of labor market, political system and culture. Important additional motives for both groups of migrants included high personal security and ‘quiet life’ in Canada, relatively inexpensive higher education, universal access to health care, and developed welfare system. Secondary migrants from Israel cited additional motives reflecting their wish to leave Israel due to its overly religious character and Middle Eastern cultural flavor; limited employment opportunities; on-going military conflict and growing insecurity; the wish to keep their children from the military draft; having a non-Jewish spouse who feels uncomfortable in the Jewish State; inability to master the Hebrew language; dislike of native Israelis; hot climate, and more. Being one of the few western countries still receiving independent migrants, Canada became their destination of choice. An additional argument in favor of moving to Canada was the promise of initial help from relatives or friends already living there (so-called chain migration). The period of time between the initial application and getting immigrant visa varied for different families from 8 months to 2.5 years.

The Work Realm: Continuity vs. Change

18All my informants had been admitted to Canada as independent economic migrants on the point system, meaning that their education and occupational skills had been recognized as eligible. However, upon landing in the GTA they had learned that decisions of immigration authorities had little in common with the actual labor market situation and their ability to practice their former professions. Barriers to career continuity were the highest for members of the so-called regulated occupations (physicians and other health care workers, psychologists, counselors and social workers, schoolteachers, many categories of engineers, lawyers, and others). Most newcomers had known that they would have to undergo some form of Canadian notification, but did not realize how complex and cumbersome were the existing regulations. Professionals who re-migrated from Israel (where many had already sat for professional exams and other forms of licensure) often had a belief that in Canada they would not need much more of a reassessment as they were coming from a country with high ‘western’ standards of practice. Thus, Olga (44) who had worked as a pediatrician in Kiev and then (after licensure) as a general practitioner (GP) in Israel (finally becoming an imaging technician in Toronto), recounted:

“I knew too little about Canadian medical regulations when I made a decision to come here. In Israel, I could only be licensed as a GP and had to go back to a long residency training if I wanted to work in pediatrics. I naively thought that in Canada they would recognize my past experience in the Ukraine and also years of practice in Israel. But upon arrival I learned that in Ontario foreign-trained physicians had a tiny number of slots to enter residency each year, and the rest had no chance to practice medicine at all.”

19Josef (52) who had worked as civil engineer both in Russia and in Israel encountered a similar problem:

“In order to find work in civil engineering in Ontario I had to join the local Association, which meant sitting for a huge exam in English, including large chapters on engineering ethics and legal regulations. When I saw the book that I had to learn by heart, I said good-bye to my engineering career in Canada. Since then I work as a foreman on an electronics plant; the work is routine and uninspiring but gives me a stable livelihood.”

20For Josef, as well as most other immigrants, their limited command of English posed an additional barrier to getting Canadian accreditation in their specialty. Although most of them had attended linguistic classes (sponsored by JIAS), their English proficiency was insufficient for passing complex examinations in accounting, law, psychology or medical specialties. In that respect, direct immigrants from the FSU were often in a worse position as they had not been ready for the very concept of obtaining Canadian credentials, and their English was often poorer than that of former Israeli residents. Thus, Natasha (39), former accountant in a small commercial firm in Tashkent, said:

“I had believed that my knowledge of accountancy was fairly standard and applicable anywhere – debits and credits are the same, aren’t they? But it turned out that in Canadian conditions my knowledge was not enough and I had to go back to college. But on my 2nd year I broke down – accounting science in English was too hard on me...I made a switch to real estate where my best friend had worked – and since then I sell houses...My basic English is enough for that as most of my clients are Russian immigrants.”

21Many informants admitted on hindsight that their expectations about future work opportunities in Canada had been unrealistic, partly because the points they had scored on their applications made them believe that their specific skills were demanded. Thus, Olga, the above-cited former MD, said:

“It’s a paradox, in small Israel my experience was more wanted than in huge Canada; first they don’t allow you to practice your profession as an immigrant and then they complain about shortage of doctors, nurses, counselors, almost every one in human services is lacking. I would be ready to move out of Toronto and practice in a small town, but even this is impossible.”

22Direct immigrants from the FSU had lower career expectations at the outset and were more ready to retrain to any locally demanded occupations to make a living. Gregory (34), former director of a small bank in St. Petersburg currently working as a regular banking clerk, said:

“I had reached a high status there but still had to leave my post due to financial and legal problems of my bank... I had no illusions about my work in Canada: I consider myself lucky to have found a white-collar job; in fact I was prepared to work as a janitor or construction worker, or any other manual work...When you are a new migrant, you usually have to start from the bottom.”

23In fact, just several specific categories of professionals experienced a relatively smooth transition from the FSU or Israel to Canadian market, namely programmers, electronics engineers and other computing/IT specialists (who comprised a significant part of male immigrants). Members of most other occupations had to downgrade to lower level positions (e.g., MDs became paramedics like Olga) or go back to college in order to obtain a similar Canadian degree anew. Several younger female informants took the second option and invested two to four years in order to become locally certified counselors, nurses or social workers. Some women with former occupations in humanities (e.g., teachers of English, journalists, social scientists, etc.) discovered a large occupational niche of legal firms: some took a one year-long course to become legal secretaries or embarked on a three-year study to become a paralegal. Yet others chose a less demanding (in terms of formal training) occupation of real estate agent or mortgage broker, which at the same time is highly uneven in terms of income and hence feasible only with a second stable earner in the family.

