Israeli, Iranian and Russian immigrants learn the American way of giving


When the Los Angeles Jewish community staged a rally to show support for Israel during the conflict with Lebanon last year, Israeli Consul General Ehud Danoch was pleased by the numbers, but bothered by the fact that there were not many Israelis there.

“You would have thought 30,000 Israelis would have been on the streets,” he said. “I thought to myself that there is no correlation between the number of Israelis that live in Los Angeles and the actions that are being taken by them.”

One of the reasons Israelis didn’t turn out in droves to the rally — aside from the excuse they gave him of the sweltering heat — is that Israelis aren’t used to being involved here: in politics, in philanthropy, in volunteering.

“The Israelis here are Israeli; it’s clear to them that they are Israeli. They watch the Israeli news, the Israeli sports,” Danoch said, explaining why they don’t feel the need to be pro-active. “It’s like Israel’s TV slogan: Chayim B’America, Margishim Yisrael. (“Living in America, Feeling Israel.”)

Danoch decided then and there to start an organization to bring together successful Israelis to encourage leadership and philanthropy for the community here and tie it back to the community in Israel. The Israeli Leadership Club (ILC) met for the first time last week to discuss how to mobilize Israelis here.

Israelis aren’t the only ones living in America who feel like they are somewhere else.

Indeed, immigrant communities often struggle with loyalties to the social mores of their old country and their new one. In the world of philanthropy and volunteerism, many Jewish leaders have learned that immigrant Jewish communities also have attitudes different from their American-born Jewish brothers and sisters. Those attitudes stem from the political systems and types of communities from which they came and what was expected of them in their native lands.

In Russia, for example, there was no real word for charity, said Si Frumkin, chairman of the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews.

“There is a word, but it means giving away,” he said. “In general, people don’t give.”

Coming from a communist regime, where one was discouraged from doing anything for the community, he said, working for the individual was the only way to survive. This is an attitude they bring with them to America.

“The Russian immigrants come here and think you have to build a new life for yourself,” he said. “It’s not a question of being bad or good — it’s a different attitude.”

Israelis also come from a socialist country, where the government takes care of its people’s needs. Similarly, they are not used to a capitalist country where many of those needs must be funded by charity. But in Israel, unlike the former Soviet Union, there is an additional barrier to charity and volunteerism: army service.

Naty Saidoff “The Israeli community has been trained to be able to possibly sacrifice their lives for the community,” said Naty Saidoff (photo), a real estate investor on the board of the newly formed ILC. “They have to give in the way of survival. They give their children as cannon fodder, to protect the country through military service.”

“The Israeli community that came here, in a way, turned its back on the Zionistic dream, and they came here to chase the golden calf and some came to hide,” he said. “In my head I know that every Israeli that lives here really cares about Israel; they just need an outlet to make that energy come out.”

Saidoff didn’t let his own son serve in the Israel Defense Forces “for selfish reasons,” but had him volunteer in community service here instead.

The Iranian Jewish community, while also an insulated immigrant group, is different from the Israeli and the Russian-speaking communities.

“The Persians had a community in Iran, and giving was done — they are traditional, they feel an obligation of Jewish values to give in their community,” said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles. So the notion of charity and community organization is as familiar to them as it is to many American Jews, he said, especially within their own community.

“You can see [it in] the nature of the proliferation of causes, programming and things that are related to members of their own community.”

Organized giving outside their own community, though, is a different story.

“They were involved within themselves … their synagogues and organizations, and their own people,” said Jimmy Delshad, the mayor of Beverly Hills and a leader in the Iranian Jewish community. “As time has passed, they really became more charitable toward Israel.”

In fact, Fishel said, the cause of Israel has inspired all three immigrant communities — Russian-speaking, Israeli and Iranian — to be more involved in charity. Whether for advocacy on behalf of Israel, donations to Israeli organizations or emergency fund relief for specific causes like the war, in the past few years all the Jewish organizations have stepped up.

