Russian, American teens move in separate circles

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When 14-year-old Ilya Bezdezhaskiy talks about his half-year in public school, he stares at his feet, narrowing his ice-blue eyes into angry slits.

It was only four years ago, but the bitterness is still palpable. After leaving the former Soviet Union and the only home he had ever known, the school grounds at recess became a second frontier of alienation and fear.

"The bullies pushed me into the fence, threw stuff at me. The yard was big enough for me to find a corner and hide, but I had no friends," says Bezdezhaskiy, who lives in San Francisco and now attends Hebrew Academy, where the majority of the students are emigres.

Like many emigre teens, he socializes mainly with others from the former Soviet Union. Relations with Jewish American teenagers are better than with non-Jewish American teens, he says, "because everyone shares a common bond. We're not necessarily friends but we don't treat each other like dirt."

What he's describing is the separate peace between Russian-born Jewish youngsters — who comprise an estimated one-third of the Bay Area's Jewish teens — and their American-born counterparts. In a recent Brandeis University study of Bay Area emigre teens, 81 percent reported that most or all of their friends are Russian Jews; 37 percent claimed to have no American Jewish friends at all.

"At first it's a language problem," says Luba Golburt, 18, a student at U.C. Berkeley. "But then it's a cultural barrier. You don't know the actors, shows, books that people are discussing. In the Russian community, people basically know the same things. We have something to discuss."

Golburt's social life centers around the Northern California Hillel Council, where Steven Sacks heads a program specifically geared to attract emigres.

Sacks, like most Jewish professionals who work with emigres, isn't concerned about the deepening divide between Russian and American young people. He accepts it.

"Integration was one of the founding principles of this program. But it's been much more effective to have events in Russian, to have Shabbat in Russian, to teach about Judaism in Russian."

Sacks adds, "If they're connected [to the community] by being Jewish, that's the most important thing. Being Jewish is more important than being American."

While community programs haven't succeeded in melding American teens with Russian ones, they have achieved overwhelming success in giving newcomers a positive sense of Jewish identity. Three-quarters of the 157 emigre teenagers polled at random for the Brandeis study said being Jewish is important or very important to them.

The study's author, Joel Streicker, noted "that emigre teens continue to need programming that is designed exclusively for emigres."

Anita Friedman, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services, says Streicker's report underlines what her agency has already discovered on its own.

"Integration with Americans doesn't work. The expectations have to be more realistic about emigre kids becoming like American kids. Many expect and hope that emigre kids can be mainstreamed into existing programs. But this [report] highlights the fact that they need separate programs."

Ken Oshmyanskiy works part time at the front desk of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. The 20-year-old physical therapy student from Siberia says he's learning more about Judaism every day. Mostly, however, he collects information on being Jewish from his Russian friends.

Oshmyanskiy's English-language skills are rudimentary after only two years in this country, but he makes himself clear.

"I feel better with Russians," says the student.

After seven years in this country, Natasha Tartakovsky, 17, has both the advanced English skills and the experience to articulate what keeps her and other Russian teens isolated.

Though she transferred to a public high school in San Jose from the Hebrew Academy — a Russian-packed Orthodox school in San Francisco — her circle of friends envelops few Americans.

"The rhythm of life is different here. People think differently. We were taught differently from an early age. [In the former Soviet Union] you grow up faster. A 13-year-old from Russia is more mature and realistic about what's going on," says Tartakovsky.

But like local Jewish leaders, the teenager is confident that the separate peace is only temporary.

"When people reach their 20s, it straightens out."