Google whiz donates to a Jewish cause for first time

The relative calm that annually settles in over the Jewish nonprofit world during the High Holy Days season ended with a bang this week, as one Jewish organization got a big donation from a big Silicon Valley name.

Google co-founder and Palo Alto resident Sergey Brin, one of the country’s richest men, made his first major charitable gift to a Jewish organization, announcing Oct. 25 that he would give $1 million to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. HIAS is one of the aid groups that helped his family when they emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States.

The announcement, made on the 30th anniversary of the Brin family’s arrival in America, came as a welcome surprise to a Jewish nonprofit world that has been speculating for years on whether or not the 36-year-old programming whiz would become engaged philanthropically in the Jewish world as he ramps up his giving.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin photo/jta/jd lasica/creative commons

The development also might provide a boost to Jewish philanthropies facing tough times.

Brin’s father, Michael, was a mathematician and professor in Moscow before deciding to move the family from behind the Iron Curtain after attending a conference in Warsaw and coming into contact with Western academics for the first time. The family was granted an exit visa in 1978 and moved to Western Europe, where they lived for several months before Michael found a job teaching at the University of Maryland in suburban Washington, D.C.

As the anniversary of the Brin family’s Oct. 25, 1979 arrival in the United States approached, the young billionaire asked his mother, Eugenia, about some of the organizations that helped the family as they transitioned into their new life. Among others, she mentioned HIAS.

“For a while, Sergey was asking us which organizations do we owe our thanks for helping us come to the United States,” Eugenia said in a telephone interview Oct. 25, as she and her husband prepared for a small party in their home to celebrate their immigration anniversary. “It just happens that the timing was right for him.

“HIAS was the only organization that was totally responsible for our immigration. They met us in Vienna, processed all of our documents. At that time the Jewish immigrants were deciding between Israel and the U.S. We, after a prolonged decision, chose the States. HIAS purchased our ticket and got us in touch with local Jewish organizations in the places we intended to go in Maryland.”

She also noted that the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington gave the family an interest-free $2,000 loan that she and her husband used to buy their first car — a used green 1973 Ford Maverick.

Though she is currently involved with that federation, it is still unclear whether her son will become a major benefactor of inherently Jewish causes.

Asked if she expected her son to invest in Jewish causes, Eugenia said, “It’s a difficult question for me to answer. I’m not sure about his plans. I for one will be involved with Jewish organizations, HIAS and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. I expect Sergey to be as well.”

Sergey Brin was recently ranked No. 11 on the Forbes 400, a list of the richest people in America, with a net worth of $15.3 billion.