“The Russian-speaking community picked up the issue of Israel and terror attacks,” said Eugene Levin, of Panorama Media Group, which owns six Russian newspapers, some of which ran ads for the gala to support Israel. This year the gala raised more than $250,000, he said.

“It’s a new culture [for Russian-speaking Jews] and they assimilated to a certain degree, and they understand this is a need for Israel and they donate money.”

They feel connected to Israel especially because of the influx of immigrants there from the former Soviet Union.

The Iranian community has also come together on behalf of Israel. “The Persian Jews are more Zionist-oriented and like to help Israel a lot,” Delshad said.

For example, Magbit, an Iranian Jewish charity in Los Angeles, was founded 18 years ago to donate money to Israel. Today, more than $10 million in interest-free loans are given to students in Israel.

“They started becoming successful in their businesses and it’s a way not to forget their brothers in Israel,” said Delshad, who was the president and now is the chairman of the board. Other Iranian Jewish organizations and synagogues with a heavy Iranian Jewish concentration have rallied around Israel to send missions and donate large sums of money.

Latin American Jews Create L.A. Oasis


Imagine that you live in Latin America and you’re Jewish. Typically, you and your family would belong to a full-service Jewish club with cultural, recreational, educational and athletic activities for all ages. The club is reasonably priced, promotes Jewish identity in a secular manner and is the backbone of your social life.

You spend a lot of time in club-sponsored activities with your nuclear and extended family, and with friends from the club: Friday night dinners, Sunday afternoon barbecues, weekends in the country, vacations at the seashore — a full and active communal life.

Now imagine that — mainly for economic reasons — you emigrate from such a country and come to Los Angeles. You have your nuclear family, but you’re separated from your extended family and friends. You may know enough English to earn a living, but you’re not at ease with the language. As a result, it remains difficult for you to have a social life with English-speaking friends, or participate fully in an American cultural life — whether you’re a new arrival or have been in the country for a number of years.

And even though you have a strong Jewish identity — you may speak Hebrew and/or Yiddish — you’re not really interested in a communal life that revolves around a shul: first, you’re not observant and you don’t want to make a shul the center of your life; second, it would be in English, not Spanish; and third, it would mean spending more than you feel you can afford. The Jewish Community Center (JCC) might be a possibility, but in the last few years there has been a cutback in JCCs in Los Angeles, and what they offer is not exactly you’re looking for.

So what do you do?

What you could do is start your own Jewish organization, using the Latin American model. That’s what happened in early 2005 when the Latin American Jewish Association (LAJA) was founded by several people with exactly that idea.

Omar Zayat, director of LAJA and one of its founders, said the “drive to create this organization came from the fact that after 2001, with the economic crash in Argentina, many Jews left there, and a lot of them came to L.A. Once here, they wanted to recreate the kind of community they’d left behind, and creating their own club seemed a good way to go about it.”

In Argentina, Zayat had worked for Jewish groups, organizing children’s summer camps and programs for seniors and other age groups, so it was logical that he would continue doing that kind of work here. He’s not a hands-off administrator: LAJA presents evening dance workshops that are both energetic and sweat-inducing and where about 20 to 30 people get a good workout in Israeli and other kinds of dance. Zayat himself leads these groups.

“For now,” he said, “we have 85 families signed up and many more come when we have special events. We have the names of 400 families that we contact for these events, like movies that someone has brought from Argentina or casino night or a tango show.”

One of the challenges for LAJA has been to adapt to Los Angeles’ sprawling area, which has meager public transport. Here, a parent needs to drop off and pick up a child, which takes getting used to by Latin American parents whose children were accustomed to using good public transport or cheap taxis to navigate their own way around a city like Buenos Aires. It also means scheduling activities to fit working parents who double as chauffeurs.

LAJA divides its activities into youth, Jewish education, university student programs, adults, sports, arts and drama and marketing. Youth activities are handled by teenage madrichim, Hebrew for guides. Zayat said that “using the Latin American model, older kids are trained to guide the younger ones, encouraging Jewish identity and having fun while doing it.”

