The New Machers: Émigrés Translate Success Into Jewish Leadership Roles

Though no one knows to what degree succeeding generations will lose touch with their roots, Russian-speaking Jews today have a strong affiliation with the language and culture of their homeland.

Luba Troyanovsky as a teenager in Russia with her father.
Luba Troyanovsky as a teenager in Russia with her father.

by Dan Pine

Luba Troyanovsky remembers an important life lesson she learned long ago in her hometown of Odessa in Ukraine.

“My parents told me, ‘You’re Jewish, and to make it in life, you have to do better than anyone,’” she recalls. “That’s the deal we learned growing up in Russia that made it possible for us. We’re not afraid of hard work. We’re trained to overcome difficulties.”

Troyanovsky arrived here in 1979. In her early days as a young émigré, she felt so insecure with her halting English she could barely bring herself to ask the Muni bus driver to let her off at her stop. Today, she is a successful San Francisco property manager and real estate developer, with two grown children.

She is also a macher.

Troyanovsky, 59, serves on the boards of AIPAC and the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services – she is one of several Russian-speaking Jews on the latter. She is also a former board member of the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Like many of the Bay Area’s more than 30,000 Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Troyanovsky has made it, in more ways than one. Today, she and increasing numbers of her fellow Russian-speaking émigrés are coming into positions of leadership in the same Jewish community that helped them acclimate when they first arrived.

They sit on boards and staffs of Jewish agencies, federations and synagogues. They give philanthropic dollars. They support Israel with exceptional fervor. And they do it all with bilingual, bicultural ease.

Though precise figures are unknown, government data suggest there are close to 750,000 Russian-speaking Jews in the United States today. They are proud of their Russian culture, and many continue to speak Russian with their children and grandchildren, who themselves are as American as apple pie – with a shot of vodka on the side.

As noted by Anita Friedman, the executive director of JFCS, they are “born in the USSR, made in America.”

While attempts to fold Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants into mainstream Amer­ican Jewish life, including religious life, have met with mixed results around the country, one fact is clear: Capitalism suits them.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin might be the most conspicuous of émigré success stories. But a new study conducted by Brandeis University history professor Jonathan Sarna shows many Jewish émigrés from the former Soviet Union (FSU) have done well financially, with the men earning 111 percent of the average American male’s salary, and women earning 127.6 percent of the salaries of their American-born counterparts.

That financial success translates into power, influence and, increasingly, activism in the Jewish community, at least in the Bay Area.

“America has welcomed wave after wave of immigrants,” Sarna says. “We always worry about them, but over time they move into leadership positions. [Russian-speaking Jews] are tremendously hardworking and eager to succeed, and our job is to make sure they have opportunities within the Jewish community to strengthen it. Whenever we’ve done that before we have benefited.”

Ruvim Braude, 58, is one of those beneficiaries. He arrived in America in 1979 at age 24, with an engineering degree and the drive to succeed. As the grandson of Leningrad’s chief rabbi, he had an exposure to Jewish tradition rare for a Soviet-era Jew. Yet he also knew keenly the sting of Soviet suppression of Jewish culture, and was determined to turn that around in America.

The San Francisco resident worked for Hewlett-Packard and, now, McKesson. He has also served on various key committees of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, including a term as president, and sat on the boards of JFCS and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. His family belongs to Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco and his teenage son has attended Jewish day schools most of his life.

“Russian-speaking Jews were shell-shocked to come here,” he says. “Their first priority was to get on their feet financially, so to immediately run out and find a board to sit on was not a priority. The majority did not have the experience of committee life. Organized Jewish community life did not exist [in the FSU].”

Braude credits Friedman of JFCS and JCRC executive director Doug Kahn for doing special outreach to the émigré community, especially important when it touches younger émigrés or the adult children of émigrés, both groups ripe for grooming as community leaders.

Alex Rayter, 35, is one of them. When he was a child, he and his family left his Ukrainian hometown of Lvov in 1987, eventually settling in San Francisco. Today he is a successful high-tech consultant. Other than seeing his grandfather occasionally reading a Yiddish newspaper, Rayter’s early exposure to Jewish religious and cultural traditions was practically nil. That changed when he became a student at San Francisco’s Lisa Kampner Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox day school and high school.

“It was Jewish culture immersion,” Rayter remembers. “Having nothing the first 11 years of my life, I then had all this compressed in a short period.”

Rayter wrestled with a triple identity as a Russian Jewish American, but now he feels comfortable in his skin as all three. He sits on the board of governors of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

He was also a member of the 2012 Mishmash Philanthropy Group, one of the federation’s Impact Grant Initiatives, which raised and donated $24,000 in six mini-grants, mostly to nonprofits serving Russian-speaking Jews.

He says his community work allows him to do “something formal in philanthropy, and not just volunteer time. It put some responsibility in our hands.”

That does not always come naturally to these Jewish émigrés, who grew up in a culture in which American-style volunteerism and philanthropy were practically unknown.

“Before it was the exception,” Rayter says. “Now there’s more and more, a vast improvement. If you look at a bell curve, it’s on an uptick now. On one hand I do see the same faces over and over, but I’m seeing more new ones, too.”

Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants arrived here from the former Soviet Union in two big waves: in the 1970s, and then again from 1989 through the 1990s. Many relied on assistance from Jewish agencies such as JFCS.

“For a long time we were on the receiving end of grants,” says Ukraine-born Olga Rybak. Now, she and increasing numbers of her peers are deciding how to dole them out. An MBA who works for Blue Shield, Rybak sits on the JCF’s executive allocations committee and the board of Jewish LearningWorks. Like Rayter, she also chaired the Mishmash Philanthropy Group last year.

“Being part of the [federation’s] IGI, meeting with philanthropists and people from federation who have done fundraising and grant-giving, it was interesting to see how this world works, how money is solicited and distributed.”

Irina Klay, 33, works at the federation’s émigré office, where she is program coordinator for the Russian-speaking Jewish community.

An immigrant herself from Odessa in 1998, Klay knows what families go through in the assimilation process. She works hard to make sure as many as possible find entry points not just to American life, but to Jewish life as well.

To that end, the federation has launched leadership-training programs geared to the Russian-speaking community.

“We teach them about what federation does and how the grant-making process works,” Klay adds. “First and foremost they want to help their own [émigré] community because it’s close to the heart. Fortunately our community needs less and less help. People are interested in other things, like being on boards of synagogues or putting together events not limited to people who only speak Russian.”

Friedman of JFCS says the Bay Area has led the country in not only welcoming émigrés and helping them settle, but also fostering their Jewish communal leadership skills.

“In the long run, most [North American Jewish] communities lost touch with the Russian-speaking Jews,” Friedman says. The Bay Area “is probably the only community in the country where we still maintain contact with them, from 40 years ago until now. Now they have emerged as donors and leaders, and not just as newcomers and takers.”

JFCS was at the forefront when the émigrés first arrived and needed a helping hand. Today one of the agency’s crown jewels is the émigré gala, an annual celebration held at a top-flight San Francisco hotel.

With as much bling and couture as a royal ball, the gala is a vivid reminder of how far the émigrés have come, financially as well as in terms of their Jewish identities.

“We see Russian-speaking Jews increasingly involved with helping Jewish communities here and in Israel, and not only focused on the émigré community,” Friedman says. “Their leaders are among the best fundraisers, with the deepest understanding and commitment to the Jewish people.”

Brandeis’ Sarna has spent his professional life studying the experience of Jews in America. His 2013 study, sponsored by the Jewish People Policy Institute, warns of the potential disintegration of the close-knit societies the Russian-speaking Jews formed when they first arrived, leading to a possible loss of Jewish identity and rapid assimilation.

The high levels of education achieved by many Russian-speaking Jews, as well as their desire to be full Americans, propel this trend. Sarna’s study cites figures that show this community surpasses all other ethnic subgroups in years of schooling, including native-born Americans.

“They learned in the FSU that to get ahead they had to work extremely hard,” Sarna says. “They had to study all the time, they had to be much better than their peers in order to make it. Those cultural attributes have allowed them to succeed in the United States.”

In general, Jewish peoplehood, rather than Jewish religious tradition, has served as the communal glue for this émigré population. But not for everyone. Some émigrés have embraced Judaism and have become leaders in local religious life.

“There are Russian-speaking Jews who are very eager to learn more about what it means to be Jewish,” Sarna adds. “They know their parents were persecuted for being Jews. It’s not surprising that some of them want to understand what that means.”

One of those is Leo Hmelnitsky, a Walnut Creek resident born and raised in Moscow with no religious life whatsoever. Today he wears a kippah and keeps the Sabbath.

Hmelnitsky came to America on his own in 1994 at 21, settling in New York and eventually earning an MBA. He and his Russian-born wife, Anna, moved to California 10 years ago.

He credits Anna with “opening my eyes” to Jewish religious life. Hmelnitsky attends services at (and raises funds for) Chabad of Contra Costa, as well as studying through the adult education nonprofit Jewish Study Network and Limmud Bay Area, which he co-chaired last year.

He has sat on the boards of JFCS of the East Bay and Jewish Community Foundation of the East Bay, and advises on curriculum development for Contra Costa Jewish Day School, where he sends his two young children. His wife helped institute a Russian language class there, and he and his wife speak Russian at home with their kids.

“Russians have a great thirst for learning,” Hmelnitsky says. “There is a need to discover what was taken away from us.”

Though no one knows to what degree succeeding generations will lose touch with their roots, Russian-speaking Jews today have a strong affiliation with the language and culture of their homeland.

Says JFCS board member Troyanovsky, “It’s amazing how people in their 20s and 30s want to maintain Russian traditions. There is pride in where they came from. It’s cool to be Russian.”

And, increasingly within the Russian-speaking Jewish community, it’s cool to be a macher.

“People know the phrase ‘Let my people go,’ but they forget the second part, which is ‘so they may serve me,’ ” Hmelnitsky says, quoting the Book of Exodus. “Once you experience the beauty of volunteering or learning about authentic Judaism, the community building comes in many facets.”

Dan Pine is senior writer at J., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California.