During the end of the Cold War as the Soviet Union fell, the Richmond Jewish community provided major support for Project Exodus, making this one of the most desirable resettlement locations for so-called fourth wave Russian immigrants who arrived in the 1990s.
The story of these 800 families who emigrated from the former Soviet Union to Richmond along with the story of the concerted efforts of the Jewish community to welcome and support them as they adjusted to life in a new country form the basis of a three-venue exhibition, "The American Dream, Right?"
It's part of "Draw Back the Curtain," a multiyear project that culminates in late 2014 with a documentary film produced by University of Richmond students, alumni and community members on the subject of Jewish immigration.
Told through interviews, photographs and personal belongings, the exhibit encompasses myriad sides of the story of Soviet Jewish immigrants to Richmond, who left behind family, friends, language and professional identities in the late '80s and early '90s to create new lives.
On the whole, the immigrants were well educated and accomplished, says Laura Browder, a professor of American studies at the university. "They had careers in the Soviet Union as physicists, concert pianists, engineers," she says.
In Richmond, most of them were unable to work in their chosen professions. "They were taking jobs as janitors and taxi drivers," she says. "Can you imagine what a huge change in identity this must have entailed? Many of them will tell you that they emigrated for the sake of their children — and indeed, those children have done very, very well here."
Each of the three exhibit locations focuses on a different aspect of the immigrant experience. The Lora Robins Gallery features the stories of immigrants told through photographs, quotes, interactive maps and interview clips to demonstrate what it was like to be a person of Jewish heritage living in the secular Soviet Union, and what challenges immigrants faced when pursuing a new life in Virginia.
The International Gallery at the Weinstein International Center will present a selection of photographs taken by Kathleen Laraia McLaughlin, who created a series of portraits of Soviet Jewish immigrants who settled in Richmond in 1997-'98, originally part of a project she created while working on a master's degree in photography at Virginia Commonwealth University.
UR Downtown will show the work of volunteers from Jewish Family Services and Project Exodus, mainly photographs of the immigrants' lives in the former Soviet Union and after their resettlement here, along with articles of the period from The Reflector, a newspaper published by the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond.
A unique aspect of the project is its student-driven nature. Students have been involved with every aspect of the project — including selecting artifacts and images for display, editing oral history interviews and designing an interactive map that traces the path four families took on their journey from the former Soviet Union to Richmond.
Shir Bodener, an international studies student who got involved with doing interviews for the film, found an unexpected component to the research: "I'd approach people who'd been resettled and ask to interview them, and they'd say they didn't have any stories. They'd question why we were doing this and then totally spill. I'd get invited for tea afterwards and sometimes when they weren't on camera, they shared even more. I'd be talking to people and they'd say their grandma made cherry wine. My Soviet grandma made cherry wine. I learned about my own heritage in the process."
Andrew Goodman, a campus rabbi at the university and one of the originators of the project, sees the exhibitions as part of the larger American immigration experience. "If we hadn't been lucky enough to get out in the early-20th century," he says, "these could be my family's stories. We as Jewish people are all connected by shared history. When we immigrated is unimportant." S
"The American Dream, Right?" runs through April 22 at Lora Robins Gallery, Sunday-Friday, 1-5 p.m.; Weinstein International Gallery, Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and UR Downtown, Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. For information, call 289-8276 or go to museums.richmond.edu.