When Viktoriya Kernes was just 13, her mother sent her to a Jewish social event. Kernes had no idea why.
At the time, she did not know she was Jewish.
“I really didn’t know what to make of it,” Kernes, now 29, said recently of the discovery she made while growing up in Moscow.
She didn’t fully embrace the mensch life in the beginning, however. In an interview, Kernes said she spent her youth in Russia partying and hanging out with the wrong people.
But after moving to Los Angeles at the age of 16, Kernes began to embrace Jewish life more fully. She attended American Jewish University, where she “found a passion for doing things Jewishly with purpose,” she said.
While she considers herself more culturally Jewish than anything, she is much less ambivalent about her Judaism than she was before. Part of the reason, she said, is her involvement with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Community Leadership Institute for Russian Jews. She is a graduate of the program’s first group and is serving as a co-chair of the current cohort. She is also an information technology manager at Warner Bros.
Ultimately, Kernes said, she hopes her Jewish involvement will help her find herself.
[Related: L.A.’s Russians recapture their Jewish soul]
“I think going back in history, and understanding our parents, and understanding the culture, and understanding the circumstances, is a way for you to reconcile and understand and recognize patterns of how you behave and why you do certain things,” she said.
Eric Fihman, 29, said Judaism comes first in his three-fold identity.
“I am a Jewish American Russian; that’s how I see myself,” the CPA at NBCUniversal said in an interview.
Born in the United States to Russian parents, Fihman is different from his peers on the L.A. Russian Jewish Young Adult Network’s (Ru-Ju-LA) steering committee, many of whose members immigrated to the States during their teens.
He is also more observant than many of L.A.’s Russian Jews.
“It’s tough. Some of it bothered me. I wanted a full-on seder, but some of these people wouldn’t have come,” he said of the April Ru-Ju-LA seder he helped organize. “In my heart, it’s a struggle. Is it perfect? No. Is it a stepping stone? Hopefully.”
When Polyna Berlin’s family moved to the United States from Ukraine and settled in West Hollywood, Berlin, age 10 at the time, enrolled in elementary school there.
She and her family, however, did not stay in the heavily Russian community of West Hollywood for long.
“My family didn’t want us growing up in a Russian ghetto atmosphere,” she said. “They saw life for us as less Russian and more American.”
The family relocated to Tarzana and with financial assistance from The Jewish Federation, Berlin was able to attend Kadima Day School in the San Fernando Valley. Berlin, who is 32 now and works in public relations, is a graduate of University of California, Irvine. Today, as a member of the Ru-Ju-LA steering committee and a graduate of Federation’s Community Leadership Institute for Russians, she is actively involved with programs for Russian-speaking young adult Jews.
Part of the reason, she said, is to repay the American-Jewish community that helped her family with their acculturation process.
“The Jewish Federation did a lot for my family. … I want to give back someday.”
Alex Grager founded Ru-Ju-LA as a way to unify his peers, he said.
Perhaps his interest stems from his lifelong connection to Judaism. Unlike many others in the community, Grager knew he was Jewish all of his life. Even in Moldova, the small country wedged between Romania and Ukraine where he grew up, his family practiced Judaism. He had a bar mitzvah and attended programs at a Jewish community center.
“My parents were not on anybody’s watch list … we were just another Jewish family,” he said in an interview.
Still, the family did not dare “parade” their Judaism, Grager said. And, finding few opportunities for professional advancement, the Grager family packed up and departed for the United States during the early 1990s.
The family’s future was uncertain, but Grager’s folks told their son not to worry.
“ ‘The less you know, the better you’ll sleep,’ ” Grager said, recalling what his parents told him prior to the move.
Everything ended up OK. Grager attended Valley Torah High School, where he was one of the few non-Orthodox students but still found a welcoming environment. He went on to college at the University of Southern California.
Now a family-law attorney by day and a leader in the Russian-speaking young adult community by night, Grager somehow also finds time to play keyboard in a band that plays songs in Russian, Hebrew and Yiddish. They have even been featured at Ru-Ju-LA events.