24Generally, female immigrants in my sample were more flexible and ready to re-launch their occupational life on new terms than were men, who more often opted for lower-level jobs in their old occupation (e.g., downgrading from engineer to foreman in the same industry). Out of 16 interviewees, seven women and only three men went back to college or got other forms of retraining in order to start a new occupational track or improve their chances for finding a better job. For example, Vera (46), former teacher of English, took two years of college to become social worker; Dina (39), who had worked as clinical psychologist in Russia and in Israel, retrained into high school counselor, and Tania (50) had to study for a Canadian diploma to work as nursery teacher, despite her 25 years of experience in two other countries. Partly this reflects the fact that men more often were in technology-related occupations demanded on the Canadian market and did not have to seek retraining. But several male informants in interviews and focus groups alike expressed their explicit dislike of continued schooling at their relatively advanced age and career stage. Jacob (47), a senior sales manager in Israel, said that in order to find a managerial position in Canada he had to improve his English and study for an MBA degree. “I couldn’t imagine myself becoming a student again, sitting in class next to the local kids in their 20s... That was too high a price to pay. I decided to use my experience in real estate, for which it is easy to get licensed.”

25In fact, immigrants with former professional careers had a harder time trying to get fair return on their education and experience than did immigrants in skilled technical or manual occupations. Examples include Maxim (39), auto mechanic, and Lisa (42) hairdresser, both of whom opened small businesses of their own and soon got back on their feet, serving manly co-ethnic clientele in the North of Toronto. This is explained both by higher demands for English proficiency placed on professional vs. manual occupations and by the need to overcome tight regulations at the entry to a professional marketplace.

26Overall, it is hard to say which group of the newcomers (direct arrivals or former Israelis) had an easier time readjusting to the new occupational situation. Re-migrants from Israel often had a higher skill level and stronger professional record but also carried unrealistically high expectations of rapid success and recognition. Migrants from the FSU were perhaps less equipped with marketable skills but their mindset was that of greater flexibility and readiness to take a new start from a low position. Women often had less demanded and more culturally dependent occupations (e.g. in social services and humanities) but were more ready for an additional study and/or retraining into an entirely new occupational track. In sum, success or stagnation on the new economic marketplace could only be explained by multiple intersections of the demographics, professional credentials and psychological traits of the newcomers as well as the local policies towards specific occupational groups.

Relations with Canadian mainstream

27In agreement with the earlier findings by Glikman (1996) and Basok and Brym (2000), my research has shown that former Soviet Jews often fail to find common ground with the mainstream Canadian society generally and the established Jewish community specifically. Most participants in this research underscored their appreciation of Canadians’ open attitude towards other cultures and languages. Most said that they never felt discriminated against or assaulted in any way on the basis of their Jewish origins or immigrant status. At the same time, none of the informants mentioned ever having informal relationships with native Canadians outside workplace, studies or any other institutional context. The following quotes from focus group discussions were typical:

28Canadians are very polite, they smile a lot and even can strike a small talk with you, but they are not really interested in you as ‘other’. This is all very superficial, yet another expression of political correctness. ‘You should be nice to immigrants’ kind of attitude (Boris, 47, former surgeon, works in chiropractic clinic).

29I have many Canadian born co-workers, and they are fairly pleasant to deal with at work, but I would never ask them of any favor, or advice in practical matters, let alone invite them to my small flat... they seem to live on another planet. I don’t think they could understand us (recent immigrants) even if they wanted to... (Vera, 39, former teacher, works in a post office)

30At my community college there are both Canadian-born and immigrant students, and I would say that those two categories seldom interact. It’s much easier for me to find common language with a newcomer from India or China (despite our similarly poor English!) than with a native Canadian classmate (Lena, 34, former chemical technologist, retraining for social worker)

31When asked to explain this lack of communication, most informants stated more than one cause, including their limited proficiency in English, perceived cold and disinterested demeanor of Canadians (mainly their WASP part), cultural differences in self-presentation and communication style, Canadians’ perceived wealth (relative to recent immigrants) and arrogance. Yet, when I asked the participants if they ever tried to befriend their Canadian co-workers, neighbors, etc. (e.g. by inviting them to a party, joint outing, etc.) virtually all of them answered negatively, adding that they were sure it could never work. My impression was that many Russian immigrants tended to exaggerate the cultural differences and their advance negative attitude towards possible informal contacts with Canadians worked as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

32As for relations with the members of Canadian Jewry, the reactions of Russian speakers were more variable and ambivalent. Many informants believed that Canadian Jews were universally religiously observant and expected the same from the former Soviet Jews. As most newcomers were rather alien even to the Jewish cultural traditions and holidays (let alone religious rites) they felt being unable to meet the expectations of the Canadian ‘hosting’ community and believed that they would be disliked and excluded from its networks. But some informants also appreciated the elements of the Jewish traditional practice as a basis for developing a meaningful Jewish identity. A middle-aged female participant in a focus group put it this way:

“We are not Jewish enough for Canadian Jews. But this perception is so false! It is just that for me being Jewish means something else than for a Canadian Jewish woman. I may not light candles every Shabat and I don’t have a kosher kitchen, but I know first hand what it means to live among antisemits who never treat you as an equal. Being a Jew for me is a negative label, and it’s not easy to dismiss it and to develop a ‘positive’ Jewish identity. But I hope to be able to do this over time. That’s why I am also trying to learn from the local Jewish women. I hope that my daughter will feel better about being Jewish that I did as a young woman in Ukraine”, (Ada, 46).

