Kohn internship opens doors to careers and Jewish service

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Washing cars in the streets of Italy, 13-year-old Alex Scherbakovsky did whatever he could to help out his emigre family. After a two-week stay in immigration lodging, the Scherbakovskys were given a small allowance and told to find a place of their own.

Originally from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), the family spent six weeks in Italy during an arduous exit process that began with a yearlong wait to leave Russia.

"Beyond the financial burden were other pressures," said Scherbakovsky. "There was great psychological pressure, not knowing if you were going to be approved or not."

In 1989, the family made a new home in the South Bay. Now 19 and a sophomore at Stanford University, Scherbakovsky spent the past eight weeks serving the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal, as one of 28 Bay Area college students selected from 70 youth for this year's Kohn Summer Internship program, sponsored by Jewish Vocational Service.

Program participants, who serve local Jewish agencies and organizations during their internships, are chosen on the basis of academic standing, letters of recommendation and interest in serving the Jewish community.

Scherbakovsky, who is fluent in Russian and English, spent much of the summer working on a publicity brochure for BACJRR and planned its upcoming newsletter.

He also joined 12 other BACJRR staffers and volunteers at a reception hosted by the Federation of Russian Republics' San Francisco Consulate General Vladimir Kuznetsov.

Scherbakovsky stumbled upon the Kohn program at Stanford's internship fair, where he discovered that interns are paid $1,500. Most Bay Area internships do not carry a stipend. When he joined the program, Scherbakovsky had no idea what to expect. But he found he was taken seriously and given tremendous responsibility.

"Most internships are unpaid and they usually involve grunt work," said Scherbakovsky, who spent last summer working as an office assistant. "This is more brain work."

The goal of the Kohn program is to introduce college students to the many facets of Jewish community work. In addition to working in Jewish agencies, Kohn interns spend Fridays together learning about pertinent issues facing the Jewish community. They also hear talks on such topics as AIDS in the Jewish community and black-Jewish relations.

The Kohn program is now marking its 10th anniversary. At the end of the summer, JVS will begin a detailed follow-up study on former Kohn interns. Out of more than 170 participants, 70 are now active in the Jewish community, either as volunteers or in a professional capacity.

Deborah Louria, director of the Kohn Summer Internship Program, treasures being able to influence young people at a critical time in their lives.

"I think it's a special opportunity to have direct impact on peoples lives [as they're] about to leave college and enter the professional world," she said. "There is no other program that allows interns access to inner workings of the Jewish community.

"One of the beauties of the program is that it offers a variety of choices from journalism to direct action," she added. "The hope is a wide range of interest can be accommodated."

The interns vary in both their past community involvement and in their plans for the future. For some, the Kohn internship is the most Jewish thing they have ever done. For longtime community activists such as Rachel Miller, a UCLA sophomore, the internship is an opportunity to get hands-on experience in her future profession.

Miller, who has spent the past eight weeks with the Anti-Defamation League, has known since junior high that she wanted to pursue a career in civil rights. For her, working with the ADL has been a crucial experience.

"The Kohn internship was the only way to get my foot in the door before law school," said the 19-year-old Miller, who lives in Sunnyvale.

Miller played an active role in launching the ADL's America Online project. She posted messages on bulletin boards about ADL's services and wrote e-mail letters to newspaper editors on civil-rights issues. Miller also got some first-hand experience with ADL's constituents, answering complaint calls and making referrals.

The Kohn Summer Internship Program is funded primarily by the Jewish Community Endowment Fund of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation; it also receives support from the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay.

In addition to Miller and Scherbakovsky, 1995 interns include Elisa Haidt, American Israel Public Affairs Committee; Nathan Cherniss, America Jewish Congress; Sarah Yellin, S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education; Sam Sweet, Contra Costa Jewish Community Center; and Ethan Ornstein, Holocaust Center of Northern California.

Also Jason Moss, Holocaust Oral History Project; Laurel Rosen and Shoshana Ziblatt, Jewish Bulletin; Ariana Garfinkel, S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund; Leon Barzman, S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation Software; Sonia Perel and Sari Wisch, JCF Resource Guide; Sarah Nelson, JCF South Peninsula; Anya Bourg, Jewish Film Festival; and Steven Kameny, S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.

Also Ilana Halperin, S. F.-based Jewish Family & Children's Services; Emily Epstein, Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay; Alison Knibbe, Jewish Community Relations Council of the Greater East Bay; Michael Abouav, Jewish Home for the Aged; Mina Kimmerling, Jewish National Fund; Jordana Brown, Jewish Vocational Service; Aaron Gross, Lehrhaus Judaica; Joelle Groch, Marin JCC; Scott Pactor, Marin JCC-Center Stage; Sharon Turner, JCC of San Francisco; Maya Smundak, Stanford Hillel.