Russian Jews celebrate themselves, and Israel, too

When Boris Lipkin came to this country in 1978 from Kharkov, Russia, with his wife and son, the three of them collectively had about 15 English words in their vocabulary. They also had about that many dollars.

They resettled in upstate New York, and on his third day in the country, Lipkin went to work as a laborer in a factory, earning $3 an hour. From his very first paycheck, he gave the Jewish community $36 — in cash — because he didn’t have a checkbook yet.

“Basically, we had no expectations about our future,” Lipkin said recently. “We were not afraid to work hard and did not worry about ourselves. We did it for our children primarily. We were only 30, but had given up on ourselves.”

He needn’t have given up on himself though. Now the president and CEO of the Fremont-based semiconductor company Therma-Wave, Lipkin reflected on his experience in front of a crowd of other emigres like himself on Saturday night, Oct. 2, at the Sofitel in Redwood City. He was one of the evening’s honorees.

“We were very fortunate to be surrounded by a wonderful Jewish community in upstate New York who helped us with love and advice,” he said. “Financial help was not important — we had extended family to rely on.”

Then Lipkin asked a question: “As first generation, we got the opportunity to build a new life here. Have we done everything we can to help other people to establish themselves, to get the help that we got?”

Some 260 people paid $175 to attend the first-ever fund-raising dinner for the Russian emigre community hosted by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. The event raised $51,500, which will be donated to the Koret Israel Economic Development Funds, a fund that is devoted to helping small businesses in the Jewish state.

After a minimum of 10 years here, Russian emigres are beginning to look outward for the first time, said Elina Kaplan, director of the JCF’s Russian division.

A common thought among these emigres is that the American Jewish community here was so focused on bringing them and resettling them here that efforts to integrate them into the Bay Area were minimal. But the show of tuxedos and glittering dresses Saturday night was evidence enough that the former Soviets are ready to participate and give back.

SKYY Vodka donated plenty of cases to ensure that the Russians could celebrate in the way they are accustomed. An array of mixed Russian appetizers known as zakuski as well as caviar preceded the main course. One non-Russian attendee could be overheard remarking, “You Russians sure know how to party.”

On a serious note, though, the JCF’s Kaplan said, “There is all of this wringing our hands about how the Jewish community is shrinking, but the potential is inherent in the Russian population’s numbers.”

She estimated that the Russian emigre population ranges from 40,000 to 60,000 throughout the Bay Area, with Russian speakers constituting one out of three Jews in San Francisco.

And while the Jewish community has so far had difficulty reaching the Russian emigres, this might be the perfect time.

“Ten years tends to be a milestone from a social perspective,” said Kaplan. “That’s how long it takes to gain emotional and social stability, to begin looking beyond your immediate needs.”

The ongoing violence in Israel is serving as a catalyst to galvanize the Russian emigres, she continued.

“The Russian community has been staunchly and passionately pro-Israel. We’ve found that at various rallies and pro-Israel gatherings, up to 70 percent are Russian speakers. So, all of a sudden, Israel has become a catalyst for the Russian Jewish community to start pulling together, to serve as an entree into the overall Jewish community.”

The event raised money for Israel and offered a great time, but perhaps more importantly, it gave the former Russians a sense of pride in the importance of their role in the local community.

Several days after the event, when Kaplan arrived at her JCF office a check for $1,000 was awaiting her.

“Someone who was there said the event made them so proud to feel part of the Jewish community, that they sent in an additional check.”

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."