33Like this informant, many others connected their expectations of a greater Jewish affiliation with the next generation. Many felt rather positive about coming of age rituals (bar- and bat-mitzvahs) for Jewish teenagers and Sunday Jewish schools. Although they did not expect their children to join full-fledged Jewish religious life, most wanted them to be aware of their ethnic background and to gain some knowledge about Jewish historic and cultural heritage. In that sense, they subscribed to the mild version of ‘cultural Judaism’ that is predominant among North American Jewry [Dershowitz, 1997].

34The extent of interest and involvement with the Jewish life of the GTA depended on the ethnic composition of the family: Jews with non-Jewish spouses were typically less inclined to participate in the community life, seldom had bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies for their children or sent them to the Jewish schools and camps. Jewish immigrants from smaller provincial towns of the FSU (especially in Ukraine, Moldova, Central Asia and the Caucasus) were usually more connected to their Jewish side and sought affiliation with the local Jewish institutions. Conversely, arrivals from Moscow, St Petersburg, Kiev and some other major cities, where Jews had been almost totally assimilated, did not express interest in becoming more Jewish in Canada. Some immigrants had been familiar with the Jewish organizations in the FSU (mainly as recipients of their services and aid); quite a few had sent their children to the Jewish schools there, mainly because they were perceived as having higher educational standards and better physical conditions than regular schools. Reflecting this pre-migration experience, many perceived Jewish organizations mainly as philanthropic outlets or co-ethnic corollary of the social work agencies (lacking in the FSU). Most informants related in the same way to JIAS and other resettlement agencies, which helped them during initial years in the GTA. Fewer informants regarded Jewish institutions as sites of activism, voluntary work for community causes and an expression of their Jewish identity detached from any self-interest. Many informants pointed out (often with irony) that they would volunteer their time for community work when they become as wealthy as confident in their future as old-timer Canadian Jews.

35Arrival history also played some role: by and large, Russian Jews who had lived for some time in Israel were more inclined to partake in the Jewish life and participate in community activities, which they saw as the way to maintain their symbolic connection to Israel. These immigrants more often established social connections with members of the Israeli community living in the GTA. Often this happened thanks to the children whose identity was at least partly Israeli, who often kept speaking Hebrew, communicated with their friends in Israel and closely followed Israeli events. Dina (39) said:

“My 16 year-old daughter took it very hard when I decided to move to Canada. She spoke fluent Hebrew, had many friends and did well at school... Up until this day she enjoys speaking Hebrew, often e-mails her Israeli classmates, and one of them even came to visit recently. In brief she is an Israeli girl living in Toronto. We often go to the Israeli community center, celebrate Israeli holidays, listen to Israeli records... ”

36Josef (52) offered along similar lines:

“It’s a paradox: in Israel we resisted pressure to become more Jewish, but here in Toronto we find it attractive to be part of the Jewish life, at least at the symbolic level. I even went to a synagogue a few times for high holidays – mainly out of curiosity and social reasons, to meet my Russian and Canadian peers... I never did that in Israel. When being a Jew is voluntary, it can be fun.”

37When I asked if his children (aged 18 and 22) felt the same way, he said that their identity was Israeli rather then Jewish: “My children keep speaking Hebrew to each other, read Israeli books... They’d love to go back there for a visit or even to work for some time, but cannot afford the trip. They grew up in Israel and it will always remain their country in a way...”

38Thus, the interest in the Jewish life appeared (if at all) in different forms among the newcomers, depending on their social and ethnic background, age, prior exposure to the Jewish activities, and the country of former residence. Arrivals from the FSU more often related to the Jewish organizations and established Canadian Jews as sources of help they felt entitled for and were often disappointed when denied this help. Former Israelis felt on a more equal footing with Canadian Jews because they spoke good Hebrew and were well familiar with Israeli reality and Jewish daily practices. Yet, they often felt closer to Israelis living in the GTA than to Canadian born Jews. Both groups of newcomers spoke of a broad social and cultural distance between themselves and members of the Canadian white mainstream.

Perceived material well-being and quality of life

39Virtually all Russian-speaking immigrants who participated in this study admitted that their resettlement in Canada generally and the GTA specifically were driven by the wish to improve their living standards and give better quality of life and future prospects to their children. In the course of the interviews and group discussions, participants were asked to define in principal the chief components of the notion quality of life (QOL). The most commonly cited aspects (in the receding order of prevalence) included: material well-being (high income, good standards of housing, nutrition, leisure, etc.); quality of employment (relevance of the job to the skill level and self-actualization at the workplace); personal security, safe environment; high standards of schooling and higher education for the children; fulfilling social ties and inclusion in the hosting society; rich and accessible cultural life; developed urban infrastructures and public transportation; and moderate climate. In the course of interviews and focus groups, all informants (N=30) were asked to reflect on the direction of the overall change of their lives in Canada in each of these respects, compared to their prior country of residence. The answers are summarized in Table 2.

