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L.A.’s Russians recapture their Jewish soul

Saving Soviet Jewry didn’t teach them about their heritage. They’re recapturing it now.


by Ryan Torok

June 4, 2014 | 10:20 am

<em>Last March, these Russian-speaking members of Federation’s Community Leadership Institute celebrated a group b’nai mitzvah. Front row, from left: Svetlana Rapoport, Vadim Eydel, Sasha Shteyn, Dina Brevdo, Lilia Lukowsky, Lubov Portnaya, Alla Levkova and Maxim Levkov. Back row, from left: Viktoriya Kernes (not part of the b’nai mitzvah group), Bella Filler, Vladimir Khanenko, Bella Nudel and Alex Milyavskiy. Not pictured: Gary Satanovsky. Photo by Ryan Torok</em>

Last March, these Russian-speaking members of Federation’s Community Leadership Institute celebrated a group b’nai mitzvah. Front row, from left: Svetlana Rapoport, Vadim Eydel, Sasha Shteyn, Dina Brevdo, Lilia Lukowsky, Lubov Portnaya, Alla Levkova and Maxim Levkov. Back row, from left: Viktoriya Kernes (not part of the b’nai mitzvah group), Bella Filler, Vladimir Khanenko, Bella Nudel and Alex Milyavskiy. Not pictured: Gary Satanovsky. Photo by Ryan Torok

In March, Svetlana Rapoport became a bat mitzvah.

Raised in Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union, where practicing religion was discouraged and anti-Semitism was rampant, Rapoport hadn’t had the chance to celebrate this rite of passage.

Finally, at 34, Rapoport had her moment on the bimah.

“This day symbolizes a new beginning ... a new level of devotion and dedication to our people,” she said in her speech to her family and friends gathered for the occasion at Kehillat Ma’arav in Santa Monica.

Rapoport had come to this point because of the Russian Jewish B’nai Mitzvah Project, an initiative designed to strengthen Jewish identity among young adults of Russian heritage. It is sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Genesis Philanthropy Group. Some of the participants are immigrants from Russia and its neighbors, including Ukraine, Belarus and other former Soviet countries. Others are first-generation Russian-Americans. All have roots in a land and culture where religion was spurned, and, as a result, many of them were once a blank slate with regard to their Judaism.

 “What’s unique about Russian Jews is they feel Judaism very differently than the rest of Jews,” said Jenny Gitkis Vainstein, a regional representative in Los Angeles for the Jewish Agency for Israel. Gitkis Vainstein’s job is to increase interest in Judaism among Russian Jews, and she has been working with Federation toward that goal since 2010.

Institutional engagement with this community is not new. In fact, it dates back to at least the 1970s, when the Soviet Union still existed and its government was making life miserable for Jews there. Even as Soviet leaders placed restrictions on education, arts and culture, and religious practice, they denied Jews the right to emigrate, fearing if the Jews left, they would reveal Soviet secrets to the international community. 

The refusal to issue exit visas to Jews led to the popularization of the name refusenik, The refuseniks were, in essence, trapped inside the Soviet Union, as author and Jewish Daily Forward journalist Gal Beckerman described them in his award-winning book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry.” And, in the 1970s and ’80s, their plight prompted a swell of activism among American Jews.

When the Soviets eventually allowed a mass exodus of the Jews, it was largely in response to international pressure and the fact that the Soviet Union itself was dissolving.

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Andrew Cushnir, executive vice president and chief program officer at Federation, said approximately 25,000 Russian Jews eventually settled in Los Angeles as a result of the multiple immigration waves out of the former Soviet Union that took place between the 1970s and ’90s. Federation and other organizations actively assisted those Russian immigrants with their transition to life in the United States. And along the way, many of the activists who had advocated on the immigrants’ behalf recognized that the Russians often were not engaged religiously. This was troubling to them, Beckerman said in a phone interview with the Journal from his office in New York, adding that there were too many other immediate needs at the time to focus on giving this serious attention.

“For people who just arrived, for them the most important thing is to get bread on the table, to have jobs, to have their kids in school,” Maya Segal, an L.A. community member who ran Federation’s resettlement efforts for Russians and Iranians from 1997 to 2013, said in an interview. “The spiritual part, the religious part, comes later.”

That time is now, apparently.

Today, approximately 80,000 Russian Jews live in Los Angeles, Gitkis Vainstein estimates. And they don’t all live in West Hollywood. Sure, Russians playing dominoes is a common sight in the neighborhood’s Plummer Park on a Saturday morning, and Russian eateries, grocery stores and businesses line the stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard that runs through West Hollywood. 

