Russian Singer Goes From Defector to Cantor
“I was born in the 1960s into a typical Soviet Jewish family,” says Svetlana Portnyansky. “We never went to synagogue, never were religious. At family events at home, we sang Jewish songs sometimes, but we’d close all the doors to make sure no one heard us.”
Given Portnyansky’s non-Jewish upbringing, it’s odd that this interview is taking place at Newport Beach’s Temple Isaiah, where she’s the cantor. How did she go from being a popular singer in the Soviet Union to a defector who had to leave her family behind, to a cantor at a shul in Orange County?
Like just about everything else in Portnyansky’s life, the answer has to do with music. Her father was “a musician at heart” who made a living as an industrial engineer in Moscow. “He taught me piano,” she says. “I grew up with music and absorbed it in my soul. I knew that I was born to be a professional singer. So I went to the Moscow Conservatory of Music, graduated with honors and became a singer who specializes in Jewish songs.”
After graduating, she was invited to sing at the Moscow Jewish Theater. This was in the late 1980s, during Perestroika, and it was the theater’s grand reopening after having been closed for 40 years.
“I sang a solo concert,” Portnyansky says, “and my musical career took off. I became a public figure, sang on nationwide radio and television. It was wonderful to be popular, but it was also dangerous: I received threatening letters saying things like, ‘Jews are supposed to be in Israel. Go home! This is our country!'”
Portnyansky felt it was time to leave. “I didn’t see any future for myself in the Soviet Union. I couldn’t see how I was going to live that way, being threatened. Besides, I’d always wanted to go to America.”
Ever since she was a little girl, she says, she dreamed of coming to the United States. “My parents used to get a magazine called Amerika. It had photos and articles about the U.S. In my mind I was already there, from the first grade.”
The opportunity came in 1991, during the last throes of the Soviet Union: She received an invitation from the U.S government to do a concert tour.
“My musicians and I got theatrical exchange visas. I knew I was going to defect. I talked it over with my family. I said to them, ‘It’s our only chance. I have to take it now.’ They understood. They blessed me.” Portnyansky was in her mid-20s then, with a 4-year-old son who stayed in Moscow with her husband and her parents.
“In the U.S. we had some very successful concerts, East Coast to West Coast. The tour lasted two months. When it was over, I told my musicians I would go back [to the Soviet Union], but not just yet. Of course, I knew I wasn’t going back.”
She defected, and during those first few months in New York it was very difficult not being with her family. But she had some money, and she had friends who let her stay in their place. “That was the hardest time of my life,” she says. “I called my family very often. It was also a period of concern, whether I would make the right choices. I was determined not to do certain things, like wash dishes or sing at a restaurant.”
After much thought, she decided to pursue a second Jewish musical track, one that paralleled her pop singing career: She would study to become a cantor at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary.
In order to become a legal resident of the United States, she contacted the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and told them that she could not go back to the Soviet Union. She showed them the threatening letters she’d received. HIAS took up her case.
During the months she was in New York without her family, Portnyansky got word that her father had died in Moscow. She couldn’t risk going to the funeral. “I didn’t have the green card,” she says. “I was afraid I might not be permitted to come back to the United States.”
But in early 1992, Portnyansky’s family found a way to join her: Her husband, son and mother came to the United States on tourist visas. They moved to Southern California, where Portnyansky gave birth to a second son and continued her cantorial studies.
During the early 1990s, though she was not yet a legal resident, HIAS’s advocacy bore results: She was permitted to work in the U.S. She gave “jazzy, cabaret-style” concerts; and, after completing her liturgical training, she started to work as a cantor. “I was busy at that time,” she says. “My only problem was that I couldn’t leave the United States.”
Getting her green card took more than five years. She later found out that the process had been delayed because her file had been lost. After Portnyansky became a legal resident in 1996, her first trip was to Israel. Since then she’s continued her dual career: cantor in Newport Beach … and
School Risked Fiscal Peril for Its Students
Esther Nir knew she wanted her daughters to have a Jewish education. Although she and her Israeli-born husband, Ofer, were living in a decidedly secular kibbutz, Nir had attended yeshiva as a young girl in Brooklyn.
“I wanted my children to learn Torah and decide for themselves what they wanted to do when they got older,” she said.
But when the family moved to the United States from Israel in 1990, Nir was shocked by the cost of day school education. None of the Orthodox day schools she approached could give the family a financially viable offer.
“If a school cost $12,000 per year, they would go down by $2,000…. It was still out of reach,” Nir recalled.
One school implied that the family was not observant enough to be accepted.
Discouraged, the couple sent their three daughters to public school.