LAJA is co-sponsored by The New JCC at Milken in West Hills, which has provided office space and other facilities. Since many of the new immigrants arrived with limited resources, the JCC has permitted them to become members at a discounted price.

If you go to The New JCC at Milken nowadays, you’re as likely to hear Spanish as English. There’s an unmistakable spark of creative, communal energy in the air, whether one attends a workshop that helps new arrivals get oriented to life in Los Angeles or a Latin American-style barbecue or a musical recital.

Michael Jeser, director of development and community affairs at The New JCC at Milken, noted that “one of the most exciting pieces in working with the Latin American Jewish Association is that the JCC, historically, has been a home for new immigrants and a venue for the absorption of new immigrants into American society. And here we are in 2006, and it’s really no different. When the Latin American group came to us and said, ‘We’re looking for a home,’ it was a really natural partnership, and we’ve sort of adopted them, made them into one of our own programs, and have watched them flourish.”

Jeser said that “seeing how the members are interacting with our other JCC members, it’s the extension of a real family, and the feeling of a real international ethnic Jewish community, even beyond Los Angeles’ typical ethnic diversity. The JCC has been home to a large Russian community, a large Persian community, a large Israeli community, and now with the growing Latin American group, it’s just getting larger. And we are very proud to have this community [because] they have a strong history with Jewish community centers in Argentina, which lent itself to this partnership.”

“Having them here is like having a piece that we were missing,” Jeser said. “Now we’ve filled that void in the community and are looking to expand it.”

?LAJA is located at The New JCC at Milken, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. They can be contacted at (818) 464-3274. Their Web site (in Spanish) is

There’s a New Deputy in Town


Competition for postings to Los Angeles is fierce within the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and two young diplomats who made the grade, Yaron Gamburg and Gilad Millo, have joined the staff of the consulate general here.

Gamburg, 34, has taken over the post of deputy consul general, the No. 2 man after Ehud Danoch, and is concentrating on political and security issues, as well as relations with the Latino, Korean, Russian, Israeli and Persian communities.

Born in the Ukrainian city of Zhitomir, the hometown of the great Hebrew poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik and 60 percent Jewish before the Holocaust, Gamburg made aliyah to Israel at age 18.

After earning a master’s degree in political science at the Hebrew University, Gamburg worked on immigrant absorption before joining the Foreign Ministry.

His first major assignment was a three-year stint as spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Moscow, followed, for the last two years, as director of the Foreign Ministry’s cadet course, a kind of basic training for future diplomats.

Reflecting the attractiveness of the career diplomatic service, some 2,500 Israelis apply for jobs each year, of whom only some 20 are accepted, Gamburg said.

Close to 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, like Gamburg himself, have had an enormous impact on Israeli society and the economy. They make up some 40 percent of the work force in Israel’s high-tech sector, outnumbering all past and present Technion graduates.

Gamburg is married to Delphine, a native of France, and their son, Tal, has just celebrated his first birthday.

Gilad Millo, the new consul for communications and public affairs, was literally born into the foreign service. His father, Yehuda Millo, served 37 years as an Israeli diplomat, including as ambassador to Italy, and young Gilad was raised, two or three years at a time, in Bonn, London, New York, Ankara and Jerusalem.

He did not immediately follow in his father’s footsteps, starting off as a singer in the Israeli rock band, White Donkey, and then as a television reporter and editor on the foreign news desk of Israel’s independent Channel 2.

Millo, also 34, joined the Foreign Ministry three years ago, initially serving as its youngest spokesman. During the past two years, he has been the deputy head of the Israeli mission to Kenya and six other African nations.

During his term, he initiated extensive food relief projects for malnourished African children and was the driving force in the formation of the African Women’s Forum for Israel.

Besides media relations, Millo is also responsible for academic and cultural affairs, and he is visibly frustrated that practically all the news headlines about Israel in the United States are about the conflict with the Palestinians and terrorism.

“Media reporting on Israel seems to follow the rule, ‘If it bleeds, it leads,'” he said. “In reality, Israel is a fascinating place. We are leaders in technology and agriculture, we have great universities and wonderful beaches.

