Focus on Issues Young, Russian-born U.S. Jews

When the smoked fish is the first plate to disappear from the buffet table, it’s clear this is not your typical American dinner party.

The smattering of Russian conversation is another clue, as is the fact that the young men are dressed just a little better than the average post-college American male.

This gathering of some four dozen young people in their 20s and 30s is the monthly Shabbat dinner of the 79ers, a 3-year-old San Francisco-based organization that brings together Jews born in the former Soviet Union for cultural, social, educational and religious activities.

They go to Russian movies together, hear speakers, celebrate the Jewish holidays, even take part in the Purim Follies put on each spring by the local federation’s Young Adult Division.

A similar group called RJeneration, founded a year ago in New York, draws the same demographic on the East Coast. Other groups may soon form in Washington, Boston, Philadelphia and Seattle.

Although several Jewish federations have “Russian divisions” created mainly to raise funds within the immigrant community, and other long-established American Jewish organizations have created Russian-speaking cultural groups, the 79ers and RJeneration represent initiatives organized by this population to serve its own needs.

Highly educated and ambitious, speaking Russian at home and English with their friends, this is a new generation of post-Soviet Jewish immigrants that is finally asserting itself, its members asking who they are, what their Judaism means to them and how they fit into the American Jewish landscape.

“We’re different from American Jews, but we’re not Russians,” says Angela Previn, 35, program director for the 79ers. “It’s a very specific culture.”

“We live in a double world, American on the outside but Russian deep inside,” adds Igor Sinyak, a 36-year-old software engineer who emigrated from Kiev when he was 9.

Some call themselves “RuJews,” or Russian Jews — a play on JewBus, or Buddhist Jews, another Bay Area-bred mixed-culture phenomenon.

“For many of us, this is the first time we’re getting together with people who had the same life experience,” says Previn, who arrived from Kharkov, Ukraine, at the age of 5. “As a child, to see your parents go from being doctors to cleaning houses, from having it together to having nothing, is an experience few people share. Everybody in this room knows what everyone else has gone through. It’s about being completely understood.”

That understanding can go deep, to personal knowledge of Soviet oppression, a love of classical Russian literature and a conflicted relationship to Judaism.

Or it can be much simpler but equally telling.

“Most of us have stashes of plastic bags in the kitchen,” Sinyak says. “Maybe because our parents did that back in the Soviet Union. And we reuse tea bags. These are things you can’t explain to your American friends.”

The 79ers, besides being a pun on the Gold Rush of 1849 and the eponymous San Francisco football team, refers to 1979, the height of that decade’s Soviet Jewish emigration and the year most of the group’s founders arrived. Immigrating as children and growing up in this country, they are now more comfortable in English than Russian, but spent years keeping their Judaism and their Russian heritage under wraps as they and their families tried to fit in.

“I avoided everything Russian when I came,” Sinyak says. “It was not a cool thing to be. It was the middle of the Cold War, we got a lot of teasing about being communists. Early on I learned to disassociate myself as much as possible.”

Now confident in their American shoes, these young adults are investigating their Russian and Jewish roots.

Like most of their peers, Karina Ioffee’s parents grew up secular in the Soviet Union and felt no more comfortable in synagogue after their arrival in America. They didn’t know the rituals, they spoke little English and no Hebrew. So Ioffee, who was 10 when the family left Riga, Latvia, in 1990, started going on her own.

Coming to the 79ers has given her a safe place to learn about Judaism.

“I still feel like a fool at temple,” she admits. “But now I read Jewish books, I read Torah, I light candles. I want a Jewish life, a Jewish spouse, to raise my children in a Jewish way, and this group brings me in proximity to that.”

Not everyone wants Jewish observance shoved at them, Previn points out.

“Spirituality is a touchy subject,” she says, especially with this group. “We try to create a comfortable place for people who wouldn’t go to temple to all do Jewish stuff together.”

Sinyak founded the 79ers in late 2003 with Lenny Gusel, who moved to New York a year ago and created RJeneration with Yael Kalcheim, a former American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee staffer. Jewish organizations that help fund these groups see it as the logical extension of the Soviet Jewry movement.

“We were responsible for welcoming and assisting more than 40,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union since 1979,” says Anita Friedman, executive director of San Francisco’s Jewish Family Children’s Services, which provides funding to the 79ers.

RJeneration receives support from the 92nd Street Y and private donors, as well as fees for services.

“These people were children when they came,” Friedman says. “We watched them grow up and start to think, we’ve learned English, we have good jobs, now what else? We think it’s important to create opportunities for them to get involved in the Jewish community.”

As the 79ers and RJeneration mature, they are moving beyond social networking — although that will always be an important role — to encouraging young Russian-American Jews to flex their political and financial muscle.

At January’s Shabbat dinner, an AIPAC representative spoke about lobbying for Israel on Capitol Hill and how this group — almost all of whom have friends or family in Israel — could influence American aid for the Jewish state.

It was the 79ers’ first conscious foray into the world of political activism, and a precursor of more, Gusel promises.

“I see us as a bridge into the established Jewish community,” he says. “I want us to be ‘used’ as much as possible.”

Now that both groups are growing, with hundreds of people on their mailing lists, the original group of ’79 arrivals has been eclipsed by the much larger group that arrived in the 1990s. There are differences — the recent arrivals speak more Russian, don’t remember the Soviet Union and were less ideologically motivated in their decision to emigrate.

For some ’79 veterans, that’s problematic. They look askance at plans for the 79ers to take on the RJeneration name later this year, saying the new arrivals don’t share their particular immigration experience. But Gusel says the common thread is coming from the former Soviet Union and spending formative years in this country.

“My interest is for as many people in their 20s and 30s from the former Soviet Union to plug in and develop a community where we can look at who we are,” he says. “We are the first young adult, post-Soviet population that is free to ask who we are, what is our Judaism to us, what do we want to do in the world?”

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