Program aims to turn emigres into community leaders

The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation is seeking candidates for the Emigre Leadership Institute, a new program designed specifically for emigres from the former Soviet Union.

"The emigre community has achieved a certain status, a certain comfort here now, and it is ready to make this move" toward leadership positions, said Sofia Pesotchinsky, who emigrated from St. Petersburg to the Bay Area in 1976. "We can bring fresh ideas."

The Los Altos Hills resident is serving on the JCF's Emigre Leadership Institute advisory committee, a group composed equally of emigres and longtime community leaders. With emigres accounting for more than one-quarter of the Bay Area's Jewish population, many believe the newcomers represent an untapped reservoir of energy and commitment.

But to date, too few have jumped into the communal fray, according to Lisa Tabak, the JCF's leadership training director.

"Right now we have a sprinkling of [emigres] who have proactively sought to help out in the community, but that's negligible when you look at their numbers being over 30,000," Tabak said.

Pnina Levermore, executive director of the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal and ELI's director, believes the small numbers may have to do with a deeply ingrained resistance to community action that immigrants bring from the former Soviet Union.

"That's because of their backgrounds, the party line mentality where in order to open doors one is expected to attend meetings, vote yes. Everything is pro forma," she said.

ELI, a collaboration between the JCF and the BACJRR, will bring together approximately 15 people late this fall for dialogues addressing the workings of Jewish communal life and such issues as dismantling stereotypes of Russian emigres and being Jewish in America.

The emigres will also meet with people who have achieved success in business, the arts and academia, and will also work with Jewish community leaders to design and implement a special project.

The institute will culminate in a partially subsidized 10-day mission to Israel, during which participants will have the chance to meet with Israeli leaders. Upon completing the course, participants will be encouraged to take board positions at various Jewish agencies.

"That in itself certainly isn't compulsory," Tabak stressed. "The idea is to create exemplary leaders in the emigre community who then hopefully will want to give back with their volunteer time."

To come up with specifics for the seven-month program, ELI committee members sat down together and "rolled up their sleeves," Levermore said.

"There's a saying in Russian that in order to really understand one another, individuals must spend enough time together to consume 16 kilos of salt," she said.

"This group tasted a lot of salt — symbolically, that is. In doing so, they've developed an ongoing collegial relationship along with the innovative training program."

The new program is funded by grants from the Alexander M. and June L. Maisin Foundation, Lorry I. Lokey Supporting Foundation and Jewish Community Endowment's Eugene & Faye Barret Goldberg Fund.

Encouraging the emigres to take leadership roles, Levermore said, will ultimately reward both the emigres and the larger Jewish community.

"We have reached out and helped the emigres," she said, "and now it's time to give them the opportunity to take their rightful place as leaders in this same community."

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.