“There are stories to be told about our business initiatives, the environment, what we’re doing to help developing countries, how we’ve dealt with masses of immigrants, and so forth,” he emphasized.

Millo met his wife, Hadas, while both were serving in the army, and they have two children, Omer, 6, and 2-year-old Lisa.

The jurisdiction of the Los Angeles-based consulate includes Southern California, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming.

 

The Arts


The three A’s in “Natasha” are filled in by tiny stylized Matryoshka dolls, the traditional Russian stacking dolls,
on the book jacket of David Bezmozgis’ radiant debut (Farrar Straus and Giroux, $18).

In this collection of linked stories, the three figures at the center are a mother,
father and son who leave Riga, Latvia, for Toronto, Canada. The stories are told from
the point of view of the son, Mark Berman, who observes everything and helps interpret the New World for his parents.

Like his narrator, Bezmozgis is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union. He left Riga in 1979 and arrived in Toronto
in 1980 at the age of 6. But the stories are “not very autobiographical – they are only superficially based on my family.
It’s a combination of incidents that happened, things I misremembered, stories that happened to other immigrants,” he said.

Bezmozgis writes with a beautiful economy of words, and with warmth, wit and loyalty toward a community he feels very much part of.
The first story opens soon after the family arrives in Toronto, and they live “one respectable block” from the center of the Russian
community with its “flapping clotheslines” and borscht-smelling hallways. Through the stories they struggle and progress to better
apartments and to a suburban house “at the edge of Toronto’s sprawl.”

Each story is a fully lived moment on the Berman family’s journey toward fitting in. In Latvia, Roman Berman was a massage therapist, a
trainer of Olympic athletes. Sometimes, when the father isn’t around, the young boy takes out and studies an old photo of his father in Riga,
his face carrying the “detached confidence of the highly placed Soviet functionary.” For the boy, “it was comforting to think that
the man in the picture and my father were once the same person.”

In the story “Roman Berman, Massage Therapist,” the father passes difficult certification exams, sets up an office with his name on
the door and then waits for clients. A rabbi suggests advertising, and they pass out copies of a flyer full of newly acquired superlatives.
When a doctor calls and invites the family to Shabbat dinner, they accept, full of hope.

He writes, “Before Stalin, my great-grandmother lit the candles and made an apple cake every Friday night. In my grandfather’s recollection
of prewar Jewish Latvia, the candles and apple cakes feature prominently. When my mother was a girl, Stalin was already in charge, and although
there was still apple cake, there were no more candles. By the time I was born, there were neither candles nor apple cake, though in my mother’s
mind, apple cake still meant Jewish. With this in mind, she retrieved the apple cake recipe and went to the expensive supermarket for the
ingredients.”

They arrive at Dr. Kornblum’s home with “feigned confidence” and a warm apple cake. The doctor means well, but is patronizing, even insulting,
sending the family home with their cold apple cake. Fearing more bad luck and rejection, they dump the cake, expensive ingredients and all.

With poignancy, Bezmozgis shows how the yearnings of the immigrants and the good intentions of others don’t quite match. Other stories
reveal gaps of understanding between the family and friends they left behind, and between members of the larger family.

Bezmozgis, Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapnyar are a troika of young Russian Jewish émigré fiction writers of considerable talent. They
write of a sense of being between worlds, although each is quite different: Shteyngart is the satirist of the group. Bezmozgis and Vapnyar,
who has also published a collections of stories, are more similar in their spare, understated style, although most of Vapnyar’s stories are
set in the former Soviet Union, while Bezmozgis portrays one émigré family, and through them, the larger community.

The three follow in a long, respected line of Jewish writers who have creatively mined their immigrant pasts and ethnic neighborhoods
in fiction. Writers like Philip Roth, Grace Paley, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Mordecai Richler and Bernard Malamud come to mind.

“It’s a dream to be part of that tradition,” Bezmozgis said, although he feels most akin, stylistically and thematically, with writers
like Isaac Babel and Leonard Michaels.