Today, however, Russian Jews are dispersed throughout L.A. — especially the first-generation Russian-Americans, the 20- and 30-somethings born in America, as well as those young adults who arrived here as children with their families. They live all over Los Angeles, including the Westside, but also Studio City, West Los Angeles, Santa Monica and other neighborhoods. Gitkis Vainstein described them as a hip crowd of college degree-carrying professionals. “They’re very cool; they’re very educated. They are lawyers, they are doctors, they are involved in computer science. They are very successful in life, very warm, very funny,” she said.

Among them is Alex Grager, a managing partner at family-law firm Lopez and Grager and co-founder of Ru-Ju-LA, the Los Angeles Russian Jewish Network, a group that got started as a grass-roots effort propelled by Grager’s vision to unite this cohort. 

“When I first started thinking about this — there are a bunch of Russian-Jewish young adults in town, and all of their friends are Russian Jews, and they hang out … so they certainly have something in common, but they don’t really … do anything about it,” Grager said. He has been making a big push to change that. 

Today, Ru-Ju-LA has come under the auspices of The Jewish Federation and it has a steering committee of young Russian-speaking Jews. However, among its members, familiarity with Jewish life runs the full gamut. Some come from families who practiced Judaism, at least somewhat. Others learned they were Jewish in their teens.

“The majority have very few Jewish stories to share from Russia, and there are those with deeply embedded Jewish experiences,” Tal Gozani, Federation’s senior vice president of young adult engagement and leadership development, told the Journal.

What unites them is their interest in negotiating the role Judaism will play in their lives and spreading their passion for this journey to other Russian young adults.

Ru-Ju-LA is similar to some other young adults groups, such as ATID at Sinai Temple and the Federation’s Young Adults of Los Angeles (YALA). Its events are usually connected to Jewish holidays and often feel a bit like singles’ parties. 

And because they are meant to offer introductions to Judaism, without being particularly learning-bound, they are generally low-key in their Jewish content, so as not to discourage their observance-averse target audience from showing up. 

Last December, for example, dozens of young adults met for drinks at a West Hollywood bar for a Ru-Ju-LA Chanukah party. During the event, Grager sat down for an interview even as a stream of friends kept coming up to say hello. 

It was late in the evening when Gitkis Vanstein interrupted all the shmoozing to demonstrate how to light Chanukah candles. 

“We do this so they will celebrate it in their homes,” Gitkis Vainstein explained later. Otherwise, she said, “they wouldn’t.” 

Another Ru-Ju-LA party a few months later, this one for Purim, was in the same vein — heavy on socializing, light on Jewish content. But a recent Passover seder was an exception. Approximately 70 young adults gathered for the Ru-Ju-LA seder at Maxim, a restaurant in the Fairfax District, and their seder followed a haggadah specially created by Ru-Ju-LA.

“This Haggadah has been designed to integrate the modern miracle of the freedom attained by Soviet Jews with the beauty and excitement of a modern Passover Seder,” the haggadah reads. 

The attendees sat at long, banquet-style tables covered in white tablecloths complete with ceremonial seder plates, and, throughout, they drank the ritual wine, but also vodka in the tradition of their homeland — in fact, they were instructed that if they ran out of wine for the service, they could drink as much vodka as they wanted, which, as a part of the evening’s celebratory mood, they took to heart. 

Toward the end of the night, a DJ spun pop hits, including Robin Thicke’s 2013 smash “Blurred Lines.” In response, the crowd left their seats and turned the empty space between the tables and the restaurant’s stage into a joyous dance floor.

 

Another project at Federation to engage the Russian-Jewish community falls under its Community Leadership Institute (CLI). In terms of its organizational Russian-Jewish engagement and outreach, CLI might seem the brainy older brother of Ru-Ju-LA. The Russian program is just one of four leadership development programs, or “tracks,” as  Federation refers to them, for cohorts of young professionals ages 25 to 45. Currently, CLI’s Russian track is in its second year. 

Of course, CLI, like Ru-Ju-LA, wouldn’t be possible without funding. Genesis Philanthropy Group, founded by several wealthy Russian Jews with offices in North America, Israel and Russia, provides much of the resources driving Federation’s Russian programs, paid for through two grants totaling $140,000. Ilia Salita, the nonprofit’s executive director, believes it is essential to partner with organizations such as Federation on this work.

“This is extremely important in this day and age — community-building programs for Russian-speaking Jewish communities around the world,” he said.

Cushnir agrees, describing the Russian Jews as “a dynamic space in the community. Everyone is defining what it means to be Jewish differently.”