Four years later, Ofer Nir saw an article in a Hebrew-language newspaper about Perutz Etz Jacob Academy, an Orthodox day school reaching out to families of all religious levels, economic abilities and nations of origin. He looked up from the paper and said to his wife, “I think we’ve found the school we’re looking for.”
Located in a nondescript building on Beverly Boulevard near Fairfax Avenue, Etz Jacob is not glamorous. The furniture is worn, the walls need a paint job and the outdoor play area is tiny.
The Nirs were undaunted. The following year, they enrolled their three daughters: D’vorah in eighth grade, Ayala in sixth grade and Kesem in second grade. Based on the family’s financial situation, tuition was initially set at $100 per child per month.
Etz Jacob prides itself on accepting children who would not otherwise get a Jewish education. Rabbi Rubin Huttler of Congregation Etz Jacob founded the school in 1989 as a haven for new immigrants flooding into Los Angeles from Russia and Iran.
“Other schools weren’t accepting these children,” he said. “So we decided to take on that mitzvah.”
Over the years, immigration slowed, but Etz Jacob continues to take students who have not been able to find a home at other Jewish schools for a variety of reasons. Some, like the Nirs, are struggling financially. Others have learning disabilities or emotional issues. A few have experienced discipline problems at other schools.
“We see the potential in the child, not what he’s doing now,” said Rabbi Shlomo Harrosh, the school’s principal. He believes it’s never too late to begin learning.
“Rabbi Akiba started studying the alphabet at the age of 40, and he became one of the greatest rabbis in history,” he said.
Only 5 percent of Etz Jacob’s students pay full tuition of $8,000, with the rest paying on a sliding scale. According to Gil Graff, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education of Los Angeles, 40 percent of all day school students in L.A. receive need-based financial aid. However, Graff noted, “Other schools with a high percentage of scholarships tend to have a support base that can sustain them from year to year.”
This is not the case with Etz Jacob. The school’s liberal admissions policy jeopardized its very existence. Over the years, Huttler and Harrosh struggled continuously to keep the school afloat. Over time, debt mounted. Last summer, Etz Jacob Academy owed an entire year’s rent. Huttler reluctantly concluded that he would have to close the school.
Enter Aron Abecassis. A go-getter who prospered in real estate, Abecassis had supported the school when he first heard it was having troubles making ends meet eight years ago. Then in 2004, when he learned of the impending bankruptcy, Abecassis took the school on as a personal mission. Although his three children were enrolled at nearby Maimonides Academy, Etz Jacob’s plight touched a chord: Abecassis himself had once been a poor immigrant in search of a Jewish education.
In 1970, his family fled Morocco because of the increasingly hostile climate for Jews. “We left everything behind,” said Abecassis, who was 9 years old at the time.
The family went to Canada, but when his father tried to find a Jewish day school for his three children, “they came up with all kinds of excuses not to admit us,” Abecassis recalled. “I always felt I missed the structure and foundation of a Jewish identity that comes through Jewish education.”
In addition to donating his own funds, Abecassis created a business plan to save the school. He enlisted rabbis throughout the community to appeal to their congregants for help. He solicited individuals to provide $10,000 student sponsorships.
“We’re Jews. And Jews all help people in need,” Abecassis said.
When Abecassis approached L.A. Jewish Federation President John Fishel about Etz Jacob’s financial plight, Fishel provided the school with a $50,000 emergency gift. The gift came with two conditions: That the school undergo accreditation and that it strengthen its leadership structure.
“Providing this support to Etz Jacob is consistent with the Federation’s aim of ensuring that a Jewish education is accessible to every Jewish child who seeks one,” Fishel said.
Regina Goldman, a former principal of Melrose Avenue Elementary now on Etz Jacob’s board, oversaw the accreditation process. The school just received accreditation approval from the prestigious Western Association of Schools and Colleges, which gives the stamp of approval to both secular and religious schools. It is in the process of applying for accreditation the Bureau of Jewish Education. Nancy Field, previously of the Harkam Hillel Hebrew Academy, has been hired as Etz Jacob’s general studies principal.
In what Abecassis describes as “a rescue effort by the Jewish community,” 17 local synagogues and foundations, including the Jewish Community Foundation, have provided funds to the school. In addition, 47 individuals have sponsored student scholarships averaging $10,000 each. Approximately $600,000 has been raised, enough to cover not only this year’s operating expense, Abecassis said, but also — for the first time in its 17 years of existence — Etz Jacob is now free of debt.
Ultimately, Abecassis hopes the school will be able to build a permanent facility that would allow it to double or triple its current 100-student capacity. He’d like to break ground within three years.
