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Earlier Russian Immigrants to U.S. Started Activism with Fund Raising

The 79ers and RJeneration represent a young, post-Soviet Jewish population eager to explore its identity and find its place in the American Jewish community.

But as early as 1988, at the very tip of the post-Soviet Jewish immigration of the 1990s, efforts were being made to encourage immigrants already in the United States to become activists and help support those about to arrive.

With New York’s large Russian-speaking population, UJA-Federation of New York created a Russian division. Former division chairwoman Lilly Wajnberg recalls that in 1988, American-born supporters of what was then the United Jewish Appeal approached her husband, editor of the city’s oldest Russian-language newspaper, and asked him to appeal to the more settled Russian-born Jews to help fund the new arrivals.

“We wrote about it, reminding them that this was the organization that helped them when they came,” Wajnberg recalls. “People responded.”

That first year the Russian appeal raised $34,000, most of it in donations of $100, $10, even $5.

To celebrate its success, the group held a gala in 1989 at a Russian restaurant in Brighton Beach, the Brooklyn neighborhood known as Little Odessa. Mayor Ed Koch attended. Participants raised $150,000 that night.

“It was the beginning of the awareness,” Wajnberg says. “In the Soviet Union there was no tradition of tzedakah,” or charity.

Since then the Russian division of UJA-Federation of New York has raised more than $18 million. Reaching out to the younger generation has been more difficult. The New York federation created a young leadership section for its Russian division in 1995, “but we’re still cultivating them,” Wajnberg says.

Two things help draw the younger post-Soviet Jews: gala events and Israel advocacy.

Many of them passed through Israel on their way to the United States, and still have friends and family there. On this year’s federation mission to Israel, the Russian young leadership division will have its own bus, with a separate itinerary focusing on projects it has helped fund.

Galas are a draw because so many of these young Jews share with their elders a love of dancing, Russian music and Russian cuisine.

“These are lawyers, they work on Wall Street, they like these black-tie events,” Wajnberg says. “This younger generation understands donations. It’s good for tax deductions, something my generation didn’t understand.”

Federations in several other major cities, including Los Angeles and Atlanta, have also made fund-raising appeals specifically to their Russian-speaking Jewish communities, who typically turn out in strong numbers for Israel emergency campaigns.

The Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago used to run events for Russian-speaking Jews but stopped in the late 1990s.

“They’ve become part of the community,” senior development vice-president Jeffrey Cohen says.

Some cities with large immigrant populations are beginning to think more creatively about how to bring these people into the larger Jewish community.

Cultural events are one tool. Since 2004, San Francisco’s Jewish Community Federation group hosts literary and political speakers about four times a year for the community.

Political activism is another method. The American Jewish Committee created the Russian Jewish Leadership Program in 1997. This 10-week program teaches Russian-speaking Jews about the structure of the organized American Jewish community and includes a trip to Washington to see Israel advocacy in action.

Program director Sam Kliger says the New York program has more than 200 graduates, with another 50 from similar programs in Boston and Chicago. Some graduates hold leadership positions in the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds, such as recently elected New York State Assembly member Alec Brook-Krasny.

“This is a sizable community that is still separated from the mainstream,” Kliger says. “We are trying to close that gap.”

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