When the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks suddenly put Afghanistan in the headlines and people searched their atlases for the bordering countries of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, Dr. Robert J. Meth had the answers.
He not only knew where the three former Soviet republics were located, but the names of their presidents, gross national product and ethnic composition, as well as the number of resident Jews and how many had immigrated to Israel the previous year.
Meth, a family physician at Kaiser Permanente, came by this arcane knowledge as the newly elected president of what used to be the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, and now goes under the unwieldy name of NCSJ: Advocates on behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia.
As one of its major educational projects, NCSJ puts out a regularly updated compilation of facts and analyses on each of the 15 countries that once made up the Soviet Union. For instance, under the Republic of Uzbekistan, there is a concise listing of its population, economy, leaders, history, current political situation and foreign policy, relations with the United States, Jewish communal life and extent of anti-Semitism.
The gathering of this information is an important byproduct of NCSJ's active relationships with the governments and Jewish communities of each of the 15 republics.
"In the old days, we used to demonstrate daily outside the Soviet Embassy in Washington to demand free emigration for Jews," recalled the 47-year-old Meth. Now, the protesters are welcome guests at the embassy of the Russian Federation and other successor states.
This new affability found expression last November, when eight NCSJ leaders, including Meth, met in Washington with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
What had been billed as a brief photo opportunity, stretched into a 25-minute meeting, during which Putin wowed his audience by declaring, according to Meth, "I have been speaking at synagogues, I have been at openings of Jewish community centers, I have cut ribbons -- the only thing I haven't done is get a circumcision."
Given all this bonhomie, is there still any need for an organization like the NCSJ or for an equally active grass-roots organization, the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union?
Yes, said Meth, noting, "However impressed we are by Putin now, Russia has always been unpredictable, as has Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. There is a need for constant watchfulness, and we serve as a watchdog.
"One of our important tasks, is to make sure that the international Jewish organizations, such as the Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency, can do their work unhindered. These organizations cannot get involved in political work, but we can," he said.
Meth, now serving a two-year term as NCSJ president, is the kind of all-around activist Jewish communities cherish.
The son of refugees from Poland and Austria, he was a United Synagogue Youth leader in his native New Jersey. He has given a course on "Notable Jewish Leaders" at the University of Judaism, served as resident physician at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute and is a member of Sinai Temple. After moving to Los Angeles, he made his first trip to the Soviet Union in 1987 with a United Jewish Appeal Young Leadership group.
Meth was deeply moved by his meetings with refuseniks in Moscow and Leningrad, which he described as "the most meaningful experience in my life." On his return, he became involved with the Soviet Jewry Committee of the Jewish Community Relations Committee and with the NCSJ.
He represents the NCSJ in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and is the only one of its 54 members to reside west of Omaha.
How does he do it? He said it helps that he is a bachelor and that his employer, Kaiser Permanente, "has been pretty good to me." He uses his vacation time for working overseas trips and, when needed, takes time off without pay.
Despite massive emigration to Israel and the United States, Meth estimated that there are still1.5 million to 2 million Jews in the former Soviet Union, of whom 500,000-600,000 live in Russia and 300,000-400,000 in the Ukraine.
NCSJ was created in 1971 and describes itself as the "central coordinating agency of the organized American Jewish community" for activities on behalf of Jews in the former Soviet Union. In this work, it represents nearly 50 national Jewish organizations and 300 local federations and community councils.
The organization operates on an annual budget of around $600,000 with most of the funding coming from the United Jewish Communities, an annual Chanukah appeal and private donors.
An even older Soviet Jewry advocacy organization is the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, founded in 1970, and now known as just the Union of Councils or the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union.
This organization, headed by Yosef I. Abramowitz, emphasizes its grass-roots origin and activism. It supports eight bureaus in the former Soviet Union and its headquarters in Washington seeks to prevent human rights abuses abroad and protect the rights of new immigrants in the United States.
The Union maintains a constantly updated bigotry monitor, which reports on human rights abuses, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and religious persecution in the former communist world and Western Europe.
For more information, see www.ncsj.org