When obstetrician-gynecologist Ludmila Bess and her husband, a civil engineer, immigrated to the United States from Russia in 1977, they came with only $600 in their pockets. Like many others who arrived from the former Soviet Union with few or no financial resources "our goal was to survive," Bess said.
Now established with a successful Los Angeles medical practice, Bess' goals -- like those of many of her contemporaries -- have turned outward. She is chairing the Saving Lives gala on Oct. 17 to raise funds for the pediatric trauma unit of Tel Aviv's Sourasky Medical Center.
The event is a collaboration among the Russian-speaking community, the American Russian Medical and Dental Association, the business community and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Taking place at the Hilton at Universal City, the gala will feature singer and actor Theodore Bikel, opera star Susana Poretsky and singer and cantor Svetlana Portnyansky.
While the event boasts the trappings of long-established philanthropic groups (hors d'oeuvres have been donated by Wolfgang Puck and his associate Bella Lantzman, for example), these efforts mark a relatively new direction for the Russian Jewish community.
"Originally, Russian immigrants, when they came to the United States, were mostly takers, not givers," said event co-chair Eugene Levin, founder of the Russian-language Panorama Media Group. "There was no such tradition of giving in the former Soviet Union. Mostly, people depended on the state."
While numerous agencies such as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles continue to help newly arrived Russian immigrants with resettlement, many in the community have lived in the United States close to two decades or longer. They have overcome cultural and language barriers, and attained professional and financial security. So their attention has turned to fundraising and outreach efforts for their community. Such entities include the Association of Soviet Jewish Immigrants, a Federation affiliate and the umbrella organization for agencies serving the Russian Jewish community, and the West Hollywood Russian Community Center, which aids new immigrants with practical necessities, information, referral and advocacy.
Now, efforts reach beyond their own community to others in need. It started slowly, with participation in the United Jewish Fund's Super Sunday and two parlor meetings that generated funds for causes in Israel.
In 2002, Bess and her colleague, Dr. Yelena Vaynerov, decided that, as physicians, they wanted to generate support for medical care in Israel. Bess and others met with Federation President John Fishel about their idea. Initially, he suggested more parlor meetings. "We told him, 'We want to have a big gala. We want people to feel together,'" Bess recalled. "And he told us, 'I will do my best to make this event happen and be an A-plus.'"
With Federation support, the group held its first gala in January of last year, raising more than $250,000 toward the purchase of equipment for the trauma unit of Sourasky Medical Center. The hospital has provided front-line care for victims of terror attacks, including the 2001 Dolphinarium bombing that claimed the lives of more than a dozen Soviet-born teens outside a Tel Aviv disco.
Bess says that raising funds for a worthy cause was only one of her goals. She also wanted to increase community cohesiveness and change attitudes about giving.
"We wanted to show our community that it's [a greater] pleasure to donate than to be a recipient," she said.
Last year's gala seemed to accomplish those goals. Besides attracting more than 650 attendees, the event generated support from across the community, with donations as small as $5 and as large as $10,000. Bess remembered being touched when a 75-year-old patient, living on government pension, presented her with a $300 check despite the patient's limited income.
This year, organizers hope to accommodate more attendees and raise $300,000. The event honors Sourasky Medical Center's Director General, Dr. Gabriel I. Barbash; Dr. Leonid and Natalie Glosman, one of the first couples to mobilize the Los Angeles Russian Jewish community in support of Israeli and American causes; Anita Hirsh, former co-chair of the Commission on Soviet Jewry and, with her late husband, Stanley, a supporter of major projects in the United States and abroad; Dr. Gabriel Rubanenko, supporter of numerous Israeli philanthropies; and Barbara Yaroslavsky, who along with her husband, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, has been an advocate of Soviet Jewry for more than 30 years.
Event co-chair Helen Levin, wife of Eugene, and director of the West Hollywood Russian Community Center, notes that the community at large -- and, indeed, the nation -- has begun to reap the benefits of supporting Soviet Jewry.
"You haven't been fighting for us for nothing," she said. "Now we are paying back to the United States."
She added, "I always say to my clients [at the West Hollywood Russian Community Center], 'Yes, there are problems here, as everywhere. But there is no better place.... So we better do something useful and positive for this country.'"
The Saving Lives gala begins at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 17 at the Hilton Universal in Universal City. For more information, call (323) 761-8345 or visit www.savinglives2004.com. n
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