EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the third in a series of five articles from a piece written by Lynn Kronzek and commissioned by the City of West Hollywood that provides a snapshot circa 2000 of the city’s population of Jews from the former Soviet Union. It is illustrated with photographs taken in West Hollywood by Steven Gold, a professor in the Department of Sociology at Michigan State University. Note that some of those mentioned have died or otherwise moved on.
West Hollywood originally attracted the Russian-speaking Jewish population in no small measure due to its proximity to the Fairfax district, L.A.’s oldest surviving Jewish neighborhood and heart of the community for the past half-century. Groups with a longstanding and steadfast concern over the plight of Soviet Jews established headquarters here. The Jewish Federation continues to be located on Wilshire Boulevard, and well before West Hollywood cityhood in 1984 such diverse organizations as the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews (a lobbying/public awareness organization) and Chabad displayed Fairfax addresses.
The local housing stock– with its abundant rental units– further explains the draw. While Fairfax remained L.A.’s premiere Jewish neighborhood, its more upwardly mobile residents headed for newly-developed communities and more spacious homes. Journalists thus were writing off Fairfax and environs as a “Grey Area” and “the Lower East Side of the West”, the latter referring to New York’s colorful– albeit old and shabby– Jewish quarter. These same “declining” qualities made apartments relatively affordable, and certain amenities endured: good transportation and the feel of a “walking neighborhood” lent themselves well to European-born residents. Furthermore, West Hollywood and Fairfax were inhabited by an earlier generation of immigrants, often Holocaust survivors. Speaking in various tongues of the Soviet Union, the polyglot building owners, managers, and residents of area apartments could communicate with the newcomers and help them feel comfortable here.
The technical period of “resettlement” is very short: anywhere from one to four months, plus follow-up, depending on the agency. During this brief time, the caseworker focuses on establishing the person/family in living quarters and the community, helping them locate jobs, and/or linking them with support services that continue after resettlement. West Hollywood’s incorporation as a city coincided with increased immigration from the FSU.
Virtually everyone interviewed for this article denied that resettlement preferences may have consciously swayed newcomers to West Hollywood from Fairfax. West Hollywood has always attracted JFSU, they quickly rebut. Yet, until 1984, the City of Los Angeles (of which Fairfax is a part) had been subject to rent control; the unincorporated county, including West Hollywood, was not– although there was strong tenants rights activism.
Affordable housing is perhaps the primary factor in determining low- and middle- income residential choice. With cityhood, West Hollywood instituted rent control and earned the reputation for its caring, progressive government. Furthermore, as indicated above, Fairfax had been an early hub for organizations working on behalf of Jews from the FSU. Needs changed, and West Hollywood now is clearly this community’s center.
Organizational Responses and Adjustments
Of course, some acculturation– on both sides– was involved. In an admittedly controversial article, Si Frumkin, a longtime activist for Soviet Jewry, reflected on the not-so-distant past:
“They were at the Simon Wiesenthal Center for a day-long seminar as part of a program sponsored by the State of California ….
“This group was composed of employees of the City of West Hollywood where many Jews from the former Soviet Union live. As the people were settling down in their seats, I asked them how they felt about their ‘Russians.’ They groaned. “They are difficult to deal with, is that it?” I asked. There was laughter, a nodding of heads, a shrugging of shoulders …. ‘They are never satisfied, they want more and more,’ another voice was heard. ‘And they argue and don’t listen…’
“The USSR was a society in which one had to be selfish in order to survive, both metaphorically and literally. The concept of charity, of selfless public service, or respect for the law, of caring for anyone outside the immediate family simply did not exist.
“The groans by the West Hollywood city workers were caused by an attitude that has been inbred in the Soviet citizen. Any bureaucrat sitting behind the desk is your enemy. He is out to get you and you better get him first. He will lie to you. He will create non-existent problems. He will say ‘no’ when ‘yes’ is available. Furthermore, in this peculiar America, he will not accept a bribe that would have solved all these problems back home.”
Daphne Dennis has been employed by the City of West Hollywood for 14 years and currently is its Social Services Manager. When asked about the learning curve in dealing with the then-new population of JFSU, she replied: “Anyone working with diverse groups must be sensitive, offer language-appropriate materials, be aware of the culture and situations that people are bringing to the table …. We had to learn that the term ‘Russian’ was inappropriate, they’re Jewish.”
Dennis did not feel that the JFSU were more difficult to reach than other groups, but she believes that they share characteristics with others who have emigrated from Communist countries. Echoing Frumkin’s initial analysis, she emphasized that the “government controls everything (there), and cannot be trusted …. Also, in the U.S, any individual can accomplish anything. Totalitarian countries cannot further that value. Rights are not (relevant).”
While JFSU come with a strong distrust of government, they require its assistance. In the city’s most recent needs assessment, they assigned “importance ratings” of 65+ % to 15 different services; by contrast, the community-wide sample did so for only seven. The functions deemed most urgent by the JFSU were: job training/placement 85%); programs for at-risk youth (85%); affordable housing (83%); afterschool programs and summer day camp for children (82%) and child care (82%).
Indeed, the needs assessment enables West Hollywood to address the problems expressed by its citizens– within the confines of a limited municipal budget.
“We contract with local nonprofits to provide (appropriate) services,” explained Dennis. The city does “not fund medical programs to a large extent because that’s a county responsibility. West Hollywood has a nonprofit housing corporation, but not enough money (for grand-scale building).” In some instances, the city funds programs that specifically reach out to the JFSU. Such is the case with the Russian Community Center. Another group of agencies– the L.A. Free Clinic, West Hollywood Senior Center, Bet Tzedek Legal Services, a preschool in Plummer Park, and many more– also receive financial support from West Hollywood. These organizations assist multiple, overlapping constituencies: JFSU, immigrants, low-income people, the elderly.
If nonprofits contribute mightily to West Hollywood’s social service infrastructure, there seems to be a disparity between conventional wisdom and new perceptions. Daphne Dennis indicates that while older JFSU remain in West Hollywood, those of working- age “tend to be here for about two years, then they’re out. They come … highly trained, educated. As soon as their English gets better or they gain employment certification, they enter the higher end of the wage pyramid.” The Valley, boasting lower home prices, generally is cited as the destination for this upwardly mobile population. Demographics support part of Dennis’ assertion. According to 1990 census figures, 72% of Soviet-born persons in L.A. County had more than one year of college; Jews from the FSU possess among the highest education levels of all immigrants entering the U.S. The prevalence of two-career families accelerates economic mobility. Excluding recent arrivals, the 1990 census showed 88% of the men and 71 of the women to be labor force participants here in Los Angeles.
Tomorrow: Jews from the former Soviet Union adjust to American life and West Hollywood rents.