Russian mafia leaves Bay Area Jews alone, officials say

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Following a California Justice Department report on the menace of Russian organized crime statewide, some local Jewish leaders are contending that the so-called Russian mafia neither includes nor targets Jews.

But several sources close to the emigre community say that Russian Jews are indeed both members of the Russian mafia and victims who are too frightened to report crime to the authorities.

Several Jewish agency officials maintained, however, that they have seen no evidence of Jewish involvement in local Russian organized crime.

"There are very few Jews we have ever heard of who are involved," said Anita Friedman, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services, an agency that has helped settle thousands of emigres from the former Soviet Union. "It hasn't been an issue within the Jewish community."

Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, agreed.

"I am not aware of any crime problems that have arisen among Jewish emigres from the former Soviet Union, as victims or perpetrators," he said.

Last week's report, issued by state Attorney General Dan Lungren, warned that there are "approximately 300 former Soviet Union crime figures and associates in the San Francisco Bay Area," and said recent emigres are often their targets.

The report describes local criminal groups believed to be involved in extortion, money laundering, loan sharking, sophisticated fuel tax fraud schemes and an auto theft ring responsible for stealing cars from Northern California and selling parts to other Ukrainian and Russian criminals.

But Friedman said it has been at least five years since an incident involving extortion of an emigre business has come to the attention of JFCS.

"There certainly is a problem [with Russian organized crime] overseas and in New York and Los Angeles," Friedman acknowledges. But "while there may be episodes [of crime] in the community, it has not developed into a wide-scale problem. There are occasional situations, but to portray it as a massive organized crime ring is untrue."

One local Russian journalist disputes this.

"It's a paradox. There are a hell of a lot of nationalist organizations in Russia who are deadly anti-Semitic, but the [Russian] mafia is free from anti-Semitism," said Stan Levchenko, a political commentator for cable Channel 53's Russian-language news and a journalist for several Russian newspapers, including New Life and Panorama.

"They have everybody — Russians, Chechens, Ukrainians. I have no doubt there are Jews," said Levchenko, who hid his own Jewish identity from the KGB for the years he served as a Russian foreign intelligence officer in Japan.

Levchenko, who has lived in the Bay Area for three years, said that if there were crimes against recent Jewish emigres, the incidents would certainly go unreported.

"People are scared to talk. They have Soviet psychology," he said.

Rabbi Ben Tzion Pil, believed to be the Bay Area's only Russian-speaking rabbi, is also convinced that Jews are involved in Russian criminal groups, though he has no evidence. But he argued that Jews are "the brains of the mafia" in the former Soviet Union, and "here, it could be the same."

While operating the Jewish Education Center in San Francisco, Pil said, "a couple of people came to me and said if people come to you and want money, let us know, we'll take care of it,'" he recalled.

"If there are people offering such [extortion protection] services, it's probably going on," he added. "It's very embarrassing, bad publicity for Russian Jews."

Pil, originally from Uzbekistan, also worries about recent Jewish emigres who might fall prey to scams.

"Ninety percent of them would not report" crimes, he said. "They are scared of police."

This facet of the emigre psyche is also of concern to Simon Klarfeld, executive director of the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal.

Unlike other Jewish community leaders, Klarfeld doesn't deny the possibility that Russian organized crime may be of concern to the Bay Area Jewish community.

"I don't know whether these things are happening, but I would say it's possible," said Klarfeld.

"These people could be so frightened, they don't want to do anything, or they're unsure where to turn to. There's a mistrust or total lack of faith in authority," he said.

Klarfeld hopes the Jewish community will provide emigres "with a basket of tools," an education in civics that would explain how and why crimes should be reported to the proper authorities.

Meanwhile, Jewish agencies, local FBI officials and the state attorney general's office report that they will be closely monitoring the situation in the Bay Area, in the hope that Russian organized crime will fail here.