A Growing Presence

It has taken roughly three decades for L.A.’s community of Russian-speaking Jews to steadily, if incrementally, gain a foothold in Jewish American and mainstream American life.

"In the Russian Jewish community, you didn’t have, until the early ’90s, any organization," said Miriam Prum Hess, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ vice president for Planning and Allocations. "Now that this community has made it as one of our wonderful success stories."

One sign that Los Angeles’ immigrant-heavy Russian Jewish community has "made it" as a rising philanthropic force in the larger Jewish community is this month’s Russian Dinner Gala, co-sponsored by The Federation and the American Russian Medical and Dental Association — headed by Dr. Ludmila Bess and Alex Gershman. The Jewish entities will join forces to host the first large-scale community-wide effort ever staged by this city’s Russian-speaking Jewish community.

Also crucial in the staging of this milestone fundraiser is the Association of Soviet Jewish Emigres (ASJE), a Federation affiliate that gets ample support from West Hollywood. Smack in the middle of the "Little Moscow" section of West Hollywood, the ASJE is housed within a nondescript office building along a busy stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard — conveniently located across the street from Plummer Park, long a social and recreational hub for local Russian Jewry.

Every day, from the ASJE’s humble, two-desk office, the mostly underclass Russian Jewish immigrant population in the area seek help in navigating through the bureaucracy to obtain SSI checks, get welfare assistance, install utilities, pay parking tickets and face other diurnal affairs that can be challenging for anyone with a poor command of the English language.

The ASJE, which also helps immigrants acquire donated furniture through its Furniture Division, will play an instrumental role in putting together the event, in particular via the participation of Helen Levin, executive director of ASJE, and her husband, Eugene Levin, publisher of the venerable local Russian-language newspapers Panorama and Friday Express.

From the early 1970s to mid-1990s, Los Angeles — like other major cities in the United States and Israel — became the constant recipient of Jewish refugees fleeing Communist Russia. Coinciding with the fall of communism, Russian Jewish immigration reached its peak in 1992, when the largest wave of immigration of about 2,800 settled in Los Angeles, according to the Hebrew immigrant Aid Society. There are now about 402,000 Americans of Russian ancestry; 72,000 Russian-born persons reside in California, 70-80 percent of whom are Jewish, according to Pini Herman, of Phillips and Herman Demographic Research, who compiled numbers from the 2000 Census and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

By the mid-1990s, L.A.’s Russian-speaking Jewish community fanned out from its West Hollywood/Fairfax District epicenter. They now constitute pockets of the San Fernando Valley, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and Bel Air, and with their population growth over the past decade has come an increase in upward mobility, assimilation and involvement in Jewish affairs and the political process.

The history of Los Angeles’ Russian Jewish philanthropy is much shorter. Observers say it does not in truth extend much before early 2002, when a pair of parlor meetings — held by Michael and Vera Landver, and by Dr. Leonid and Natalia Glozman — raised $70,000 for Friends of Israeli Defense Force, and $20,000 for The Federation’s Jews in Crisis campaign, respectively. In May, a Russian Jewish demonstration of solidarity for Israel was organized by Eugene Levin.

The Jan. 16 Sheraton Universal Hotel gala will honor nine prominent L.A. individuals and entities crucial in supporting L.A.’s Jews from the former Soviet Union will be honored: Philip Blazer, president of Blazer Communications; Vladimir Davidovich; Dr. Samuel Fain; Si Frumkin, chairman of Southern California Council for Soviet Jews; Michael Landver; Kira Macagon; the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles; Sid Sheinberg; and County of Los Angeles Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

The evening’s goal will be to raise money for the Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv, (formerly Ichilov Hospital), a Federation Jews in Crisis Fund charity which aids victims of terror from the ongoing Intifada in Israel.

"In Russia," Hess said, "the only concept of volunteerism is the Communist Party, which Jews tended to run away from."

"It’s very hard to think about community as a whole if you can not help your own family," said Maya Segal, director of The Federation’s Refugee Resettlement and Acculturation Program. Segal added that it will take several generations to see a shift of mentality from a land where no freedoms prevailed to one of total abandon; from an atheistic society to a country that embraces religious freedom.

The Levins and Segal know firsthand the plight of the Russian Jewish immigrant. Helen and Eugene Levin came to Los Angeles 15 years ago with their 7-year-old daughter. Segal came to America from Russia 13 years ago and has seen the steady, if sluggish, evolution and assimilation of Los Angeles’ Russian-speaking Jews — both within the Jewish community and mainstream American society.

Eugene Levin believes that in the coming decade, Russian Jewish involvement and clout will continue to grow.

"Before it was more a relationship like big brother and small brother," he said. "Russians were mostly takers but now they’re givers. Things are changing. This event is an example of that."

For information on the gala, call (323) 761-8226. To contact the ASJE, call (323) 969-0919.