Genesis money must be used only for the engagement of Russian Jews. It also pays the salary of a Federation staff person — an assistant director focused exclusively on working with the Russian-Jewish community. Sasha Zlobina, who had worked previously in Jewish organizational life, both inside Russia and out, was hired for this position. She recently moved to Los Angeles from Odessa, in Ukraine, where she worked for a Hillel.

She has also worked as an executive assistant at Jewlicious, the youth engagement nonprofit led by Rabbi Yonah Bookstein. 

Unlike many of her peers, Zlobina came to the United States in her 20s. Now 27, she moved here at 23 to marry her husband, George Gromovoy, who owns a moving company; she met him during a retreat for Hillels in the former Soviet Union. Zlobina said she did not know she was Jewish until she was 16. A family friend in Odessa invited her to an event at a Hillel, which, in former Soviet Union countries, is open to all Jews and not affiliated with universities as they are in the United States. She was surprised by the invitation.

 “She said, ‘You’re totally Jewish,’ ” Zlobina told the Journal. “And I went to my mom and asked if that was true, and my mom said ‘yes,’ and she started telling me about our history and my grandmother and my [great-] grandmother, and that’s how I realized that I am. That’s how my Jewish journey begins.”

After the revelation, Zlobina became heavily involved with Hillel. 

“I went there and started to learn about Judaism and the history of Israel and all kinds of Jewish stuff. I decided to consider myself Jewish and tell everybody that I am Jewish, and then it became kind of a big deal for me,” she said.

Hillel offered her a job in outreach, which eventually led her to become its deputy director. 

She said she loves her work now at Federation in Los Angeles; her oversight of CLI allows her to draw upon work she did in Odessa. 

CLI’s first cohort attempted to create a Soviet Jewish film archive, and asked participants to interview their parents and grandparents about their lives in the Soviet Union. The plan was to translate the interviews into English, edit them together and hold a screening. But so far, the project has not proceeded beyond the filming stage. 

Grager, a graduate of the first CLI cohort and current co-chair of the second, takes such shortcomings in stride. Any attempts at creating engagement with a new immigrant community can have setbacks, he said. “I think the key here is small steps, and I sometimes get frustrated, because I think we are moving too slowly, but then I recognize this is how this community is going to develop,” he said.

Grager’s own ambitious plans include opening a center for the Russian-Jewish community, “a space for [the] Russian-Jewish community both to get together and enjoy each other’s company. In other words, what we are trying to accomplish is [to allow] members of the Russian community to be a resource for each other — be it social, educational, professional, whatever you want it to be.”

Meanwhile, Federation is considering creating a Birthright trip to Israel exclusively targeted to the Russian community. 

“We’ve had one conversation about it; we’re just trying to explore it,” Gozani told the Journal. “We think there might be interest.”

Gozani already has led one trip to Israel for the Russian participants of the inaugural CLI. She was new to the job at the time, but she was ready for the challenge. Gozani, who isn’t Russian, said she was moved by the experience of traveling with Russians who have such unique personal stories. 

“A week after [I started] the job, we spent 10 days in Israel,” she said. “I had an amazing experience with them and have been close with them since.”

 

At Kehillat Ma’arav last March, Svetlana Rapoport was one of 13 young adults from that first CLI cohort celebrating their b’nai mitzvah. She had been chosen from among the group to give her interpretation of the week’s Torah portion on behalf of all the celebrants. As Rapoport spoke, her 4-year-old daughter, Alena, left her seat and walked up to join her mother on the bimah.

Audience members laughed, delighted by the sight of the little girl so charmingly oblivious to social norms. Rapoport herself, however, was a little embarrassed. She apologized, picked up her daughter, and continued her speech: “We should always strive to be better, wiser, stronger and happier,” she said, holding the girl in her arms. 

Perhaps, in retrospect, it was apt that Alena had joined her mother on the bimah. After all, it was Alena who inspired Rapoport to undertake the long hours of preparation for her bat mitzvah. Benjamin Rapoport, Svetlana’s husband, told the Journal how this all came to be: “We want to make sure we can pass on something to our daughter,” he said. “So that she will know more about where we came from, and make sure she grows up understanding our religion, our tradition. And, hopefully, continues that legacy.”

Ru-Ju-LA founder Grager points to the Russian b’nai mitzvah project as one of the biggest successes of local engagement for this community effort to date. 

“The whole idea behind this program was to return the Russian-speaking Jewish adults to their Judaism one way or another, and this adult b’nai mitzvah class really kind of exemplifies everything this [CLI] leadership class, and Ru-Ju-LA for that matter, stands for,” Grager told the Journal on the day of the ceremony. “It’s an opportunity, it’s a reminder, and it allowed them to do something they wouldn’t have done otherwise.”

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