Onetime Red Army soldier now a pillar of S.F. migr community

It’s an hour before sundown on a Friday at Anshey Sfard Synagogue in San Francisco. The last rays of light are piercing the stained glass windows. But the conversation among the men who have gathered here is not on the holy books, but on far more practical matters.

“Do you know the price of sausage in Moldova nowadays?” asks one in Russian, clad in a leather jacket and matching leather cap.

“Yes, it’s high, but still not as high as here,” answers another. “But the cognac? It’s cheaper here, but ah, the quality. Forget it. It’s just not the same.”

Near the men, a partition made of muted glass separates the women’s section, and stacks of prayer books lie nearby. But when Khaim Sayfer strides in wearing a tallit over his gray suit, the men, most in their 70s, get as quiet as schoolchildren.

Sayfer, 85, knows how to command a group’s attention. After all, he grew up helping his father run a cheder out of their home in Zguritza, a small village in Bessarabia, in modern day Moldova and once a territory of Romania.

“The young kids would study in the morning, some as young as 3,” he recalls, speaking in Russian, a language he learned as a soldier in the Red Army. “And after lunch the older kids would come in for a second round of classes.”

In Zguritza, as in many other Jewish villages throughout Eastern Europe, tzedakah was a big part of every family’s life. Once a month, a collection box was passed around to raise funds for Jewish organizations working in Palestine.

“It didn’t matter if they were left ones or right ones,” recalls Sayfer, who immigrated to the United States in 1987 and now lives in San Francisco’s Western Addition. “Everyone was working toward the same goal, and even the kids knew it was important to participate.”

Today, Sayfer is still giving tzedakah. He has become an ardent activist in the Russian Jewish émigré community, raising funds for several Israeli organizations, including Rambam Hospital in Haifa and LIBI, a group that funds the medical, social and educational needs of soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces. On Passover and Yom Kippur, Sayfer makes the rounds of his retirement home to collect money from other residents.

“Every Jew must be a patriot and raise money for their homeland, even if we live in America,” says Sayfer. “We must always think of our one true home, Israel, because we have seen time and time again that you can live somewhere for hundreds of years and then be kicked out.”

It happened again in the spring of 1941, Sayfer notes, when Bessarabian Jews were rounded up and deported to concentration camps. Sayfer escaped an almost certain death when he was conscripted into the Russian Army months before. He was stationed in Yerevan, Armenia, near the Turkish border. It was impossible to write to his family, and he did not know what was happening to them.

Then, in 1943, a small miracle occurred. Sayfer received a letter from his brother, Moishe, who was in Kazakhstan, saying he was alive and well. But the good news was short-lived — he never heard from Moishe or any other of his eight siblings or parents again.

“After the war, I wrote letters to our village, but they were returned to me by the postmaster, saying no one by that name lived there anymore,” Sayfer says. “When I got that letter, I could guess their fate, because we had heard about the places they took Jews. I’ve searched for other Sayfers, but there was no one from my family left. They disappeared.”

In 1947, Sayfer and his first wife, Clara, and young son, Boris, now 61 and residing in San Francisco, moved to Lvov, in western Ukraine. By the early 1950s, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union had soured so much that immigration was blocked. Even though Sayfer longed to trace his hands along the Western Wall and visit the Temple Mount, he had to do so in his imagination.

As the Soviet Union retreated behind the Iron Curtain, Sayfer found solace in listening to Israeli news reports on his shortwave radio. The reports were in Romanian, and therefore not scrambled by Soviet authorities like those in English and other languages. To Sayfer, the reports were a window into what was happening in the newly created Israel, where many of his army friends had managed to immigrate.

It wouldn’t be until the 1990s, after he was already living in the United States, that Sayfer finally had a chance to visit the Holy Land.

“In life, a person can’t do too much to change his situation,” he says. “Only the strongest people can bend life to their desire. Most are just carried by the currents of what’s happening around them.”

Raoul Isaac, 38, met Sayfer 10 years ago at Anshey Sfard, the same congregation Isaac has been attending since he was a child and where his parents met and married. He initially noticed an elderly Russian man walking up and down the aisles, correcting congregants (many of them Russian-speaking), on their prayers and Hebrew pronunciation. One Saturday afternoon Isaac decided to talk to him.

“He told me this amazing story,” Isaac recalls, adding that Sayfer is at the synagogue by 6 a.m. and again at 4 p.m. to lead the daily prayers. He is also one of the leaders of the Shabbat service, a responsibility Sayfer takes seriously.

“He really dedicates himself as a volunteer,” Isaac says. “He loves the community and has true belief. We lost so much in the Holocaust, and here we have one guy who keeps going on.”