For the author, being Jewish is very important. “I’m an atheist. I think that limits what kind of religious life I can have without
being a tourist or hypocrite. Being part of a community, at synagogue, gives me pleasure.” He added, “You put me in a synagogue with old
Eastern European Jews, and I’m likely to break down in tears. That is my idea of Jewish tradition and my identity.”

Growing up, he was the family’s translator and since he was 10, he would write letters for his father, a massage therapist like
Roman Berman. The author attended an Orthodox Jewish day school for eight years and then a public high school. After graduating from
McGill University in Montreal, he received an MFA in film. He worked in Los Angeles for five years as a documentary filmmaker before
moving back to Toronto.

He admittedly has a poor memory, and finds that can be valuable. About Latvia, he remembers nothing. “It allows me not to be too
deeply connected to things. I can’t be faithful to something I can’t remember.” In writing he tries “to find the emotional truth,
not a documentary truth,” he said.

Flamboyant Ballet


When Boris Eifman’s ballet, “Tchaikovsky: The Mystery of Life and Death,” premiered in Moscow in 1993, angry picketers surrounded the concert hall.

“They stood with a banner that read, ‘Stay away from our Tchaikovsky,'” said Eifman, whose ballet debuts at the Orange County Performing Arts Center May 16-18.

The provocative phantasmagoric piece explores the beloved Russian composer’s tortured psyche, especially his repressed homosexuality. His inner split is portrayed literally, with one dancer representing the closeted, anguished Tchaikovsky, and another his sexy, uninhibited alter ego. Homoerotic playing cards cavort in one sequence, while another depicts Tchaikovsky kissing a sleeping prince, rather than a princess, in an allusion to his ballet, “Sleeping Beauty.” The piece is as explicit, if less sensationalistic, as Ken Russell’s 1970 film “The Music Lovers.”

The audaciously flamboyant work is what audiences have come to expect of Eifman, whose ballets include “My Jerusalem,” an ode to the Israeli capital, and “Red Giselle,” about a Soviet ballerina gone mad.

While noting that Eifman’s company has received far more attention in the West than others in Russia’s vibrant, contemporary dance scene, Los Angeles Times dance critic Lewis Segal nevertheless praises his “talent for grand-scale pictorial splendor” and for creating “very gutsy work within that society.”

“Homosexuality was only legalized in Russia in 1997, and here he has a seminaked Tchaikovsky and his boyfriend doing male duets,” Segal told The Journal. “His ‘Red Giselle’ has a communist [official] virtually raping the heroine. Eifman managed to stage dances about religion, and he is a Jewish artist who managed to stand up to the communists and not back down. So I give him amazing points for courage.”

The renegade choreographer took his first dance classes at age 6 in Siberia, where his father, an engineer, had been ordered to work in a tank factory during World War II. In 1953, his family relocated to Kishinev, Moldavia, where Eifman began choreographing at 13 — to his parents’ chagrin.

“A musician in a Russian Jewish family, it’s normal, but a dancer is abnormal,” he said through a translator.

The authorities also regarded him as abnormal when, after graduating from the Leningrad Conservatory, he founded his own company in 1977 to create “absolutely nontraditional work that broke the canon of Soviet ballet.”

While audiences cheered his unorthodox mix of contemporary movement and Freudian drama, the cultural commissars disapproved. They nixed his funding and forbade him from touring outside the U.S.S.R, forcing Eifman, now 58, to scrape by on ticket sales in the provinces. They also pressured him to leave the country: “They said, ‘You’re not a Soviet choreographer; better you should go to Israel,'” Eifman recalled.

The harassment included anti-Semitism, even though the choreographer felt “this is my culture; it’s just like a difficult relationship in a family.”

So he chose to remain in the U.S.S.R., although he took the first opportunity to visit Israel, when Perestroika hit in 1989.

Walking around the capital, Eifman said, spurred “My Jerusalem,” in which three soloists personify Judaism, Christianity and Islam co-existing in one place.

“I wanted to show that God created this city to show a model of love,” he said.

