Kohn interns open minds to careers, community

When BAJCRR needed help with a program enabling ex-Soviets and Americans to exchange stories about hate crimes, Alex Kobzanets seemed to be the right candidate. He has a few stories of his own to tell.

The 23-year-old Kohn summer intern at the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal comes from Tashkent, Uzbekistan. When it was part of the Soviet Union, the government did not advocate religious freedom, and Kobzanets says that anti-Semitism was prevalent.

Because his father put down on all government forms that the family was Russian, Kobzanets didn't know for a long time that he was Jewish. He was always told to say that he was Russian.

When some of the neighborhood kids began to make fun of him and call him "Jew-boy," Kobzanets asked his mother what they were talking about. At that point, she told him about their family's background.

Even after learning that he was Jewish, Kobzanets did not fully understand what it meant. Because there were no books to read about it and he did not know any rabbis, Judaism seemed more a burden than anything else. Once, someone had tried to break into their house after their door had been marked to signify that they were Jewish.

It was not until he was 17 and his mother sent him to an all-Jewish camp that Kobzanets began to learn about such things as keeping kosher and opportunities to go to Israel.

"In 1985," he says, "and through the '90s, people started leaving for Israel. People started asking when we were leaving. It was always assumed."

Although the situation began to improve, the family left for the United States on April 18, 1995. They now live in San Francisco. His brother, Dmitriy, is going into his last year of high school. And his mother, Ella, is working at a medical facility that serves ex-Soviets.

Kobzanets himself is one of a group of 21 college students placed in two-month internships within organizations around the Bay Area through the Kohn Summer Intern Program.

A grant from the Kohn Fund of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation has been funding the program for 16 years. According to the JCEF, the program is receiving $87,000 this year and will get the same amount next year.

Kobzanets, a U.C. Irvine senior, is spending eight weeks with BACJRR, which is preparing an upcoming local event called "Climate of Trust." The BACJRR, together with the San Francisco Police Department and the Anti-Defamation League, will allow ex-Soviets and Americans to exchange stories and thoughts about hate crimes.

The delegates will include officials in law enforcement, a career Kobzanets is considering. He wants to find a job in federal law enforcement.

Ilana Straznik, a junior at Emory College, has been spending her eight weeks at the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco. While she had always planned to become an investment banker, her work through the program has made her reconsider.

"I've opened my mind to more career opportunities than I thought I had," Straznik says.

Her work includes researching the settlement issue in Israel in order to educate Bay Area Jews about different views on the topic.

She is also updating an informational pamphlet and working with the San Francisco Interfaith Council on the city's housing crisis.

The council, made up of religious and secular organizations of the Bay Area, is working to pool resources and find out about the rights and restrictions faced by those who are looking for housing.

Part of the reason that Straznik is considering a switch into the nonprofit field is that she realizes how much help is needed.

"If we don't help each other," she says, "no one will help us. Judaism is about community." It's a sentiment that other interns are grasping now as well.

Jenny Lorch, a University of Southern California sophomore, is already a strong Jewish presence on her campus.

She's the chair of Kesher, a Reform college organization, at USC. She's a member of the Jewish sorority, Alpha Gamma Gamma. And she's been teaching Sunday school for four years.

But her internship at the Jewish Family and Children's Services in San Francisco has introduced her to an element of the Jewish community that is completely new to her.

Every day she spends at least an hour with one of 11 seniors who have no one else to keep them company. Having worked with kids in all her previous jobs, Lorch says that she can now see the community from a more mature perspective.

The seniors that she visits don't ask for much. They just want someone to talk to and share their experiences with. And that is what Lorch is there for.

"There is such an incredible range of stories," she says, "and it's my job to listen. What I'm doing is helping."

It is that sense of making a difference that is causing so many of the Kohn interns to rethink what they want to do with their lives. Lorch reiterates the feelings of a number of interns.

"Money is important," she says, "but I want to do things that improve my existence."

The Kohn program does offer a $1,800 stipend. But beyond that, some of those participating say that they are making connections that could help them after graduation.

For those who take the initiative, there is the ability to network at their internship. And it is students like that, the ones who grasp opportunities that come their way, that the Kohn program looks to invest in.

"I look for enthusiasm, leadership, an active concern about Jewish community," says Deborah Louria, the program's director. "I look for students who are very bright and have a clear path or direction and a purpose in life."

Other interns include: David Berkley, Holocaust Oral History Project; Shanna Biederman, Peninsula Jewish Community Center; Scott Burger, Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center; Sarah Dodd, S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation; Mia Elsberg, Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay; Charlie Fields, Lehrhaus Judaica; Rachel Flynn, S.F.-based JFCS; Elliot Fruchtman, S.F.-based Israel Center; Naomi Gates-Monasch, Family Education Project, Bureau of Jewish Education.

Also Ilana Goldware, S.F.-based JFCS; Emily Harris, Bay Area Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life; Leora Hodes, Jewish Community Endowment Fund; Ilana Kramer, Jewish Home; Aron Mizrahi, New Bridges; Ben Nadler, Anti-Defamation League; Becca Novack, CenterStage; Maya Strausberg, Jewish Bulletin; and Joey Tartokovsky, AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby.