It is hard to say where it is more frightening to be a Jew today, in Iran or Russia. In both countries, anti-Semitic activity is escalating to chaotic levels. In Iran, 13 Jews, including several rabbis and a 16-year-old boy, sit in jail facing possible execution, falsely accused of spying for the U.S. and Israel. Throughout Russia, anti-Semitic nationalists continually bomb and desecrate Jewish institutions, and physically and verbally attack Jews.
In response, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles puts tremendous efforts into helping Jews flee these treacherous climates, creating a safe-haven for them here. The Federation’s Resettlement and Acculturation Program provides specialized services to refugees through its network of Federation agencies: Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, Jewish Vocational Service, Jewish Free Loan Association, Bureau of Jewish Education and Jewish Community Centers. This team helps refugees become productive members of the Los Angeles Jewish community. Here are the personal stories of just a few of them.
One day in 1987, in Zhitomer, Russia, five-year-old Elina Segal ran home from school, crying hysterically, “I’m not a Jew! What is this ‘Jewish’?” Elina’s schoolmates had called her zhidofka, which is Russian for “kike.” Elina’s tears sprayed daggers into her mother Maya’s heart. Maya flashed back to when she was five, when she was first called zhidofka. “It was then my husband Igor and I knew we had to leave,” explains Maya.
As the Segals awaited their exit visas in Zhitomer, the Refugee Resettlement and Acculturation Program arranged myriad details for their arrival. They coordinated with the Segals’ cousins, the Gelmans of Los Feliz, who gladly agreed to sponsor the Segals for U.S. entry visas.
The Segals arrived here with their $314 allowed out of Russia. “The Jewish Federation helped us with everything,” according to Maya, starting with cash to cover critical living expenses such as a small apartment on Formosa Street in Hollywood.
Both Maya and Igor were trained engineers, but without English skills, had no hope of working in their field. To get by, Maya cleaned houses and babysat for neighbors. “When our Jewish Vocational Service counselor, Mary Beth Straus, found Igor a $9-per-hour VCR technician job, we felt like millionaires,” says Maya.
But 7-year-old Elina did not feel like a millionaire. Now 17, Elina recalls walking miles to school in old shoes, carrying her books in a paper bag. “The other kids would whisper, ‘There’s the little Russian girl.’ My shoes and the paper bag gave me away. I was so ashamed,” reflects Elina.
Elina’s shame subsided the next year, when the Federation granted her a scholarship to Camp JCA Sholom. This was Elina’s first dose of Jewish pride, something her parents did not possess to give her, as Jewish activities were outlawed in Russia. Hebrew songs and Israeli folk dancing would have found Elina in jail, not in summer camp.
Ten years later, Elina is an accomplished Santa Monica High senior, planning to pursue pre-med studies at college. She was selected as one of 26 exceptional teens for the prestigious Bronfman Leadership Fellowship, which took her to Israel last summer. She also has a 7-year-old brother, Levi, in Hebrew school. Igor is now an electrical instrumentation manager, and Maya has her Masters Degree in Public Administration.
Wanting to give back to the community that helped her, Maya became the Coordinator of the Refugee Resettlement and Acculturation Program, where in 1999 she settled over 400 refugees.
Taking Maya’s example of giving something back, Elina and her cousin, Paul Tsarinsky, together with the Bureau of Jewish Education, have created the Russian Coffee House in Santa Monica, where Russian Jewish teens hang out and participate in cultural programs, parties and sleep-away weekends. Elina makes sure she invites newly migrated Russian teens to Coffee House events. They may not carry their books in a paper bag, but Elina spots them instinctively. She has not forgotten that she was once the “strange Russian kid.”