40It is apparent that the attitudes of direct arrivals from the FSU differ in several respects from those of the former Israeli residents. Informants who compared their life in Canada and in the FSU, more often asserted improvement in various aspects of the QOL than did re-migrants from Israel (particularly in living standards, employment and social ties). At the same time, arrivals from Israel were more satisfied with education, cultural life, urban infrastructure and climate in the GTA. In both groups, there were significant shares of informants who believed that their lives have worsened in terms of employment quality, social ties and inclusion, and cultural consumption. One aspect where both groups fully agreed on the improvement was personal security and safe environment, which is not surprising given that both FSU and Israel have been suffering from on-going military conflicts and terrorist attacks, and former Soviet states also have high crime rates, along with corrupt and ineffective police forces.

41When I asked my informants to name three most positive aspects of their life in Canada, the most common answers could be categorized in the following way:

  • 1) the perception of Canada generally and Toronto specifically as a highly civilized and well-managed society;

  • 2) politeness and amicability of people to each other, including minorities and foreigners; well-organized social and medical services (direct arrivals from the FSU praised Canadian health care system more often than former Israelis);

  • 3) perceived low level of corruption and rarity of political scandals;

  • 4) availability of a reasonable QOL even with a modest income (impossible nei-ther in the FSU nor in Israel);

  • 5) moderate climate (excluding a few winter months) and the abundance of green areas in the city;

  • 6) rich consumer choice (especially praised by the direct arrivals from the FSU).

42The list of three most unpleasant aspects of new immigrants’ lives in Canada included the following most cited categories:

  • 1) feeling excluded from the mainstream society, living on the social margins (especially common among adolescents and older immigrants, as well as residents of high-rise blocks of Northern Bathurst);

  • 2) tight income and inability to afford many desirable things, including private housing and travel;

  • 3) communication barrier due to poor English;

  • 4) jobs below one’s qualification and abilities;

  • 5) detachment from the mainstream cultural life (again due to low income, poor English and social isolation);

  • 6) overly bureaucratized health and social services; and

  • 7) long cold winters. However, on balance the majority of informants (22 out of 30) felt that their lives have improved as a result of migration to Canada.

Family adjustment process

Marital conflict

43Immigration experience is often conducive to marital conflict reflecting multiple challenges of adjustment in the new society and the related stress [Sluzki, 1979]. Former Soviet immigrants in Israel often experienced marital distress that in many cases led to divorce. The common reasons of conflict included disagreement about immigration to Israel as such differential pace of adjustment of husbands and wives; poor housing and involuntary co-residence of three generations; and conflicts over child education in the new context (e.g. religious or secular schooling) [Ben-David and Lavee, 1994] Although no such research has been done in the Canadian context, my findings from the interviews and focus groups point to many similarities perhaps reflecting generic features of the immigrant experience juxtaposed with the Soviet socialization, values and lifestyle. To begin with, all five divorced informants in my sample of 30 (18%) got divorced after migration to Israel (2) or Canada (3) and all of them explained their marital dissolution by the hardships of adaptation. In the words of one informant, “Immigration is a trial, it puts your relationship to test: harmonic couples get even stronger but those, who had had cracks in their relationship when they embarked on this trip, often fall apart”.

44The most common causes of tension and conflict in the Canadian context are failed expectations of rapid success, economic difficulties and differential pace of integration and occupational adjustment among husbands and wives. This was especially the case among dual career couples rather common among former Soviet intelligentsia. In the harsh conditions of a new marketplace, demanding of the newcomers to improve their English, get licensed for practice, retrain altogether or start a job as a volunteer, much depends on the flexibility and support of one’s life partner and his/her readiness to take over as primary breadwinner during the transitional period. Although in most cases women gave up their own ambitions (if any) for the sake of their husbands, some couples could not reach agreement about how to proceed with occupational re-adjustment. When a wife was more successful or, alternatively, was not ready to give up her own professional aspirations in favor of her husband, the undermining of his masculine role damaged the relationship, often to the point of separation. Two of the three Canadian divorce stories among my informants followed this scenario. Alternative scenarios involved women who expected their husbands to find well-paying jobs or prosper in their own small business soon upon arrival; when neither of this happened these women left the ‘losers’ and found themselves higher achievers for partners. Finally, being on the move and meeting new people in the process of resettlement could in itself serve as a trigger for new romances and the demise of old relationships.

Older generation (the parents)

45As opposed to the Israeli context of immigration, whereby most extended families migrated together or in chain, migrants to Canada seldom brought along their elderly parents from the outset. Yet, later on, when they received Canadian citizenship and could sponsor migration of family members, some young and middle-aged immigrants invited their parents to join them from the FSU (more seldom from Israel). Among my informants, about one third had one or both parents living in the GTA, either in the same household or nearby.

