Russian Jewish entrepreneurs flex their political muscle

It's every immigrant's American dream: Come to this country, learn the language, raise a family, build a successful business.

Then launch a powerful political lobbying organization to exert influence over the legislature.

At least that's how the founders of RABOTA see it.

RABOTA (the Russian word for "work") is an acronym for Russian American Business Owners Trade Association.

It's also the first organization of its kind in California, according to San Francisco Rabbi Shimon Margolin, a Russian immigrant who serves on RABOTA's advisory committee.

"Once a business reaches a certain position," he says, "there's a need for access to state government and a need for an umbrella organization for business entities."

With more than 50 local Russian American-owned businesses (representing at least 1,000 emigre employees) affiliated with RABOTA thus far, Margolin may be on to something.

Why does a rabbi sit on the advisory committee? Because 95 percent of the ex-Soviet emigres in the Bay Area happen to be Jewish.

"Russian Jews have been coming to the Bay Area for more than 20 years," says Margolin. "Today they are lawyers, doctors, dentists, contractors, travel agents, insurance agents, engineers, real estate brokers, Web designers — you name it."

One of them is Alex Svidler, a general contractor and native of Belarus, who immigrated to San Francisco in 1989. He is president of RABOTA.

"The idea has been in the air for a long time," says Svidler. "People tried to form an organization like this before, but about a year ago, after several meetings, a group of us decided to do it."

Adds Vladimir Litvak of San Francisco, a vice president: "We didn't have any serious [business] organization among the Russian community. But we knew that the more we organize, the easier it would be to solve problems."

The group's mission statement spells out RABOTA's aims: to support Russian American businesses through education, training, sharing of resources, and, most importantly, enhancing the political standing of the local Russian American community.

In some ways, those goals dovetail with the members' Jewish roots.

Gene Yakubovich owner of Mu Tek Construction and a RABOTA vice president, exemplifies the organization's Jewish underpinnings. "We are different from other Jews," says, "brought up under a different regime, with different views."

Unlike many other Jews from the former Soviet Union, Yakubovitch, who now lives in Redwood City, enjoyed a rich Jewish upbringing.

"I was raised in a traditional Jewish family," he remembers. "We kept kosher. My grandfather was a member of synagogue in Kiev, and every Shabbat I went there with him."

For Svidler, Jewish life was not so simple. "My grandparents had a minyan in their house for years," he says. "We knew they were on some KGB list. There really was no opportunity to be Jewish."

That all changed once he arrived in the United States.

"I was always proud being a Jew," says Svidler, "but I do feel more Jewish here. I was surprised when my 12-year-old son said he wanted a bar mitzvah. It meant circumcision and a great deal of study. But he did it. I was so proud of him."

Margolin is proud of the children and the parents. "People come here knowing three words of English, and now they're taking contracts for schools, hospitals, doing sophisticated business the American way."

Surprisingly, he attributes the emigre community's go-get 'em attitude to entrenched Soviet anti-Semitism. "For a Jew to succeed in the USSR, you had to do three times as much as your gentile neighbor."

That turned out to be good training for Svidler. "This is by far best country in world in terms of opportunity for new immigrants," he says of his adopted homeland. "I can't imagine anyone anywhere else can be as successful as we are right here."

Thinking ahead, the leaders of RABOTA have some ambitious plans on the drawing board. Most intriguing, they hope to open a cultural center for the Russian American community, complete with classrooms, meeting rooms and a banquet facility.

Through the center, they plan on offering classes for youth in Russian language and Jewish studies, vocational training for adults, as well as business counseling and professional services to the association's members and the community at large.

Margolin believes the future can only shine brighter for the emigres. "A million Jews came here with college degrees," he says. "Russian Jews know how to save. They know how to live in poverty in order to succeed later."

Mostly, he sees RABOTA as a tribute to the success of the Russian Jewish immigration to this country. "These people never had opportunities in Russia," he says. "They came to the land of opportunity, and now they're taking them."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.