Young Russian emissaries get taste of Judaism here

Congregant David Epstein made another attempt. Visiting Pskov two years ago while on a business trip, he brought an old computer to donate to the Jewish community.

But the Russians told him the word processor was useless to them.

"We were jamming our solution down their throats," Epstein said. "So we said to them, `This is your program; tell us what you need.'"

The Jews of Pskov jumped at the open invitation.

"They wanted to send over young people" to this country, Epstein said.

Following a year of planning, two wide-eyed emissaries from Pskov, Maria Dorosheva, 15, and Masha Solovieva, 14, made the trip this summer.

For two months, they experienced Jewish life in the Bay Area and in Los Angeles, visiting synagogues, Jewish homes and a summer camp.

"My friends wanted to go with me in my bag. Now they are waiting for my presents," Dorosheva said in San Francisco before returning home last week.

Kol Emeth's social action committee and the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal brought the teens here. The majority of funding came from the BACJRR's program Yad L'Yad (hand to hand), which is designed to build ties with Jews in the former Soviet Union.

"By sending young representatives, they can be the eyes and ears for the community and can tell what they experienced," said Pnina Levermore, executive director of the San Francisco-based BACJRR.

Pskov, a city of 200,000 some 175 miles southwest of St. Petersburg, has a Jewish community of about 1,000, but no rabbi or synagogue.

Epstein said the visit's goal was "to show, through eyes of young people, how Jews live in a multi-ethnic society."

The two youths, who attend the same Jewish afterschool program in Pskov, became immersed in a Jewish environment as soon as they arrived.

They went to a bar mitzvah, made their first aliyah at Kol Emeth and met with Lubavitch Rabbi Yosef Levin of Congregation Ahavas Yisroel in Palo Alto.

While preparing for Jewish summer camp, they experienced the nervousness and anxiety typical of many American Jews in the same situation. But after returning from a month's stay at Camp Ramah in Ojai, they were upset to leave so soon.

"When camp ended, I didn't want to leave it because I made a lot of friends there," Dorosheva said.

Solovieva mentioned that before she left, her family said, "Have fun and come back," afraid she would be tempted to stay permanently.

Besides focusing on the Jewish community, the teens observed other aspects of American society — for example, lending a hand at the Second Harvest Food Bank in San Carlos.

And as spunky, excited tourists, they could not resist a little shopping. They both sought new blue jeans and Adidas sneakers while meandering through San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury area.

The two were full of shy smiles when mentioning viewing their favorite movie this summer: "Armaggedon."

"I bought the CD," said Solovieva, who then proceeded to wistfully hum a song from the movie.

They also picked up souvenirs for friends and family, including a mezuzah for one of their grandmothers.

The Yad L'Yad program, which is designed to strengthen Judaism in the former Soviet Union, is also building relations between Russian Jewish communities and seven other Bay Area synagogues, in addition to Kol Emeth.

The program, now 7 years old, picked up when the Soviet Union broke apart. "Suddenly, we found ourselves in the position to reach out to Jews in the former Soviet Union in a way we could not before," Levermore said.

"Jews in the former Soviet Union are the third largest Jewish population in the world," she added. "Evacuation is not an option. Jews will remain there. It is crucial to us to have a future with them."

Kol Emeth would like to continue sponsoring emissaries, but will have to limit exchanges because of the cost of funding visitors.

Epstein, who ardently promotes the rewards of connecting to Jews in the former Soviet Union, says concern about Jews there seems to be ebbing. "The concern should still be there. They have religious freedom, but [the government] also has the freedom to deny permits [for religious worship] despite what people say."

As for the young emissaries, the experience will likely take a long time to sink in. For Dorosheva, the time spent here will leave her with "many tales to tell to my community, friends and family.

"I will say I had a perfect summer."