Four years later, Eifman focused on Russian culture when he holed up in the St. Petersburg library to research a piece on his favorite composer, Tchaikovsky. He pored over diaries and letters in which the musician described his unhappy marriage and a suicide attempt.

“My whole life I wondered why he composed such tragic music, and I learned it was because he lived a double life,” Eifman said. “He was a religious man, and he thought his sexuality was his personal tragedy. I decided two dancers could show the conflict between his soul and his body.”

When “Tchaikovsky” premiered in New York during the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg’s triumphant 1998 United States debut, not a single picketer surrounded the concert hall. Instead, excited Russian immigrants lined up to see their favorite company, along with expectant dance critics.

After the first performance, The New York Times’ Anna Kisselgoff wrote that “you won’t find such daring actor-dancers anywhere else, not even in other Russian companies.”

Eifman traces his success to his dual cultural roots. “I make Russian ballets with a Jewish soul,” he said.

Tickets, $20-$65, are available at (714) 556-2787, ext.6677; online at www.ocpac.org ; and through Ticketmaster, (714) 740-7878 or (213) 365-3500.

The Russian Club


What the Russian Jewish immigrants of Orange County lack in numbers they make up for in passion.

There are between 3,000-10,000 Russian Jewish immigrants in Orange County — no one is quite sure of the exact number.

Most of these newcomers have only a slight connection to the larger Jewish immigrant community. They may run into each other at the only Russian deli in Orange County or come to a concert at the Russian Club that meets once a month at the Jewish Community Center in Costa Mesa.

But other immigrants make a point to reach out and stay connected.

Some six decades ago, Olga Filatova was a 19-year-old medic in the Red Army, tending to wounded soldiers on the front lines. Later she finished medical school, had a successful career as a physician and eventually settled in Orange County. Ten years ago, she and a few others founded the Orange County organization of war veterans from the Soviet Union. “They voted me in as president 10 years ago and they keep re-electing me every year,” Filatova said. “I guess they like me.”

There is also, she acknowledges, a smaller pool from which to choose.

“We have about 300 members now,” Filatova said. “When we started there were 475, but so many have died. We are old.”

Filatova doesn’t sound old. Her voice is strong, energetic, full of life. She laughs readily, as she is now, when I ask her how old she is. “I spoke to a man in New York who had written a book about veterans organizations and he asked me the same question. I told him that I was 80. He said that I was just a kid, that he was 104 and writing books. You don’t get old when there are things to be done.”

The Red Army veterans are an integral part of the Russian Club — they provide much of the talent at the monthly meetings. There are skits, singers, poetry readings and, once in a while, a performance by an invited violinist or pianist.

“I am very happy in America,” Filatova told me. “We have a good organization. We have people in charge of artistic matters, of collecting dues or planning trips. And we have one person” — her voice lowered — “who takes care of the funerals. This too has to be done, you know.”

The Russian Club has 95 dues-paying members, according to club leader Olga Dubnikova. But, she said, many nonmembers come to the events, which include ballet performances by students who are taught at a nearby ballet school by non-Jewish former Soviet dancers. There is an English-language preschool at the Jewish Community Center, but only two immigrant children go there. From time to time there were efforts to create a facility to teach Russian to the children and grandchildren of immigrants but nothing really worked. Most kids speak very little Russian, even fewer are able to read or write it.

I told Dubnikova that Americans always like to tell me that their grandparents came from this or that Russian gubernia, an archaic term for a geographic division that has not been in use since the 1917 revolution. It is rare for them to know anything else about their heritage.

She laughed, sadly. “Yes, our children will also grow up knowing little about their background, where they came from. There is little we can do about it. We do what we can, but this is America, after all. It would be nice if we could have someone give lectures on the history of Russian Jews, on what was done for us so that we could emigrate. We know so little.”

The Russian Club makes an attempt to celebrate the Jewish holidays and will probably have a High Holidays service if a rabbi can be found to conduct it.

“Synagogues? I really don’t know how many of us have joined synagogues here. The Russian Club is mostly old people — the younger ones don’t really come here. I don’t know if they go to American synagogues.”