46Many elderly immigrants felt lonely and isolated, being unable to master English and attain freedom of movement at least within city bounds. Without working knowledge of English, they were dependent on their children and grandchildren for all contacts with Canadian organizations and service providers. On the other hand, Russian-speaking senior communities living in high-rise buildings along Bathurst gradually formed informal social networks of their own, offering each other support and aid in everyday matters. One focus group participant told about her mother: “At first she was lost in this new place where she knew no one but us. But when she moved to the subsidized flat near Finch, her life has changed for the better. She met many other older immigrants like herself and stroke new friendships. Now she is as active as she was in Moscow”. Another participant added: “It helps that in their neighborhood they have all the groceries and many services owned by Russian-speakers. Now even medical offices in the North have Russian-speaking doctors, nurses and secretaries."

  • 4 Many of these Russian-language cultural institutions cater to all former Soviet immigrants, regardl (...)

47Since the mid-1990s, the Torontonian Russian-speaking community has been building various social and cultural institutions, ranging from religiously-oriented Russian Jewish Community Center (sponsored by Chabad) to chess and handcraft clubs, World War II Veteran association and companies organizing tours of musicians and theaters from the FSU and Israel4. Over a dozen of Russian-language newspapers and magazines are published in Toronto. Electronic media include about six Russian TV programs transmitted from the FSU and New York. Having more spare time on their hands, immigrant elders take full advantage of the opportunities offered by the community’s cultural life. One of my informants, who runs a small business combining import of Russian videos and CDs with organization of artistic tours, said:

48“I would say that over half of my clients are retired immigrants. They are very active in the pursuit of cultural life in the new country: they buy new books in Russian, rent newly released movies, come to the concerts and shows of Russian and Israeli celebrities when they tour in Toronto... I am always puzzled about how they can afford these luxuries given their tiny personal budget. They must be saving for months to be able to buy a new book or attend a show.”

49Although on the average they received good social services from Canadian welfare system (including home attendants and nursing care when needed), many older immigrants suffered from insufficient support and contact with their own children and especially grandchildren. While helpful with routine errands and medical care, younger family members did not show much interest in sharing their current lives with the elderly. Many elders complained that they did not see their grandchildren too often, and when they came to visit they could hardly find topics for conversation (many younger adolescents had also limited Russian proficiency for such conversations as English became their main language). For instance, Ida (72) sadly mused:

“I moved to Canada from an established life and good apartment in Moscow in order to be close to my children and grandchildren, but in fact I saw them more when they came to visit me in Russia. Now that I live here, I hardly as much as receive a phone call once or twice a week. I understand that I have little to offer them in their new life, but I am still very disappointed.”

50Many of aspects of older immigrants’ lives in Toronto were similar to these among elderly Russian immigrants in Israel [Remennick, 2003c] as they reflect common problems of uprooting and readjustment to a foreign culture in old age. There is, though, one important difference between Russian-speaking elders in the GTA and in Israel: many older Jews had strong Zionist feelings and found their resettlement to the Jewish State meaningful in the spiritual and moral sense, despite all privations and losses they had faced on this way. Many of them were deeply connected to the country, interested in the current events and active in local politics. Most Russian immigrants in Israel found it normal to say: “This is my country, I belong here”. Russian Jewish elders, who followed their children to Canada, do not have a similar sense of home and motivation to integrate into what they perceive as a completely alien society. They will always remain on its margins, economically and socially, their only social network being their children (increasingly distant) and other immigrants like themselves.

Children and adolescents

51As was mentioned above, concern for the children’s future was one of the main driving forces behind immigration decisions of my informants. In practice, the adjustment of the 1.5 generation to life in Canada was not easy. In this research, I learned about children’s experiences from their parents’ accounts, so my data was indirect. Yet, in many respects it confirms and expands the observations made by Anisef et al. (2002) in their focus group research among Russian-speaking youths in the GTA. Most young immigrants faced a broad linguistic and cultural gap between themselves and Canadian mainstream society, including their peers at school and other frameworks. Social and learning problems were especially common among adolescent boys (vs. girls) and in older vs. younger teenagers. Youths who came straight from the FSU had more severe adjustment problems (both academically and socially) than those who re-migrated from Israel and were familiar with schooling systems other than soviet, had better knowledge of English and were generally more secure and ‘seasoned’ as repeat migrants.

52Several important themes have emerged from parental stories about their children’s adjustment. Many parents who arrived to the GTA from the FSU were ambivalent as to the old vs. new norms of youth lifestyle and parent-child relations. Often coming from conservative Russian/Soviet notions of discipline and parental authority, many parents entered a permanent conflict zone with their adolescent children fighting over their dress style, late night curfew, outing with their girl- and boyfriends, etc. At the same time, young immigrants found it difficult, if nor impossible, to get included into local peer groups and instead were compelled to form informal groups of their own. Lisa (42) said: “During his first two years of high school my son did not make a single Canadian friend, he barely knew the names of his classmates. After school he only spoke and hang out with his Russian pals, so his English improved very slowly.” This was especially prominent in the Northern Bathurst corridor neighborhoods, where most local high schools received sizeable groups of Russian-speaking immigrant students. Lumping together, these students pooled their intellectual resources in order to master new curriculum in English and pass all the necessary tests. Given that most had been good students both in the FSU and in Israel, they soon excelled in the parts of the school curriculum that are less language-dependent (math and the sciences).