As for the Nir family, who found a haven at Etz Jacob 10 years ago, they grew more observant and eventually became baalei teshuvah. Two daughters now live in Israel, and the youngest is enrolled at Bais Yaakov School for Girls in Los Angeles. The Nirs say they are grateful for the impact the school made upon their family and heartened to hear that Etz Jacob’s future finally seems secure. “Torah is more important to them than money or a fancy building,” Esther Nir said. “The most important thing to them is giving a Jewish education to a Jewish child.”
A Mitzvah Is Its Arab-Israeli Enmity Vanishes at Hospital
After exhausting the capabilities of Palestinian hospitals in Jenin and Nazareth, the mother of a 4-year-old boy with stomach cancer learned that his best chance for survival lay beyond the Green Line at Afula’s Emek Medical Center, about 10 miles from Jenin.
Quelling her own fear of becoming a target of Jewish hostility, because of the intifada, Samera permitted doctors to quietly arrange for her son, Halid, to be admitted to Emek’s pediatric oncology unit. While the rest of her family remained in Jenin, she lived in Nazareth for six months in housing arranged by one of Emek’s Arab staff members.
"She was received with compassion and warmth," said Larry Rich, Emek’s development director, who spoke with mother and son before the patient’s release last year.
"Halid, do you know your doctor is a Jew?" Rich recalled asking. "He said, ‘He’s a good man.’"
The grateful mother embraced Rich.
"It made my heart swell," he said in an interview during a recent trip to the United States.
To avoid being branded as a collaborator, most Palestinians would not admit to accepting aid from Israel. Samera bravely told her story to A-Sinara, the largest Arabic-language newspaper in the region. Her experience "was diametrically opposed to everything she’d been told," Rich said.
Yet, not even a small child is free of politics in a nation where every joy seems superseded by bitterness. When Halid’s condition worsened, Samera’s return was forbidden, according to Rich. The boy died earlier this year.
The 435-bed Emek hospital is a remarkable example of Arab-Israeli cooperation in the bitterly divided Middle East. Even so, because of its proximity to terrorist activity, its emergency room has swarmed with bombing casualties, and several among its staff have suffered disabling injuries from suicide attacks.
The hospital’s staff, about an 80-20 mix of Jews and Arabs, closely mirrors Israel’s population, where 1.1 million Israeli Arabs make up 18 percent of the nation. But the hospital’s patient population is a more diverse 50-50, where Jew and Arab often are roommates.
"Something magical happens here," said Rich, when families visiting at bedside drop their guard and commiserate together. "People begin to talk. The horns melt away. There’s no difference between them."
"We don’t represent the solution to the Middle East, but we are an example, a living philosophy of coexistence through medicine," Rich said.
Emek’s Detroit-born development director is taking on a quixotic challenge: trying to shine a light on the hospital’s good work by sharing its story with the American Jewish community, as well as the American Muslim community. His aim is to loosen purse strings and puncture stereotypes hardened on both sides by enmity over endless bloodshed.
The medical center has treated more than 800 victims of terror since the second intifada began in September 2000. Its emergency room treats more than 130,000 people annually.
Yet, anemic funding of Israel’s national health-care system has forced Emek to curb elective surgeries, hiring and research. Israel’s depressed economy has made more daunting a $100 million growth plan to add 12 operating rooms to Emek. The facility is one of 14 hospitals operated by Clalit Health Services, an HMO with 3.6 million members.
"Our current surgical facilities cannot cope efficiently with the normal caseload of a growing population," wrote Orna Blondheim, Emek’s director, in a pitch to potential donors.
On his first fund-raising trip to the United States and Canada that began in April, Rich spent six weeks going to 28 cities to describe the work of Emek’s 250 physicians and 600 nurses. In Irvine, about 75 people heard him on May 26 at an event organized by the Beth Jacob Congregation.
Rich realizes he faces a forbidding rival in the fund-raising machine of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. In 2002, the group raised $53 million divvied up among six major projects. They include its best known, the Hadassah Medical Organization, comprised of two medical facilities in Israel — the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center at Ein Kerem and the Hadassah University Hospital at Mount Scopus.
In Orange County, Rich’s sponsor was Tim Timmons of San Clemente, a one-time seminary student who has visited Israel 30 times and makes his living as a motivational speaker. Using his own Rolodex, Timmons tried to assist Rich line up speaking engagements.
"He’s not getting the response from Jewish organizations," said Timmons, who suggested he contact a Lebanese-born friend with political connections.
"I was warned not to overplay the coexistence message," Rich said. "I thought about it. I’m not going to buy into it."
