S.F. Soviet Jewry advocate Klarfeld leaves for Brandeis

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Simon Klarfeld, executive director of the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal in San Francisco, is packing his bags this month and heading east to Brandeis University.

At the Waltham, Mass., campus, Klarfeld will direct the Genesis program, a newly formed education project for high school students that will integrate Jewish studies, humanities and the arts in a summer university setting.

The project, funded by Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons' Foundation, is set to begin next summer.

Klarfeld, who will help develop the curriculum, envisions a program that easily weaves Jewish studies into everyday life. During a lesson on law, for example, an American legal scholar might address the students alongside an expert on traditional Jewish law.

"It is an integrated model," Klarfeld said. "Rather than relegating Jewish studies to the morning and secular studies to the afternoon, this will show the relevance of Judaism to every aspect of contemporary life. It is a very, very exciting project."

Brandeis is familiar turf to the 29-year-old London native. He received his master's degree in Jewish communal service at the school and may, in fact, teach in that program during his upcoming stint at the university.

At Brandeis, he will also be affiliated with the Nathan Perlmutter Institute for Jewish Advocacy, which together with the BACJRR recently co-authored a first-of-its-kind survey of Russian Jews' experiences with anti-Semitism in St. Petersburg.

At the Perlmutter Institute, Klarfeld will assist in training Jewish community professionals and lay leaders in advocacy skills, working specifically, he said, to keep the issue of Soviet Jews high on the Jewish agenda.

When Klarfeld joined the BACJRR two years ago, he was already a seasoned activist who had rallied in Britain for refuseniks and visited the former Soviet Union 20 times, training Jewish leaders there in education skills and youth work and founding an anti-fascist magazine called Challenge.

He continued his efforts in San Francisco, using programs, public-speaking engagements and the media to spotlight not only the emigration issues and anti-Semitism that linger for Jews post-glasnost, but also the challenges — and triumphs — facing those who choose to remain in Russia.

Among the programs he initiated and touted here are a major emergency food drive for economically deprived Jews of Ukraine and a project that "twins" local synagogues with Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union. The latter program enables Northern California Jews to assist their counterparts financially and otherwise.

He also involved the BACJRR in founding a St. Petersburg Jewish Community Center, which now serves as a home base for the community's growing cultural and educational institutions.

Those who know Klarfeld say he is an activist who brings passion and articulate intelligence to his fight for Soviet Jewry.

"What Simon really is is a visionary," said BACJRR board president Sheldon Wolfe. "He is always looking for new and better ways to enhance the well-being of Jews remaining in the former Soviet Union. Our community is losing a tremendous asset."

But though Klarfeld is leaving the BACJRR, he is determined to remain entrenched in the Soviet Jewry movement.

"My day-to-day work with Jews in the former Soviet Union still remains an incredible passion of mine," he said. "I will certainly maintain that at Brandeis, but in a slightly less direct manner."

A national search for Klarfeld's replacement is currently under way; in the meantime, BACJRR staff members will share his duties.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.