NEW YORK -- The United Jewish Appeal has raised $450 million this year for the specific purpose of helping to finance the resettlement of Soviet Jews in Israel, according to Marvin Lender, national chairman of the organization.
"We believe it's saving lives," said Lender.
"They're at risk," he continued. "There seems so much that tells us we could be reliving history again. Enough Jews have died, 6 million in the Holocaust. We can't allow Jews to be killed again."
So far this year, 101,736 Soviet Jews have moved to Israel, Lender said.
The number is expected to exceed 160,000 by year's end and to total 1 million through 1992.
That would increase Israel's 3.5 million population by almost one third. Another 40,000 Soviet Jews are being admitted annually to the United States.
"The political situation is so tenuous that we have to act quickly to get people out," Lender said in an interview. "As long as the doors don't close, we have that sense of urgency. No one knows what may happen tomorrow."
Lender, of New Haven, Conn., has been in Israel five times this year and the Soviet Union three times. He says he believes a majority of the Soviet Union's approximately 2 million Jews will want to leave.
"I don't see many wanting to stay there," he said, adding that the spread of wider Soviet freedoms has unleashed antisemitic groups and incidents, reflecting anti-Jewish attitudes embedded in Russian history.
"The good news is that the gates are open, and the bad news is that it has allowed hate groups to come out of the shadows," he said.
Asked if Jews had any obligation to stay there under their biblical mandate to be a "light to the nations," rather than withdrawing into tiny Israel, he said:
"We have to look at realities. I don't think Jews should stay in a place where they're not wanted or it's dangerous. If they're not allowed to live as Jews, then that light is not just dimmed, but shut off."
The biblical responsibility is accepted as a permanent duty, he said, but to pursue it "we have to be able to express ourselves in an open environment."
He said that possibility remains clouded in the Soviet Union, which is gripped by economic distress and political turmoil in which hate groups such as Pamyat have made Jews scapegoats for problems.
"There is no question that a real struggle is going on in the minds of many Soviet Jews about whether to leave their country," Lender said.
"It's been their home for hundreds of years. You don't pick up and leave home unless there is a real reason."
In some cases, he said, it divides families. And the strain is keen in leaving a familiar environment and going to a land of different language and ways.
"They would stay where their roots are if they were not in danger, if they were allowed to live in peace as Jews," he said.
He added that the UJA-Federation Campaign also is providing funds for renewing and building Jewish communities in the Soviet Union, where Judaism has been suppressed for 70 years, but where new opportunities have opened to practice it.
"Some are hoping to stay there if their lives are not endangered," Lender said. But the Soviet Union, with its new freedoms, demonstrations, crime, food shortages and factionalism, "is not so safe anymore," he added.
He said that 70 percent of Soviet Jews entering Israel say they have experienced some form of antisemitism, from epithets to torching of their apartments.
Lender, 49, whose father's tiny backyard bakery grew into a nationwide $65 million-a-year baked-bagels enterprise that was sold to Kraft in 1984, now concentrates on community work, mostly raising UJA funds.
The regular UJA budget this year is $765 million to strengthen Jewish life here and abroad, plus $450 million added this year for the massive Operation Exodus of Soviet Jews.