From the former Soviet Union to the United States 79ers find common heritage and empathy in S.F.

Imagine you are a 12-year-old boy: Your family finally receives permission to leave for the United States. You travel by bus from your native Odessa, and when you reach Yugoslavia, the border police call you and your family "traitors," as they rip up your passports and spit in your faces.

Gennady Yanovsky might have told that story before, but last week the Santa Clara resident related it to others who may very well have had similar experiences. They are all part of a newly formed group called the 79ers.

And as evident by the 50 or so people in the room, clearly there is a need.

"For a long time I thought I was the only person in the Bay Area who came as a child," said Elina Kaplan, who left Minsk in 1978 when she was 11. "Now I'm sitting in a room full of me's." Kaplan does Russian community outreach for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

While one of the 79ers' two co-founders had wanted to start a group primarily for those who left the former Soviet Union around the first wave of Jewish immigration in 1979, when they were 12 or younger, the vision has changed. The group became more inclusive, serving Russian emigres who came as children, no matter when.

Igor Sinyak, a software engineer who lives in Mountain View, came from Kiev when he was 9 in 1979 and considers himself typical of those the 79ers group is trying to reach. At first, his family lived among other Russian emigres in Philadelphia.

"Their goal was not to be in the Russian community and to be independent, and we ended up moving out to the suburbs where there were no other Russian families at all," he said.

Sinyak, who still has a trace of an accent, said the 79ers are really a hybrid. Often native-born Americans cannot tell the emigres weren't born here, while more recent arrivals from the Soviet Union consider the emigres totally American.

"The Russian Jewish values come from your family, but everything else about you comes from American culture," he said.

While Sinyak came to the Bay Area nine years ago, he only sought out the Jewish community in the last four years. But once active, he began looking for connections to the Russian community as well. And what he found were the more-recent arrivals.

"I made some friends and acquaintances but because they were such recent immigrants, I couldn't fully connect with them," he said. "Really, there was no place to go to meet others like myself. That did not exist. So I thought, if it doesn't exist why not create it?"

He chose the name 79ers since so many of them came in 1979, and also, being in San Francisco, he liked that it was reminiscent of the 49ers.

Last fall, he met Lenny Gusel at a Russian-language dinner put on by the World Affairs Council. Gusel, who emigrated from Moscow to New York City when he was 9, had been toying with a similar concept. The two got to talking, and ended up co-founding the group. Gusel was just hired by Jewish Family and Children's Services to coordinate programming for the 79ers, as well as to work half time with Russian emigre youth.

Though new to the organized Jewish community, Gusel has found "it's obviously a passion that grew into a career opportunity."

His entry into the Jewish community came through his involvement in the Community Leadership Institute program of JFCS. After Anita Friedman, executive director of JFCS, gave a talk on immigration trends, Gusel approached her to discuss his own interest in children of other emigres like himself.

"It resonated for me," said Friedman. "I had a special interest in this, and we were waiting 25 years and hoping for this to happen, and now it's happening."

Friedman said the first wave of Russian emigres has had more than 20 years to assimilate and become successful and it is now their children's turn.

"The time is right throughout the country for emigre children to now take their place in the community," said Friedman. "The word is spreading, and lots of people are looking to San Francisco to see what we're doing." After New York, San Francisco has the largest community of Russian emigres in the United States, and it's estimated that Russian emigres comprise up to one-third of the Jewish community here.

"We've always had a long view of this emigration, and we've wanted to maintain a relationship," Friedman continued. "We knew this time would come."

While San Francisco is the first to form such a group, Friedman said JFCS is receiving phone inquiries from around the country. For example, not too long ago Makor, the Jewish center for young adults on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, held an event for Russian emigres, calling it "Generation R."

"We are part of a generational awakening," said Gusel. "We are creating what the Russian ethnic group will look like in this country in the next 20 years."

At the second 79ers meeting July 10 at the JCF, attendees listened with interest to two speakers. Rabbi Doug Kahn spoke of his own efforts — along with thousands of other American Jews, who did things like chain themselves to the Soviet Consulate — to bring attention to the plight of the Soviet Jews. And Friedman spoke of how the community settled the emigres once they arrived.

According to Kahn, no visitor to the Bay Area from the former Soviet Union ever came without Jewish activists making plenty of noise.

"The mayor of Moscow came to U.C. Berkeley while I was a student there," said Kahn, giving just one example of many. "He didn't go to a single building on campus without people holding signs saying 'Let My People Go.'

"The challenge of the Soviet Jewry movement was such that many people thought the odds were against us," Kahn continued. "How could you pry open the doors of a totalitarian country? We were David, and it was Goliath. But you're here. We won."

Friedman spoke of the culture clash that was inevitable when the emigres arrived and the American Jews realized that the Soviet Jews they worked so hard to release knew nothing about Judaism. She also got some laughs by quoting from a booklet Russian emigres received upon arrival, offering such advice as "Before smoking in someone's house or office, ask permission" and "Americans are very concerned with body odor and personal hygiene."

Some tension arose, though, when one woman said her father, who was a physicist in Russia, was forced to adopt a career way beneath him in America, and when another woman called her immigration experience the most traumatic of her life.

But those two voices were quickly squelched by another, who suggested their parents were willing to make those sacrifices so their children would have better opportunities. A loud round of applause followed.

And further, one man said he simply wanted to say thank you.

"Thank you for the effort you made to get us here and the generosity we experienced when we got here," Boris Oak said to a visibly moved Friedman and Kahn. "You did it without expecting anything in return. Somehow the clothing and furniture just appeared. People, too, appeared to drive us around on errands and to job interviews. We didn't even keep in touch with those people. So thank you on behalf of all of us." Oak, who came from Tashkent, emigrated to Oakland, and now lives in Fremont.

The direction of the 79ers is still up for discussion. Gusel is leading a trip to the former Soviet Union in the fall, as most of the young emigres have never been back. "We will be spending Rosh Hashanah with our Soviet counterparts," he said, "and no doubt there will be parents who say, 'What?'"

It is common for emigre children to be more open to Judaism than their parents, since they don't have the negative associations with the religion. One woman even asked advice from the others as to how she could try to get her parents more interested in Judaism.

Karina Sankin came from Leningrad in 1989 when she was 10. Sankin was placed at the Hebrew Academy for schooling, and she quickly gravitated toward the Jewish tradition she had been taught nothing about, she later explained.

After a trip to Israel, Sankin began wearing a Magen David around her neck and keeping kosher to some degree.

"My parents both work in the Jewish community, and I'm proud of them in their own way," she told the group. "But I'm more religious than both of them put-together."

One woman provoked a round of laughter when she asked how she could convince her elderly grandmother to stop traveling from Fremont to Chinatown just to buy fresh tomatoes, since she didn't trust those found at Safeway.

The group is now asking its members what they would like to see the 79ers become.

Sinyak said he'd definitely like to see the group become a model for others like it around the country, and develop a national network. Beyond that, he said, the agenda is wide open.

Some issues he thinks would make for interesting discussion are: how the concept of love differs in Russian and American cultures; the phenomenon of emigres clinging to their old-country frugality even though they may have become financially successful; and how to transmit their Russian heritage to their children.

Friedman said that while JFCS is glad to support the group, she will not be too involved in where it goes.

"We want the group itself to find its way," she said. "Our role is just to support them and make it easier for them to move forward."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."