Dubnikova told me that they had Passover seders in Russian at the center, conducted by Chaim Marcus, a young American businessman from a rabbinical family who had spent several years in the Ukraine. He provided Russian haggadot, matzah and led the services.

“If we want to see a Jewish concert by a group from Russia that is touring California or go to a Jewish museum, we have to go to Los Angeles. Very few come to Orange County. And, of course, there is the question of money. We pay $2 a month in dues, but we also send packages to Russia and make contributions for Israel so that there is really no way we can rent a bus or pay for the tickets for our members.”

Dubnikova tells me that the club had placed an ad in the Jewish paper but that the response was very minimal.

“But what about your children? They are all working and making money, aren’t they?” I asked.

“Yes, they work, of course, they work, but they pay taxes, they have families, they have expenses, you know,” she said defensively.

“But so do the Americans, right? And they give to good causes. Why not the Russians? Why can’t a Russian doctor write a check for a thousand or so?” I ask.

“Who knows,” she said. “Our people just don’t. No one will write a check like that. I know the Armenians take care of their own and the Vietnamese, and even the Iranian Jews. But our people are less willing, they just aren’t used to it, I guess.”

The New Melones Murders


The New Melones Lake, a reservoir near the city of Modesto, is in a quiet, rural area in central California. The reservoir resembles a river more than a lake as it winds its way among the hills of Calaveras and Tuolumne counties.

The reservoir is a popular fishing area, but in the middle of March its catch of the day wasn’t fish: It was four decomposed bodies of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who were kidnapped from the Los Angeles area.

The grim discovery sent waves of shock and disbelief through the Los Angeles Russian-speaking community. It was as if a violent script of a Hollywood movie was suddenly real. A kidnapping plot involving millions of dollars, exotic countries sheltering criminals and serving as transfer points for the ransoms, players within the movie industry, and, finally, four — maybe five — brutal murders that made no sense. As more information becomes available and wild rumors embellish what is known, the immigrants are concerned with yet another issue: labels.

"The media will start talking about the Russian Mafia again," said a prominent physician. "In Russia we were not Russians, we were Jews. Here, to the media, to the Americans, we are all the same, we are all ‘Russians.’ People don’t realize that so many of the Russian-speaking immigrants are not Jewish, that there are so many non-Jews — Christians, Muslims, whatever — who have come here. And now we will all be tarred with the same brush — we will all be Russian mafia."

Helen Levin, the director of the West Hollywood Russian Community Center agreed. "Of the four victims that were found last week, two were Jewish, two were not. Of those arrested, just one appears to be Jewish — the others are Lithuanian, Ukrainian and non-Jewish Russian. But it doesn’t matter — they will say that it was the ‘Russians’ and we will all be suspect."

The story began over a year ago when two individuals came to Los Angeles from Moscow. They wanted to produce a motion picture about Murat, a legendary rebel who fought the Russians when the czar conquered the Caucasus Mountains region. The visitors claimed to have $50 million for the budget.

They met with several of the better-known Hollywood producers, directors and actors, but when it became obvious that the pair had a lot less than $50 million — just $15 million is the figure spoken of now — the project was abandoned. One of the Russians returned home, the other decided that he liked California and wanted to stay here. His name was Georgy Safiev.

One of the people Safiev approached for help was Rita Pekler, an accountant who helped Safiev get a permanent residence permit, establish a business and buy an expensive home in Beverly Hills.

Meanwhile, Safiev kept trying to penetrate the movie industry. He too was seen as a Russian by the Americans he met, but he was neither Russian nor Jewish. His background was Lesghin — one of the many ethnicities in the Caucasus Mountains — and he became friendly with another family whose roots were in the Caucasus — the famous Georgian movie star, the beautiful Rusiko Kiknadze (a relative of Georgia’s President Eduard Shevarnadze) and her 29-year-old son, Nick Kharabadze. Kiknadze’s husband, a specialist in motion picture technology both in Russia and in the United States, Matvey (Mat) Shatz was the only Jew in this group.