Thankful Kosovar Refugees Leave Israel for Home
Never in his wildest dreams did Astrid Kuci believe that he would fall in love with Israel. In fact, he hardly knew anything about Israel.
“I used to know that you are a country in the Middle East which is constantly in a state of war with its neighbors. I used to think of you in terms of a large military camp,” he said.
Ironically, it was war — in his native Kosovo — that brought Kuci, 24, to Israel.
He had just two months to go before completing his dental studies at the University of Pristina when Serbian forces moved in last April and forced thousands of Kosovar Albanians out of the province.
Driven from his home, he worked with an Israeli medical team that had been dispatched to the Stenkovec refugee camp in Macedonia. He later found himself among the 217 Kosovo refugees who received temporary shelter in Israel.
When Israeli officials first issued the invitation, they had a difficult time finding any Kosovars willing to fly to the Jewish state. Germany and the United States were far more popular havens.
On Wednesday, 145 of the refugees were scheduled to return home — all of them now enthusiastic friends of Israel.
“All that they told me in Stenkovec about Israel is true,” said Kuci, as he was escorting a group of refugee children Tuesday aboard a bus making a farewell tour of Tel Aviv. “I was lucky twice during the war. Once, that my home in Pristina was not destroyed, and, then, that I had the opportunity to get to know Israel.”
Israel’s Kosovo refugee aid project was launched last Passover at the initiative of Sallai Meridor, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. The agency was also responsible for sending to the refugee camps in Albania and Macedonia an airlift of 12 planes loaded with humanitarian aid.
Following the successful absorption of refugees from Bosnia seven years ago, the government decided to take in Kosovar refugees as well. A first group of refugees landed in Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael on April 12. On May 26, another group was absorbed at Kibbutz Kramim.
Along with the Kosovars, Israel also absorbed some 274 Jews from elsewhere in Serbia. Most of them have returned home, but some 95 made aliyah. A group of 40 young Serb Jews now stay at the youth villages of Hadassah Neurim and Ibim in the Negev.
Seventy-two of the Kosovars — six families — have not yet returned home. They are planning to remain for the full six months that were granted them by the government and are expected to go home in October.
During the Kosovars’ stay in Israel, two children were born — Kosovar “sabras,” as native-born Israelis are called.
Kuci came here with his entire family — his parents, a brother and sister. During their stay, his brother, Pritom, fell in love with an Israeli army officer. Astrid reserved his love for the country itself.
“I traveled from place to place, from Eilat to Tiberias, from Haifa to Jerusalem. I just could not get enough. I had never imagined that the country was so beautiful, the people so nice.”
During their stay, the refugees worked on the kibbutzim and also went on cross-country tours hosted by the Jewish Agency. Some learned Hebrew in the kibbutzim; extra classes were given to the children.
Initially, the plane bringing the Kosovars home was scheduled to leave Monday for Skopje, Macedonia. But the plane needed to fly over Egyptian air space, and Egypt refused permission.
“An hour before we were to board the plane, we were notified that the flight was postponed for two days,” said Astrid Kuci. “It was very, very disappointing. I so much wanted to go home.”
To make up for the delay, Israeli officials gave the Kosovars a farewell trip to Tel Aviv on Tuesday.
“I am very excited to return home, but I am also very sad. I will miss Israel,” said Kuci, who then offered a comment that would be music to the ears of those Israelis who have grown weary of the decades of tensions with their Arab neighbors: “For the first time in my life, I felt peace.”
Kuci, who described Israel as his “second home,” also found a second family during his stay.
When the first group of Kosovars arrived in Ma’agan Michael, the local newspaper in neighboring Zichron Ya’akov published an advertisement urging local people to contribute donations to the refugees.
Shelli and Avi Mautner of Zichron Ya’acov went to the kibbutz with a parcel of donations and began talking to the refugees. First, they met Pritom Kuci, then Astrid. They invited the young Kosovars home and have been in touch ever since.
“They are like family to us,” said Avi Mautner.
Astrid Kuci echoed the sentiment. “They helped me; they comforted me at a time of distress. Without them, I would not have managed.”
Before leaving Israel, each of the Kosovars was given financial aid to ease their return home. Every adult received $200, every youth $100 and each of the infants got $30.
The aid came from public contributions made at the beginning of the temporary resettlement effort.
Astrid Kuci, who radiates so much love toward Israelis, possesses a far different sentiment for his Serb neighbors in Kosovo.
“One day they were friends; the next day they turned enemies,” he said. “No, I am not ready to receive them again as neighbors. Not now, at least. Perhaps in the future.”