53After linguistic readjustment, further differentiation between immigrant students set in, with some reaching the top of their classes and others barely making it or even dropping out. Having limited English skills, these weaker students also could not find work. Given scarcity of their family resources, most youths could not pay for after school educational and social activities, and local community centers offered few free of charge programs. Natasha (39), a single mother who immigrated in 1995 with her son Tim from St Petersburg, recounted:

54“In Russia, Tim was always a good student and had lots of additional interests, like sports, playing in a rock band... Here in Toronto his life became duller because for many years I was living on the verge of an economic fall, having several part time jobs that were still not enough to survive. I could hardly help him in anything because I was not at home for 14-16 hours a day. Paying for a sports club was out of the question, and his school offered nothing much outside the classes. So his choices for leisure were basically between playing computer games and hanging out with other teens like himself in the mall plaza, if it wasn’t too cold.”

55With fewer ambitions and more spare time, the less successful youths spent afternoons and evenings loitering in the streets and public parks drinking beer, listening to the music, and challenging each other. Street-bound pastime was often conducive to inter-group violence between different Russian-speaking groups and between them and other local immigrant youths, mostly Chinese. One sad result of this violence was a vicious murder of teenager Dimitri Baranovski in 1999 by a group including at least two of his co-ethnics – an accident that turned public attention to the Russian community and stirred discussion of immigrant youth problems more generally (Anisef et al., 2002). In the recent years the range of opportunities for education and active social life for immigrant youths has grown considerably reflecting both the improvement of financial status of the parents and the emergence of new after schools and clubs geared for Russian-speaking children and youth in the North of the city (e.g., a large arts and music school that also offers classes in the Russian language and literature).

56As a result, Russian immigrant youths display a whole range of social profiles, from high achievers who excelled in high school and entered good universities to marginal and alienated youths hanging out in the streets. Although no direct statistics are available, the stories told by my informants pointed to the higher numbers of troubled and mal-adjusted youths among those who came from Russia and Ukraine vs. those who spent some years in Israel. Another social correlates of poor adjustment included being raised by a hard-working single mother, with the resulting lack of supervision and support, and coming from working class families of Russian or Ukrainian (as opposed to Jewish) ethnic origin. Although my informants (who were predominantly Jewish) mainly told stories of success about their own children, almost every one knew of their immigrant co-workers or neighbors whose children experienced problems and lived on the social and economic margins. On the other hand, many informants made a point that over time these coming-of-age problems have subsided. Compelled to make a living, most former troublemakers have settled in all kinds of semi-skilled jobs and some even improved their education at community colleges. Although time certainly has its healing power, there is clear room for culturally-sensitive youth policies and specially targeted interventions that could ameliorate the initial experiences of young immigrants in the GTA and improve their chances for upward social mobility.

Transnational identity and lifestyle

57In all of their new homelands, former Soviet Jewish immigrants manifest multiple signs of transnational identity and lifestyle, feeling as part of a global Russian-speaking community stretching between the FSU, Israel and the West. The main social glue connecting Jews, Russians, Ukrainians and other former Soviets dispersed across the globe after the fall of communism is their affinity with the Russian language and culture, common Soviet past, and recent emigration and readjustment in the host countries. The expressions of this grass-root tansnationalism are mainly found in the cultural and psychosocial, rather than economic and business, realm (see more on the transnational theory generally and transnational lifestyle of Russian Israelis in Remennick, 2002a). In my focus group discussions and the analysis of the Russian language media I tried to follow the local signs of the universal phenomenon of fortification of ethnic diasporas and transnational speech communities [Guarnizo and Smith, 1998]. Torontonian Russians are both producing and consuming global Russian-language press and electronic media with headquarters in New York, Moscow and Tel-Aviv (exemplified by the RTVi TV channel catering for Russian-speakers in 15 different countries). Russian press in Toronto features multiple reprints and citations from similar publications in Russia, Israel, US, and even Germany (which hosts a sizeable Russian Jewish community since the 1990s). As a result of daily follow-up of current events in the FSU, Israel and other branches of the international Russian Jewish community, many immigrants (especially older ones) were more interested and updated on the global political and cultural issues than on the events inside GTA, Ontario and Canada. Many of my informants perceived the internal politics and the news releases as uninteresting, uneventful or hard to understand due to their poor English. Another example of the transnational media embracing Canadian and global Russian-language community is a website with a funny name (Russian ending –vka referring to a village-like character of Toronto’s Russian enclave) featuring among other rubrics a dating service where Russian-speakers of any national origin looking for a Canadian partner can post their ads. Younger Russian immigrants in Toronto are ardent surfers in the Russian-language cyberspace (the so-called embracing thousands of websites maintained in Russia, Israel, US, and other countries.