Nick was a very talented, charismatic USC graduate and an aspiring movie producer. He apparently persuaded Safiev to bankroll a movie he wanted to produce. He shared the news with his good friend Alex Umansky, another young man with hopes of a career in the film industry, and the two of them told anyone who would listen about Nick’s windfall. The story of Safiev’s wealth — money he had brought with him from Russia — and Nick’s fortune, apparently excited the four men who are currently being charged in the New Melones murders. Ainar Altmanas (the only one with a Jewish surname), Jurijus Kadamovas (a Lithuanian), Petro Krylov (a Ukrainian) and Yuri Mikhel (unknown background) are charged with kidnapping Georgy Safiev on Jan. 20, Umansky on Dec. 13, and Pekler and Kharabadze in early December.

Pekler was still alive after Dec. 5 when she called Safiev and asked to see him right away — Safiev was about to get on a plane and couldn’t see her. Kharabadze also made a phone call after disappearing. He called his home to say that he was OK, in Las Vegas and not to worry. A little later he apparently withdrew a large sum of money from his bank account. A surveillance tape shows him being accompanied by a man who was watching him very closely.

The kidnappers allegedly demanded a $5 million ransom for Safiev and $250,000 for Umansky. At least $1 million of the ransom was allegedly transferred from Moscow to the United Arab Emirates and Dubai, the location of two other suspects, Andrei Augeev and Andrei Liapine, who were allegedly supposed to remit that money to the kidnappers.

One of the mysteries in the case is the death of a nonimmigrant, Meyer Muscatel of Sherman Oaks, a religious Jew, a real estate developer and a man who dreamed of setting up learning centers for disabled children. The fact that his body was found floating in New Melones Lake and that Pekler was the accountant for both Muscatel and Safiev are the only connections between his death on Oct. 13 and the disappearances of the four immigrants two to three months later.

The trial of the four kidnapping suspects and their alleged accomplices is sure to be a media circus. We can only hope that it will not serve to generate anti-immigrant feelings against the law-abiding Russian-speaking community.

Golan Under Development


What is the safest place in Israel?

The answer, according to Ronnie Lotan, is the Golan, which hasn’t had a single terrorist incident since the Heights, captured in 1967, were formally annexed to Israel 20 years ago.

Lotan, an avuncular looking man of 55, was in town to help organize Monday’s tribute dinner to Jerry Weintraub, the first major fundraiser for the year-old Golan Fund. Lotan, the fund’s president, says that his relatively modest goal for the next three years is to raise $3 million, with three projects topping the list.

Natura Village, a residential and social home for some100 adults with mental and behavioral problems, due to open in July.

Ohalo College in Qatzrin, capital of the Golan Heights,and the only college in Israel’s far North. Scholarships will help trainteachers in physical education and fitness.

Fellowships and scholarships for the Golan ResearchInstitute, which promotes knowledge and economic development of the region.

Cost of these and all other development projects are split — with the Israeli government paying two-thirds, and the Golan Fund providing the remainder.

A native of Tel Aviv, Lotan moved to the Golan in 1968 and now lives in Kibbutz Mevo Hama, one of 32 communities on the Golan. The region now has a population of 18,000, of whom some 7,000 live in Qatzrin. About 45 percent of Qatzrin’s residents are Russian emigrants. The Golan, which has no Arab residents, is an integral part of Israel, in contrast to the Jewish towns and settlements in the territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Fortunately, the region has been able to avoid the sharp ideological and religious confrontations plaguing much of the rest of Israel.

About one-third of the residents are observant Jews (though there are no enclaves of fervently Orthodox) and two-thirds are secular. There is one unified school system and kibbutzim and moshavim operate under a joint governing council. Lotan cites as the Golan’s biggest concern a slow drain of young people to the cities, where job opportunities are more varied and plentiful. One of his main goals is to create more good jobs in the region to staunch the drain and attract newcomers.

The father of seven children, Lotan declares proudly that five have remained on the Golan — the other two couldn’t find the right jobs.

For more information on the Golan Fund, check its Website at www.golanfund.org