Soviet emigres shake a leg, raise a bundle at JFCS formal

It is better to give than receive — but it's even nicer if those who give are treated to a swanky party.

Bedecked in their finest, a group of almost 350 emigres from the former Soviet Union packed a Fairmont Hotel ballroom Saturday night, danced the hora, and, in the words of one speaker, good-naturedly argued "which 'wodka' is the finest."

The $125-a-plate San Francisco event also raised at least $60,000 for several Jewish Family and Children's Services emigre programs, one of the event's organizers estimated.

"We decided to turn to the community for fund-raising so we could kill two birds with one shot. First we could unite the community, and second, raise money for a good cause," said Irina Aerov, a JFCS board member and one of the coordinators of the "Emigre Family Reunion."

"Many people here have separated to different cities in the Bay Area. It's not a community overall. This event shows the Russian community is willing to participate. We want to come together; it's just a matter of uniting. The community hasn't been approached properly."

Originally, organizers hoped to attract around 150 emigres and raise $20,000 for the JFCS' youth program for Russian speakers, L'Chaim senior center and citizenship program. Gauging by the overflowing ballroom and utterly jammed dance floor, they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

"The main idea here is to celebrate the unity of the people here from the former Soviet Union, to celebrate our success and ability, and prove to ourselves we can be more than what we used to be in that country," said Izabella Gribanowski, a television host on the Russian-language "Russart."

"Most people are well-to-do and all of us are proud citizens. That, I think, is the most important thing."

Leonard Glickman, president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and San Francisco's two Jewish supervisors, Mark Leno and Aaron Peskin, offered brief speeches to the crowd. The supervisors also presented citations to event organizers. Leno, who has pointed out his Russian connection at other events, mentioned that all four of his grandparents hailed from Russia, and his father's family name was arbitrarily changed to "Leno" from "Wicknovich" when his relatives arrived in this country.

As fewer and fewer ex-Soviets come to depend on the JFCS' services, many past beneficiaries have decided to give back — not an ingrained response within those raised in the Soviet culture, according to several guests and JFCS officials.

Gazing out at the mass of men in tuxedos and women in gowns, Ukrainian-born Rabbi Shimon Margolin described the Bay Area's Russian-speaking community as entering an "era of flourishing."

"With certain effort and knowledge, you can reach out into the Russian community. You can bring the community into the Jewish community," said Margolin, one of the Jewish Community Federation's two Russian-speaking board members.

The Russian community is "not used to volunteerism and giving. Philanthropy, volunteerism, all the things the American Jewish community stands on are still foreign to a significant number of Russian Jews. Charity is something that needs to be taught."

Margolin characterized the fund-raising event as a "coming-out party" for the Russian Jewish community and hoped the event was a first step in a Russian renaissance.

"Thirty percent of Jews in San Francisco speak Russian today. But you don't see leadership in the Jewish community, lay leaderships," he said.

Margolin chalks up the leadership gap to a lack of community participation on the Russian-speakers' part and something of a paternal attitude toward Russian Jews by many in the American Jewish community. However, he sees the crowded and successful fund-raiser as a sign things will change. And soon.

"I predict in five or 10 years, you'll see results. My best wish is that 30 percent of board members of Jewish organizations will be Russian-speaking."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.