58Many immigrants of all ages also kept close personal ties with their relatives, friends and former colleagues in the FSU, Israel and the US. With the advent of cheap and accessible communications (international calling cards, e-mail, relatively cheap air fares) more immigrants are involved in these ties and they become more regular. “I call my parents and friends in Israel a few times a week, as if we live in the same city...It’s amazing how cheap it has become. One can no longer refer to high expenses – if you wish to stay in touch with your folks in other countries you certainly can.” This trend was more prominent among former residents of Israel, who were used to intense transnational connections and frequent travel, and among younger immigrants vs. older ones. To cite another focus group participant, David, in his early 30s, a former Israeli,

“I’d say over half of my friends still live in Israel, some in Moscow, and a few others are in the US. We e-mail and speak on the phone very often. One friend of mine who got rich during the high-tech boom and lives in a large house in Chicago offered his place for our reunion and we plan to get together from all the different countries around the New Year.”

59Nadia, a former Moscow resident in her mid-50s, told:

“I love to travel and I could never do this living in the FSU, first because of political limitations and after Socialism due to the lack of money. Now I can visit so many countries where my friends and former colleagues live – France, Germany, Israel, Australia – at least I will stay there for free, and I can save for airfares. I am enjoying this immensely.”

60The majority of participants have traveled to their former countries of residence at least once since resettlement in Canada and received in their homes co-ethnic guests from the FSU, Israel and other western countries. A few informants were considering a joint business venture with their former co-workers or friends living in Israel or the FSU.
“I think there is a good market here for some Israeli products in the Russian language – new books and literary magazines, some videos and DVDs related to Russian-Israeli topics, and such. Many folks I know who moved here from Israel still miss the country and would like to be more connected to it via these cultural products”. A young woman from the Ukraine said, “I am about to open a small store selling Russian crafts and jewelry in Toronto. A friend of mine in Kiev has such business and she could broker for me very inexpensive and good stuff for sale. I hope it will be popular both among Russians and other Canadians – our tradition in the handcrafts is rather unique, you don’t find such fine work in Canada”.

61Thus, many signs of what is called 'transnationalism from below' (i.e., social and cultural ties on the individual level between co-ethnics across national borders – [Guarnizo and Smith, 1998]) are apparent in the life of the Torontonian Russian Jewish community, rather similar to those found among Russian immigrants in Israel [Remennick, 2002a]. In that respect, my observations are in disagreement with the recent findings by Morawska (2004) among Russian Jews in Philadelphia who displayed strong host-country orientations and few transnational engagements with either FSU or Israel. This difference can be explained by the specific composition of former Soviet community in Toronto with a higher share of ethnically mixed families parts of which still live in the FSU, as well as strong cultural bonds many re-migrants had developed with Israel. Another possible explanation of greater involvement in transnational ties with co-ethnics among Russian Torontonians is their relative marginalization in Canada: unlike their American counterparts, few of them can call themselves proud Canadians. Regardless of the reasons, though, Russian Toronto is certainly becoming an important isle on the expanding map of the Russian-speaking post-communist diaspora.

Former Soviet Jews and how they arrived in Canada

62This qualitative study explored several aspects of the integration process of former Soviet immigrants (mainly of Jewish origin) who moved to Toronto during the 1990s either from the FSU or as secondary migrants from Israel. While some earlier studies were largely focused on the issues of identity transformation among Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants in Canada [Glikman, 1996; Basok and Brym, 2000; Anisef et al., 2002], this research addressed the more practical aspects of economic and social integration in the mainstream Canadian society, including the Jewish community. As was expected, my findings point to some tangible differences in the adaptation process between direct migrants from the FSU and those who had lived for several years in Israel. Although ethnographic data collected in this research do not allow describing statistical patterns, some observations about these differences can still be offered to the reader.

63Generally speaking, repeat migrants from Israel were better equipped for the Canadian experience of resettlement and socio-economic adjustment than were former citizens of the Soviet successor states. Although both groups were carriers of high human capital (which allowed them to gain enough points for the entry visa), former Israeli residents had had an important experience of adjustment to a western-type labor market and developed some necessary skills for job search and self-promotion (better command of English, experience of job interviews, familiarity with advanced technologies, etc.). Immigrants from the FSU experienced a different type of chaotic socio-economic transition that may have enriched their occupational flexibility and general survival skills but did little to improve their odds for success in a western labor market. On the other hand, former Israelis often came to Canada with the expectations of rapid professional success and economic prosperity they could not grasp in Israel and were disappointed by the tight regulation of their entry into most professions, the need to retrain or get licensed once again, and the generally slow pace of their rise to desirable living standards. Conversely, former Soviets were usually ready to start from the bottom regardless of their formal credentials, and this down-to earth attitude was more conducive to both incremental economic mobility and psychosocial well-being. In both groups of immigrants, women have experienced greater employment problems due to their more culturally-dependent and less demanded former occupations, but at the same time they were usually more ready for retraining and occupational change.

64Although all former Soviets spoke of their great social and cultural distance from the mainstream Canadian society (especially its white non-immigrant part), former Israelis found it less difficult to build bridges towards the established Jewish community due to their better familiarity with Judaism and Hebrew. Another social anchor for some of these newcomers (especially younger ones) became members of the Israeli community living in Toronto, with whom they shared attachment to Israel and Hebrew-based culture. Jewish immigrant youths often adopted the lifestyle features of cultural Judaism North-American style (bar/bat-mitzvah ceremonies, Jewish summer camps, trips to Israel) that helped them integrate among their Canadian Jewish peers. Direct arrivals from the FSU usually felt socially estranged from Canadian Jews, despite their readiness to utilize multiple social services offered by the established community. Some of them saw the lacunae in their Jewish identity as an unfortunate outcome of their life in the FSU and hoped that their children would be 'better Jews' than they could be themselves.

65In the family realm both groups of newcomers often experienced marital and parenting conflicts as part of their adaptation process to the new economic and social reality. Meantime, their adolescent children were coming through a double drama of immigration and coming of age in a new social setting. Immigrant youths had to struggle against parental authority in their wish to adopt a more liberal lifestyle of Canadian youth, and at the same time to face their inability to join young Canadian mainstream as ‘Others’. Again, adolescents, who had already been through a similar adjustment drama in Israel, often managed their new role more aptly and made the transition faster than their former Soviet peers. Despite their difficult starting conditions, the majority of Russian immigrant youths have entered the upward mobility track by going to universities and colleges. Their grandparents, who moved to Canada via family sponsorship, are also getting adjusted to the life on the margins of the Canadian society, in the cultural and social framework of the Torontonian 'Russian North'. All three generations of Russian immigrants in the GTA manifest their interest in maintaining social and cultural ties with their co-ethnics in the FSU, in Israel and in other countries of post-communist Russian-speaking diaspora.

66To conclude, the former Soviet immigrant community in Canada deserves more attention of social scholars and policymakers than it has received so far. This study points to important internal differentials in the integration process between immigrant generations and by the entry route. Direct arrivals from Russia, Ukraine and other post-communist states usually have more scant personal resources and face higher barriers in their attempts to make it economically and integrate socially. Within this community, the 1.5 generation and the elders are especially vulnerable and could certainly benefit from specially tailored and culturally competent social services (such as labor market skills development, subsidized recreation and sports facilities, and matching newcomers with volunteer Canadian ‘siblings’ and pals for companionship and guidance). In the absence of such services, the young and the old living in Russian enclaves have to rely solely on co-ethnic networks for information and support, which is not always sufficient and adequate. Another cost-effective form of assistance to former Soviets would be courses in leadership and civil organization that would help them lump together intellectual and financial resources to solve their common adjustment problems on their own. Finally, the experiences of skilled Russian Jewish immigrants struggling to find their place on the Canadian labor market underscore the need to relax bureaucratic procedures for licensure and accreditation of foreign professionals on the federal and provincial levels – facilitating speedier integration of the newcomers and fuller utilization of their human capital, with the ensuing benefits for Canadian economy.

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1 This research was supported by the grant of the Israeli Association for Canadian Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

2 Immigration to Canada is regulated by the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the latest revision of which took effect on June 28, 2002 (see the overview on the website The eligibility for independent economic immigration in ‘skilled worker’ category is assessed by means of the Point System, whereby the applicants and their adult family members are ascribed points for their age, education, occupation and work experience, proficiency in the state languages (English and French), close relatives living in Canada, and proof of authorized employment. Only those who accumulate a certain threshold sum of points can qualify for the visa. The criteria for assigning points (especially the list of demanded occupations) are constantly revised in line with the needs of Canadian economy, with the goal of gaining maximum utility from international skilled labor migration. Yet, in most provinces the recognition of foreign education and practice credentials is tedious and slow, comprehensive exams are often demanded for licensure, and for some professionals (e.g. physicians) it is virtually impossible to be licensed for practice in Canada without partial or full re-training. As a result, the much-praised ‘human capital’ of the immigrants often remains untapped; most of them have to make a living by unskilled work, while not so few leave Canada for the US and other countries. Some steps at the federal level have recently been taken to ease the accreditation process for professionals, but provinces have been slow to adjust their legislation and practice, partly due to the resistance of the local professional associations (see the discussion of these issues on:

3 In 1980, Soviet authorities stopped emigration of Jews (and anyone else) reflecting the end of the détente period and the growing tension between the USSR and the West after Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, followed by the international boycott of the Moscow Olympics.

4 Many of these Russian-language cultural institutions cater to all former Soviet immigrants, regardless of their ethnic origin. Jews and non-Jews are as mixed socially in Toronto as they had been in their Soviet cities of origin. Separation occurs only in religious settings (for those few who practice religion): Jews go to synagogues and Jewish Community Centers, while Russians and Ukrainians attend their different Churches. The dynamics of common ex-Soviet socialization vis-à-vis ethnic differences and the legacy of Slavic anti-Semitism shape the complex relations between Jews and non-Jews in their new immigrant locales.

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Larissa Remennick, « Russian Jews in the Global City of Toronto: A Pilot Study of Identity and Social Integration »Espace populations sociétés, 2006/1 | 2006, 61-81.

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Larissa Remennick, « Russian Jews in the Global City of Toronto: A Pilot Study of Identity and Social Integration »Espace populations sociétés [En ligne], 2006/1 | 2006, mis en ligne le 20 octobre 2016, consulté le 29 novembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Larissa Remennick

Bar-Ilan University
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
52900 Ramat-Gan

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