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Around the Jewish World: Russians Move from Isolation to Activism in U.S. Jewish Life

September 14, 1998
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On a warm summer afternoon, guests gathered poolside at the country home of Semyon and Ludmila Kislin — sunglasses on and checkbooks out.

That day the group of about 100 members of the Russian Division of UJA- Federation of Philanthropies of New York raised $15,000 for the federation’s annual campaign.

“For us, it’s a good sum for a pool party,” said Ludmila Kislin, the division’s co-chair and a federation board member.

And the party is just part of a bigger splash.

The Russian division has a mailing list of 7,000 and a growing roster of active members, including a young leadership wing. Its first campaign 10 years ago collected $30,000 to help bring Jews out of the former Soviet Union.

Last year’s gala at a New York hotel raised $1.4 million for the New York federation.

The exceptional fund-raising power of New York’s emigre community may have much to do with its size: An estimated 20 to 25 percent of the city’s 1 million Jews are native Russian speakers. The success also stems from the organizational efforts of a Russian-speaking leadership in the federation, who serve as a bridge between the Jewish establishment and the immigrant community.

Attracting such leaders is a challenge Jewish agencies across the United States are now facing as they turn their energies from refugee resettlement to membership cultivation.

More than 400,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union poured into the United States since the 1970s — most of them after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet empire — making Russian the language of a significant portion of America’s Jewish population.

Almost without exception, these newcomers were helped along the way by a tag team of Jewish agencies.

Now, as emigres have established themselves in American society — landing jobs, finding homes and raising families — many are seeking, in turn, a more proactive relationship with the organized Jewish community.

“It’s a two-way street. We will help the federation and the federation will help us,” said Ilya Tsenter, a telecommunications engineer who came from St. Petersburg in 1980 to California’s Silicon Valley, where one of every four Jews hails from the former Soviet Union.

A board member of the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Resettlement, Tsenter has been tapped for the Emigre Leadership Institute, an initiative of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, which is scheduled to launch in January.

“The idea is to develop a core group of 15 to 20 emigre leaders who have proven leadership ability and are interested in developing participation of emigres in the broader Jewish community,” said Pnina Levermore, the council’s executive director.

During the course of four months, ELI will orient participants in navigating the organized Jewish community and will provide instruction in basic leadership skills, such as meeting management, public speaking and fiscal planning.

A similar institute run by the American Jewish Committee opened last year, offering 25 potential New York-area leaders workshops on leadership and religious pluralism, as well as a trip to Capitol Hill. Jewish groups in Atlanta and Chicago have expressed interest in adapting the curriculum for their communities.

“What is good here is the understanding that Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union are not just the object of assistance and acculturation, but should also be actively involved in the life of the Jewish community at large,” said Alexander Lakshin, a consultant at the New York-based Coalition for Soviet Jewry, who participated in the AJCommittee program.

In fact, requests from emigres themselves generated leadership training programs on both coasts.

In San Francisco, where some 30,000 Russian-speaking immigrants compose about one-fifth of the Jewish population, the federation’s executive director, Wayne Feinstein, met with the local representatives of several national organizations founded by immigrants, such as the American Association of Jews from the former Soviet Union and other groups representing Bukharans, Georgians, scientists and engineers, and World War II veterans.

“They said, `We’re no longer green. We’d like an opportunity to give back,'” recalled Feinstein.

One factor contributing to this desire is the area’s employment base — 20 percent of the emigres work in high-tech industries — which creates a solidly middle-class constituency with the leisure and resources to devote to Jewish organizations.

Feinstein also credits a consistent 20-year effort by the federation to introduce immigrant families to Jewish communal life. Jewish agencies in other cities have struggled to perfect the outreach formula — how much is too much, too soon, too American or not Jewish enough. Language, too, is an obstacle.

But even when the elements fall into place, often aided by Russian-speaking staff, Jewish agencies and emigre leaders recognize, “charity” and “volunteer” are foreign concepts to most former Soviets.

“Experience shows that for Russian emigres, the mentality is different. We are very reluctant to participate in something we are told,” Tsenter of the Bay Area Council said.

Recruiting members, volunteers and donors for Jewish organizations requires finding areas of mutual interest and benefit, “so they will feel like they need it,” Tsenter said. “It takes time.”

Feliks Frenkel, a financial analyst living in New York, explained. “Like anything, there is a need for patience. You will not get up one morning and say, `I’ll give 30 percent of what I make to charity.'”

Frenkel came to the United States in 1977 from Kiev, where, he recalled, his family readily helped out friends and neighbors, but never extended tzedakah beyond the personal realm.

To foster a communal sense of responsibility, the AJCommittee’s chapter in Chicago supports the Russian Community Forum, a consortium of grass-roots emigre organizations, business owners and representatives from the flourishing Russian-language media to address issues of welfare and citizenship, the threat of messianic missionaries and better integration into the American Jewish community.

“It’s the first time in Chicago that Russian Jews came together and sat at the same table for any reason,” said Mark Peysakhovich, a native of Moscow who now works as the assistant director of the AJCommittee’s Chicago office.

The group has met regularly during the past year for discussions, speakers and a congressional candidates debate.

Still, Peysakhovich says, “We have to learn to walk before we can run.”

Like many of their American counterparts, most Russian-speaking emigres have yet to decipher Jewish organizational infrastructure.

“A lot of them don’t know where the money came from that brought them to this country,” said Peysakhovich.

Even the enthusiastic emigres in New York required some unorthodox orientation to institutional giving.

Many were spurred to generosity by the federation’s weekly page in the daily Novoye Russkoye Slovo, which used to end with stories of emigres in need – – along with postings of contributors to the campaign and their donations.

“Now people are requesting not to put their names” because they are so sought after as donors, said Lydia Vareljian, the federation’s Russian Division coordinator. The page now runs reports on the division’s special projects in Israel rather than individual contributions.

Frenkel was one of those anonymous benefactors for many years until the division began to plan and raise funds for a Russian Jewish community center, where the Russian-speaking community could come together for cultural and educational programs and religious services and celebrations.

“If you do things publicly, you attract attention and people may be willing to share some of their wealth,” said Frenkel, who was honored at last spring’s gala.

“When you receive, more often than not you feel indebted. When you give, you don’t,” Frenkel said. “I’d rather give than receive, as long as I can afford it.”

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