Russian Jews strengthen Bay Areas Jewish community

It’s probably not gracious to bring up a subject and say: “I told you so.” But what I am about to recount goes a long way back.

It was 16 years ago, when I read an article in what was then the Jewish Bulletin by Josef Goell, a Jerusalem Post writer, analyzing Russian Jews.

Goell, not a Russian émigré himself, had strong opinions about them, sometimes not very favorable, especially about their participation in the Jewish community. He called them “passive, not involved” and “not interested in the life of the Jewish community.” I strongly disagreed with him and wrote a response that was published in August of 1989 in the Jewish Bulletin.

“Let’s not paint Soviet emigration only in dark colors,” read the title. I rebutted Goell on many points concerning Russian émigrés. I argued that Jewish émigrés from the Soviet Union do care and do support the Jewish community. Strongly optimistic and undoubtedly hinting at the future: “you’ll see … “

I had no idea how much my hopeful and optimistic view would be surpassed.

Today, it’s long overdue for us to notice where Russian émigrés stand in the life of our Jewish community.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, there are more then 35,000 Russian Jews, one of the largest and most successful immigrant groups in the United States. We have representatives involved in all Bay Area Jewish organizations, and Russian Jews are on the boards of directors of almost every major Jewish organization.

Private fund-raising for victims of terrorist attacks, volunteer missions for building in Israel, support of local Jewish organizations in annual fund-raising, contributions to many diverse charities — these are only a few examples of the increasing activity of Russian Jews. And, in my opinion, setting the example locally and nationally is one of the most inspiring and active groups of Russian émigrés — a growing group that has gathered under the auspices of Jewish Family & Children’s Services (JFCS).

If someone asked me why JCFS, the answer is simple — with JFCS we feel at home. To us it is an organization which for over 150 years has stayed completely focused on a mission of helping people in need. It’s at JFCS, where the word “mitzvah” has its clearest meaning — helping others. It’s at JFCS where most of us, as newcomers from the Soviet Union, always received a helping hand, a friendly smile, advice and help from Gayle Zahler, director of the emigré department, and her staff. They helped

us to take our first steps on American soil.

It’s here, where plans for fund-raising and an annual emigré community fund-raising party were born. It’s here where the personal involvement, inspirational speeches and true leadership of Anita Friedman, executive director of JFCS, helped to energize our entire Russian émigré community and to get us involved in Jewish organizational life.

The purpose of our efforts is to do our part to help the Jewish community. We are providing additional, always badly-needed, funds for elderly, teen programs, student scholarships in the Bay Area and Israel, health care and many others. We are seeing the emigré community grow in strength and cohesion, and the annual emigré community fund-raiser is a way to bring the community together, to raise awareness of the hardship that is still around us and to give something back to the community that helped us.

As a member of this community I am proud to be a part of that effort. It’s a privilege to know and be associated with many extraordinary people, whose remarkable involvement in the Jewish community should be noticed, for example: Manny Kagan, one of the first émigré members of the board of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation; Marina Tikhman, who for over 15 years has been an ardent supporter of JFCS, past émigré community party chair and board member of AIPAC; Galina Miloslavsky, member of the JFCS board, chair of the JFCS Loans and Grant Committee and past émigré community party chair; and Leonard Mezhvinsky, who shares his business success with the community, by hiring many émigrés, and is a recipient of the Employer of the Year award from Jewish Vocational Services. The list of people could be quite long.

On Feb. 4, we will gather for our fifth annual emigré community party. We invite you to join us, old and new sponsors and guests, Russian and American-born, Jewish and non-Jewish. Join us for a celebration — a show of a good will, where former citizens of an “evil empire,” who never knew what it meant to share with a stranger, will do mitzvot by opening their hearts to people in need.

In the end, this is not an argument with Goell who described Soviet Jews “only in dark colors.” It’s the culmination of a debate that started 16 years ago. Will Russian Jews take their place in the Jewish Community and make it stronger? Yes. Russian émigrés did well, and it’s time to notice. We are building the life of the Jewish community and we are the Jewish community.

Peter Kogan is a Russian émigré who came to United States 25 years ago and lives in San Mateo. He is a principal of a consulting engineering firm and a co-chair of the 2006 JFCS émigré fund-raising party.