In S.F. and beyond, Russian emigres join ranks of fund-raisers

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

On a sunny afternoon, guests gathered poolside at the country home of Semyon and Ludmila Kislin — sunglasses on and checkbooks out.

That day the group of about 100 members of the Russian Division of UJA-Federation of Philanthropies of New York raised $15,000 for the federation's annual campaign.

"For us, it's a good sum for a pool party," said Ludmila Kislin, the division's co-chair and a federation board member.

The party is just part of a bigger splash.

The Russian division has a mailing list of 7,000 and a growing roster of active members, including a young leadership wing. Its first campaign 10 years ago collected $30,000 to help bring Jews out of the former Soviet Union. By comparison, a 1997 gala at a New York hotel raised $1.4 million for the New York federation.

San Francisco and other cities with large emigre populations only wish they could do so well. With high hopes for the future, they are just beginning to organize their emigre communities.

The exceptional fund-raising power of New York's emigre community may have much to do with its size: An estimated 20 to 25 percent of the city's 1 million Jews are native Russian speakers. The success also stems from the organizational efforts of a Russian-speaking leadership in the federation, who serve as a bridge between the Jewish establishment and the immigrant community.

Attracting such leaders is a challenge Jewish agencies across the United States are now facing as they turn their energies from refugee resettlement to membership cultivation.

More than 400,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union have poured into the United States since the 1970s — most of them after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet empire.

Almost without exception, these newcomers were helped along the way by a tag team of Jewish agencies.

Now, as emigres have established themselves in American society — landing jobs, finding homes and raising families — many are seeking, in turn, a more active relationship with the organized Jewish community.

"It's a two-way street. We will help the federation and the federation will help us," said Ilya Tsenter, a telecommunications engineer who came from St. Petersburg in 1980 to Silicon Valley, where one of every four Jews hails from the former Soviet Union.

Tsenter, a board member of the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Resettlement, has been tapped for the Emigre Leadership Institute, an initiative of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and its Jewish Community Endowment Fund.

ELI, for short, had its first advisory committee meeting in December. It will kick off its first public event sometime in the spring.

"The idea is to develop a core group of 15 to 20 emigre leaders who have proven leadership ability and are interested in developing participation of emigres in the broader Jewish community," said Pnina Levermore, the BACJRR's executive director who is also serving as the institute's director.

ELI will orient participants in navigating the organized Jewish community and will instruct them in basic leadership skills, such as meeting management, public speaking and fiscal planning.

A similar institute run by the American Jewish Committee opened in 1997, offering 25 potential New York-area leaders workshops on leadership and religious pluralism, as well as a trip to Capitol Hill.

"What is good here is the understanding that Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union are not just the object of assistance and acculturation, but should also be actively involved in the life of the Jewish community at large," said Alexander Lakshin, a consultant at the New York-based Coalition for Soviet Jewry, who participated in the AJCommittee program.

In fact, requests from emigres themselves generated leadership training programs on both coasts.

In the Bay Area where nearly 40,000 Russian-speaking immigrants live, Wayne Feinstein, the S.F.-based federation's executive director, met last year with local representatives of several national organizations founded by immigrants. Those groups included the American Association of Jews from the former Soviet Union and other organizations representing Bukharans, Georgians, scientists and engineers and World War II veterans.

"They said, `We're no longer green. We'd like an opportunity to give back,'" Feinstein recalled.

One factor contributing to this desire is the area's employment base — 20 percent of the emigres work in high-tech industries — which is creating a solid middle-class constituency with the leisure and resources to devote to Jewish organizations.

Still, Jewish agencies and emigre leaders recognize, "charity" and "volunteer" are foreign concepts to most former Soviets.

"Experience shows that for Russian emigres, the mentality is different. We are very reluctant to participate in something we are told," Tsenter said.

Recruiting members, volunteers and donors for Jewish organizations requires finding areas of mutual interest and benefit, "so they will feel like they need it," Tsenter said. "It takes time."

Feliks Frenkel, a financial analyst living in New York who came from Kiev in 1977, agreed.

"Like anything, there is a need for patience. You will not get up one morning and say, `I'll give 30 percent of what I make to charity.'"

Like many of their American counterparts, most Russian-speaking emigres have yet to decipher Jewish organizational infrastructure.

"A lot of them don't know where the money came from that brought them to this country," said Mark Peysakhovich, a native of Moscow who now works as the assistant director of the AJCommittee's Chicago office.

Even the enthusiastic emigres in New York required some unorthodox orientation to institutional giving.

Many were spurred to generosity by the federation's weekly page in the daily Novoye Russkoye Slovo, which used to end with stories of emigres in need — along with postings of contributors to the campaign and their donations.

"Now people are requesting not to put their names" because they are so sought after as donors, said Lydia Vareljian, the federation's Russian Division coordinator. The page now runs reports on the division's special projects in Israel rather than individual contributions.

Frenkel was one of those anonymous benefactors for many years until the division began to plan and raise funds for a Russian Jewish community center, where the Russian-speaking community could come together for cultural and educational programs and religious services and celebrations.

"If you do things publicly, you attract attention and people may be willing to share some of their wealth," Frenkel said.

"When you receive, more often than not you feel indebted. When you give, you don't. I'd rather give than receive, as long as I can afford it."