Getting connected & volunteers | Sons of Russian migrs pay it forward

Steve Dvorkin, 18, and Eric Berkovsky, 17, have different interests and different career plans, but they have two important things in common. Both are sons of Russian immigrants and both volunteer in the citizenship program operated by Jewish Family and Children’s Services in San Francisco.

Between eight and 20 students, mostly Russian-speaking senior citizens from countries in the former Soviet Union, attend the weekly program to prepare for the U.S. naturalization exam.

The young men serve as personal tutors.

Steve Dvorkin

“It’s incredibly rewarding,” Dvorkin said. “You get to be directly involved with people, make connections, make a difference in their lives. Also, it’s fun. The students are so nice, and they really appreciate that you are there.”

Berkovsky called the volunteer job “one of the best experiences in my high school life.” He added, “I’m impressed at every class with how quickly the students pick up on new information. I can see that it would be difficult to come to the U.S. at this point in their lives, and yet they are so eager to learn.”

Melissa Prager leads the citizenship classes and teaches English as a Second Language through JFCS, a job she has held for eight years. “Thousands of individuals, unbelievably courageous people who have left their friends and their country behind, have taken the class since it began in the 1980s,” she said. 

“Steve and Eric are a huge help. I’ve trained them to conduct mock one-on-one interviews with the students, to help them practice for the real interviews that are part of the naturalization process.” The teens also provide general support, such as making copies of documents, and because they speak Russian, they spend time in casual conversation with students as well.

Berkovsky and Dvorkin live in San Francisco and both are students at International High School, where Berkovsky is a junior and Dvorkin is a senior. As Berkovsky remembers it, Dvorkin told him about the volunteer opportunity about two years ago, and since then, on most Monday nights, both young men are at the class.

Eric Berkovsky

Dvorkin is the son of Yuliya and Oleg Dvorkin, who emigrated from Belarus in 1994. The family is affiliated with Congregation Emanu-El. Before volunteering with the citizenship class, Dvorkin was part of the JFCS teen advisory board. Members meet several times a month to discuss programming, build leadership skills and facilitate upcoming projects.

When his term ended, Dvorkin said, “I learned about the citizenship class, and I started volunteering in August 2013.

“I am Russian, I speak Russian, and I want to do my part to help other Russians become citizens, so it’s a really good match.”

Berkovsky’s parents, Tanya and Vladimir Berkovsky, came to the United States from Moscow in 1994. “My parents were helped by JFCS, so when Steve told me about the program right after he started volunteering, I thought it would be great if I could volunteer too,” he said.

The citizenship test that students in the class prepare for consists of four parts: a personal interview, 10 questions about American history, a reading test and a writing test. “Helping the students prepare has given me a lot of skills in how to teach and how to work with others,” Berkovsky said.

At school, he plays tennis and writes for the school paper. He is considering a career in economics or computer science.

Dvorkin, who wants to become a scientist, said the volunteer work has taught him that he really likes teaching. “I really enjoy working with people in this capacity, and I think now I may become a teacher later in life, a professor of some sort,” he said. At school, he plays saxophone in the school band and is active in theater.

Both teens said it is particularly gratifying to see students who return to the class after completing the naturalization process. “That’s very rewarding, and when you see that, you know you can make a difference,” Dvorkin said.

Prager is certain of that. “Eric and Steve add a lot to the class, and they also illustrate how volunteerism stands out in our culture,” she said.

Though Berkovsky will be in San Francisco another 17 months, Dvorkin will soon be leaving the program. He graduates from high school in May and leaves for college in August. Prager, of course, is sorry to see him go and would welcome new volunteers. 

Those interested in working with émigrés at JFCS should contact volunteer coordinator Masha Gutkin at (415) 449-1240 or email [email protected]

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.