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Jewish Journal

From Russia with Love

by Mike Levy

June 20, 2002 | 8:00 pm

The Russian-speaking Jewish community in Los Angeles has come together for Israel in ways community leaders could not have imagined even a year ago.

Though the Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union have always been outspoken in their love for the Jewish state, a variety of factors, from a cultural unfamiliarity with charitable giving to the hardships of restarting their own lives, have kept "the Russians" from joining in major fundraising for Israel -- until recently.

"The community is growing up," says Si Frumkin, who is chairman of the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews and an unofficial spokesman for the community.

The community mobilization for Israel effectively began one year ago, with the July, 2001 Jewish Federation Solidarity Rally for Israel, where Russian-speaking Jews formed a noticeably large portion of the crowd. "The Federation rally was the first time this community was really all that visible," Frumkin says. Since that time, and especially since Sept. 11, the community -- largely unaffiliated with "mainstream" Jewish organizations in Los Angeles -- has quietly begun a series of fundraising meetings, in the homes of the most financially successful émigrés.

The fundraising efforts reached a crescendo following a May 5 rally, where 1,500 immigrants demonstrated in front of the Federal building in Westwood. Soon after, a meeting of the Association of Holocaust Survivors of the former Soviet Union collected $3,000 to donate to Magen David Adom (MDA) toward the purchase of a new ambulance. A May 11 gathering at the home of Dr. Leonid and Natasha Gluzman raised over $70,000 for the Friends of Israel Disabled Veterans (FIDV). Organizers of these events and others speak of plans to bring former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Housing Minister Natan Sharansky to Los Angeles in the next few months, for bigger, more public fundraising events.

It is a relatively new concept for the community from the former Soviet Union. "They come from a culture where charitable contributions are not known," Frumkin says. "Among those who have achieved some financial success, their houses are impressive, which is only fair. But they would maybe write a $50 check if someone forced them. It was very embarrassing to me in the past." But Frumkin sees the cultural reluctance to give melting away. "With the intifada now, and after Sept. 11, people are asking, 'What can I do?'" he says, "The response of course was, write a check."

The Russian language media have played a large role in organizing the community in support of Israel. Los Angeles is an international center for Russian language media, with Eugene Levin's KMNB/Panorama Media Group leading the way. Levin, who with his wife, Helen, leads the Association of Soviet Jewish Émigrés, also publishes a national newspaper, Panorama; a weekly paper on the West Coast called Friday Express; and a magazine called Extra KMNB, sister publication for his radio and television production companies. Levin knows that "the people have just started new lives; many are in need themselves," but uses his influence to draw attention to the needs of Israelis. "It's media. Sometimes we give pictures -- bloody buses, scenes of attacks -- it changes people." His newspapers employ four correspondents in Israel, and provide free advertising space for community events like the May rally in Westwood. Plus, in editorials and commentary in his publications, "We point out, 'people collected money for you to come to the United States.'"

The bulk of the fundraising by the Russian-speaking groups has gone directly to organizations in Israel like MDA, and FIDV, rather than an umbrella organization like The Jewish Federation's Jews in Crisis campaign. "People want to give money for some particular organization," Levin says. "It's not a good idea to push the community to give in a politically correct way." Natasha Kellick, who helped organize the FIDV fundraiser in May, had a specific reason for supporting that charity. "I looked at the list [of names of Israeli wounded] and 50 percent were Russian names."

As Kellick and others point out, the Russian-speaking community in Los Angeles feels a particular affinity for their counterparts in Israel, a Russian-speaking community one million strong. As the June 2001 suicide bombing of the Dolphinarium disco in Tel Aviv made all too clear, the Russian-speaking community in Israel has been hard-hit along with the rest of the country by terrorism As Frumkin notes, "Everybody's got a relative in Israel, and they're hurting."

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