Ex-Soviet teens eager for Jewish life, study shows

She looks like a Jewish Pied Piper, surrounded by toddlers in tiny moccasins, paper crowns and pink tights. They encircle her to place their small hands on the bread she holds, following her in a Shabbat blessing.

Just seven years ago, Natasha Tartakovsky, 17, knew less about Judaism than the young ones she now teaches. In her hometown of Odessa, being Jewish was something to hide. Something to fear.

Now she commutes from San Jose each Saturday to lead services for emigre toddlers at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

"I get to pass on what I know," says the teenager, tucking her long hair behind an ear and sliding into a wide smile.

According to a study released last month by Brandeis University and funded by the Koret Foundation, teens like Tartakovsky aren't an anomaly. They're here, they're eager for involvement in Jewish life, and they're three to four times more likely to attend synagogue services than their American-born counterparts.

Of 157 emigre teens selected at random from a list provided by the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services, three-quarters said being Jewish was important or very important to them.

In addition, three-quarters have received a formal Jewish education. Ninety-two percent of those say their Jewish education has made them feel positive or very positive about Judaism.

"Many were shocked to see the degree to which [emigre teens] are involved in the Jewish community. Most people feel they are lost and don't care, but it's entirely the opposite. They seek out opportunities to get involved," says Anita Friedman, executive director of JFCS, the agency that helps settle Jewish emigres from the former Soviet Union.

Joel Streicker, author of the Brandeis report, estimates that one-third of the Jewish teenagers in the Bay Area are ex-Soviets. He credits the cooperative efforts of Bay Area Jewish organizations for the overwhelming success in giving that growing group of teens a strong sense of Jewish identity.

"Self-confidence and self-development are getting linked to being Jewish. That's extraordinarily important," says Streicker.

Half of the mail-in surveys were returned by students of Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox high school in San Francisco. The others reported taking part in religious schools, Jewish summer camps, after-school programs and Israel trips.

Asked to compare the responses of the Hebrew Academy students with those in secular schools, Streicker said there was no marked difference.

Hebrew Academy graduate Luba Golburt, 18, is now a literature student at U.C. Berkeley. After returning from a Hillel trip to Israel this winter, she began a monthly newspaper for local emigre college students.

"It's easier to get involved because now I know people," says Golburt, who moved to the Bay Area from Uzbekistan less than three years ago.

Programs like the Hillel Israel trip, specifically designed for emigres, are the Bay Area Jewish community's most powerful tool in welcoming newcomers, according to the report.

While there has been much debate about the degree to which emigre teens should be integrated into community programs with native-born Jewish teens, Streicker's report suggests that agencies should continue designing trips, classes and other programs specifically for emigres.

Simon Klarfeld, executive director of the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal, was one of the leaders of last winter's first-time Israel trip just for ex-Soviet teens.

"What we could do was far greater than if we had put them in a wider group, where they might be considered freak, or second best," says Klarfeld. "Teens can be very nasty. That can be a barrier."

Survey results echo Klarfeld's concerns about mixing the two groups.

Emigre teens don't feel comfortable with their American-born counterparts. Responses, culled from written surveys and focus groups, indicate that more than 80 percent of emigre teenagers prefer to socialize just with other ex-Soviets.

The challenge, Klarfeld says, is to "recognize and respect the uniqueness of this group while at the same time assisting them in acculturation."

This community, he says, "sees emigres as primarily service recipients, not equal [or] full members and leaders." He's hopeful, however, that leadership programs at Hillels and Jewish community centers around the Bay Area are providing "an outstretched arm."

Teens, he says, "feel totally appreciative and are ready to play their role as leaders."

Steven Sacks, emigre program coordinator for the Northern California Hillel Council — one of only two such professionals in the country — says he's seen that eagerness up close.

When Soviet outreach on college campuses began locally in 1994, Sacks says, it was a challenge just to get young emigres into Hillel for Shabbat dinners or holiday celebrations. Now, "there has been real development, real interest in terms of Jewish identity."

Students have begun volunteering for the BACJRR and other Jewish groups; one students has launched a Hillel site on the Internet's World Wide Web; others have maintained a Tay-Sachs screening effort.

Streicker's report encourages the Bay Area Jewish community to ignite that spark of interest. He recommends offering emigre teens the chance to lead and initiate their own programs.

If the community fails to do so, he says it would be a "tragically missed opportunity. These kids bring with them a great hunger for Jewish knowledge."