Emigres, natives serve and socialize in Fremont BBYO

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That community seder became their first.

"I didn't know what Judaism was," says Anna Sorin, 15, the new secretary of the group. She immigrated with her family 10 years ago. "It was on our passports. [In the former Soviet Union], it meant you couldn't get into medical school or college or get jobs."

Yana Vainer, who came from Leningrad, remembers her family putting Chanukah candles on their New Year's tree and blowing them out any time someone came over. (With the advent of communism, Soviets transferred many of the customs of Christmas to the secular New Year's holiday, including the decorated evergreen.)

"I didn't know what Shabbat was," says Janya Danengirsh, 17, who came to the United States six years ago. In September, she was installed as chapter president.

The three teens are typical of the Jewish emigres from the former Soviet Union. Lois Reid of Jewish Family and Children's Service of the East Bay says Fremont has become a major resettlement area, attracting a large percentage of those who come to the Bay Area.

The BBYO group, which has between 25 and 30 members, meets at Fremont's Temple Beth Torah. Most of the emigres joined Mar-Win for the social activities. But they have found much more. As their interest in Judaism grew, the youth group began including a discussion about some aspect of the religion at the beginning of every meeting. The discussion is led by the group's chaplain, an elected position.

For the ex-Soviet teens, Mar-Win is their primary — and sometimes only — source of Jewish education.

"Their parents are very much detached from their Judaism," says Cohen, adding that most of the families are not affiliated with a synagogue.

Through Mar-Win, the teens learned about Passover and other holidays, and what it means to be part of a Jewish community.

"It teaches leadership, responsibility and self-reliance," says 16-year-old Alla Tolchinsky.

And, of course, there is the social aspect. The group hosts many events — ranging from miniature golf and movies to Shabbat dinners and a house party for all the BBYOs in the region. The group also does extensive community service work at events like Chanukah parties, the Virtual Israel Festival and "Havdalah Under the Stars," held at Berkeley's Lawrence Hall of Science.

They even won an award from the region for the work they've done feeding the homeless.

As Cohen points out, the teenagers run the organization. "I'm the adviser but I'm certainly not in charge."

That means group members not only plan their own social and community service events, but they also solicit food donations for their homeless project. This summer several of the emigres went to Israel for the first time on a four-week trip sponsored by the Koret Foundation and the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay. While there, they celebrated b'nai mitzvah at the Wall.

In order to go to Israel, they had to line up scholarships and work to make up the difference to pay for the trip.

Mar-Win was started in 1989. Unlike most BBYOs, which are single gender, Mar-Win was formed as a coeducational group because of a shortage of advisers.

It was named for Marika Winheld, an assistant director of U.C. Berkeley's Hillel who died in a hiking accident at the Ein Gedi preserve in 1989 while leading a Bay Area teen trip to Israel. One of the participants on the trip returned to Fremont, help found the chapter and suggested naming it for Winheld.

But it wasn't until this summer that Winheld's father, Jay, who lives in San Diego, learned of Mar-Win. He was surfing the Net and happened to come across the youth group's Web page. Since then Winheld and the group have corresponded.

Cohen, who has been the adviser for the past four years, is seeing "second-generation" members — the younger siblings of the original membership. One of the things that impresses her the most is the seamless relationships between the Americans and emigres.

Even though the members go to five different high schools, Cohen says, "outside of the formal group they are best buddies. There's no hiccup in the interaction between the emigres and the Americans."

It's a relationship, she says, where each enriches the other.

"The Americans know about their roots. The Russians don't," she says. "The Russian students bring in a Russian perspective."

With one of the female emigres sitting on his knee, group member Ron Caplan agrees.

"There are good Russian relations," says the American-born Caplan.

But most of all, the former Soviet residents are pleased that they have a community where they feel at home.

"I know two Jewish people at school," says Vainer. "Everyone here is Jewish. I feel so comfortable."