Leaders of New York’s Russian-Jewish community attended a White House meeting last week with their eyes wide open. They knew that election-year politics might have influenced the invitation, several members of the delegation said.
But the Obama administration’s reason for holding the meeting is only secondary, said Roman Shmulenson, one of the nearly two dozen participants, whose comment was echoed by others. “What’s important is that a dialogue is taking place.”
The meeting included talks by four high-level administration officials, followed in each case by discussion, on such issues as national security, health care and the economy, participants told The Jewish Week.
Arranged by Jarrod Bernstein, the administration’s director of Jewish outreach, the Aug. 6 meeting was strictly off the record, with participants barred from revealing what was said. But the meeting is newsworthy nonetheless, representing the first time that a group of Russian-American Jews had been invited to the White House by any administration, according to one of the delegation’s organizers.
Members of the Russian-Jewish community have certainly been invited to the White House before, said Susan Green, director of administration and finance at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. But they were invited to the White House as members of other delegations, she added — not solely because they were Russian-American Jews.
The meeting followed months of discussions among JCRC officials, members of the Russian-Jewish community and Bernstein’s office, Green said, adding that their conversations took place in light of the community’s growing involvement in the political process. “It didn’t just happen in the blink of an eye.”
Once the meeting was arranged by the White House, Green and Michael Nemirovsky, the JCRC’s director of Russian-speaking community outreach, began consulting with leaders of the Russian-Jewish community about who should be included in the delegation.
It’s a community that leans right, that’s voted overwhelmingly Republican in the past two presidential elections and, according to one social scientist, that’s bound to vote overwhelmingly for Republican Mitt Romney this fall.
But the delegation at the White House spanned the political spectrum, ranging from Moish Soloway, a former communal professional who now works in advertising and describes himself as “slightly left of center,” to Daniel Igor Branovan, a surgeon who once headed Russian Americans for Bush in 2000 and plans to vote for Romney. The delegation was also a diverse one professionally, said Soloway, who helped JCRC organize the mission, and most of its members were in their 30s and 40s.
While at the White House, the delegation heard from Denis McDonough, a deputy national security adviser; Elizabeth Fowler, special assistant to the president for health care and economic policy; Danny Glaser, the Treasury Department’s assistant secretary for terrorist financing and Alan Krueger, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.
Bernstein said the decision to hold the meeting had nothing to do with electoral politics, but instead was motivated by the recognition that members of the Russian-Jewish community haven’t been as involved in the policy level of government as other members of the Jewish community, and that it was important to change that.
“We’ve been doing a number of these meetings for the past three-and-a-half years with different segments of the Jewish community,” Bernstein said. “I’m sure — although I didn’t ask — that there were a number of people at the meeting [with the Russian-Jewish delegation] who came in as Republicans and who walked out as Republicans. We meet with people of all political suasions, and it doesn’t depend on the calendar.”
Those participants who spoke to The Jewish Week said that, while not necessarily convinced that the White House’s motivations were so pure, they’re glad that the meeting took place and see it as an opportunity for deeper dialogue in the future.
“I think all of us pretty much had the same cynical response” on receiving the invitation, said Leonard Petlakh, executive director of the Kings Bay YM-YWHA, in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay: “‘Wow, this must be an election year if the administration is reaching out to the Russians, not exactly a natural constituency.’ But I was happy that someone there was interested in speaking to the Russian-Jewish community.”
Rina Kirshner, vice president of the Russian American Foundation, chose slightly different words to describe the consensus. “If luck and timing brought us to the doorstep [of the White House],” she said, “we were all honored to knock at the door.”
As for the exchanges that took place, differences certainly emerged between the views of many participants and those of White House officials, but members of the delegation came out respecting the officials they met and believing that their own opinions were heard.
“My greatest apprehensions regarding this administration involve foreign policy, economic policy and how they prioritize which issues” deserve their attention, said David Valger, the owner of a real-estate and private equity firm.
Valger, who serves on the boards of JCRC and UJA-Federation of New York, said the meeting did nothing to erase those concerns, but he regarded the speakers as “a smart, motivated group” and “felt proud to see people of their abilities representing our country abroad.”
Despite his own differences with the administration, especially over health-care reform, Branovan said he admired the openness and diplomatic savvy of the speakers he heard. He added that, as a result of that savvy, some of those speakers were “skillfully evasive” when the questions they fielded weren’t flattering.
In addition to what they may have learned about the Obama administration, some of the participants said the meeting also taught them about their own community.
To Soloway, for instance, the questions asked during the meeting “represented a real coming of age for the community. None of the questions were ‘ghetto questions,’” said Soloway, who has a reputation for not mincing words. Instead, the questions matched those that would have been asked by non-Russian Americans, he suggested.
“Our concerns are not very different from [those of] the American-Jewish community,” said Shmulenson, executive director of the Council of Jewish Emigre Organizations (COJECO). “In terms of foreign policy, Iran was at the top of the agenda,” he added, along with more general questions about Israel’s safety and security.
While political considerations may have been absent from the White House decision to hold the meeting, others have been studying the political behavior of Russian-speaking Jews. About 14 percent of the New York area’s 1.5 million Jews live in Russian-speaking households, according to the recent UJA-Federation of New York population study.
Sam Kliger, director of Russian-Jewish affairs at the American Jewish Committee, told The Jewish Week that he and his colleagues are at the tail end of conducting a poll of how Russian-speaking Jews will vote in this fall’s presidential election. While he can’t release any numbers yet, Kliger said, he predicted that between 75 percent and 80 percent of the community would vote for Romney, continuing the same trend that began in the 2004 presidential election.