Part 2: What Motivated the Migration of Jews from the Former Soviet Union to WeHo?

A meeting with a meal.
(Photo by Steven Gold)

The following is the second 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.

The journey of the latter-day “Russian Jews” to West Hollywood has consumed almost four decades, and was motivated by changes both internal and external to the USSR. As early as 1952, with Stalin dying, Israel established a liaison bureau to work through foreign embassies behind the Iron Curtain to make contact with Soviet and Eastern European Jews. By 1965, this underground organization had begun to fuel Jewish nationalism inside the USSR. At the same time, a different generation of Soviet leaders, under Nikita Khrushchev, proved less politically repressive and more concerned about the country’s global image.

Perceived disagreement with the Communist Party still was harshly treated, but the government no longer sought to eradicate distinct populations or cultures. Voices of creativity, dissent, and just plain inquiry occasionally surfaced during the early 1960s. One example was the emergence of Sovetish Heymland, a literary magazine edited by Yiddish writers: survivors of the Stalinist purges who sought to explore Jewish life in the USSR and abroad. It was around the same time that Yevgeni Yevtushenko wrote “Babi Yar,” a daring poem about the Nazi slaughter and mass burial of tens of thousand Jews; Dmitri Shostakovitch added music to the theme, with his Symphony No. 13 premiering on December 18, 1962.

Such political and cultural awakenings inspired a core of educated, urban Jews, primarily from the great Russian capitals of Moscow and Leningrad. Realizing that they could not deeply express any aspect of their Jewish heritage while living in the Soviet Union, they repeatedly sought– and were denied– the right to emigrate. They subsequently became known in various circles as refuseniks, Prisoners of Conscience, or Prisoners of Zion.

The plight of Soviet Jews impassioned not only L.A. Jewry, but Jews throughout the United States, at all emotional levels. It represented something of a second chance for those who had lived safely through World War II, but regretted their impotence or inaction during the Holocaust. Furthermore, in the wake of McCarthyism, with its anti-Semitic undercurrent, committed members of the Old Left now could take a visible, but reasoned, public stand against the Soviet Union. The Soviet Jewry movement found a home on the campus, too; indeed, it thrived at Fairfax High and UCLA. The children of the 1950s had been raised with a mixed message: at once taught to celebrate their growing assimilation into mainstream America, while clinging to the Jewish community for fear of resurgent anti-Semitism. Being a Jewish kid was not necessarily joyous!

(Photo by Steven Gold)

The Soviet Jewry movement– along with a growing pride in Israel’s accomplishments, particularly its 1967 victory against all odds– challenged youth here to reflect positively on their background and heritage. It also forged a spiritual-political connection to the burgeoning, national civil rights movement which, after all, revolved around some of the same fundamental issues. Perhaps for the first time, youth could be assertive Jewish– and American– activists. Former L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who grew up on North Martel Street, received his political initiation by working to free “refuseniks.”

Foreign affairs typically are low on the priority list for most Americans. However, U.S. political leaders and diplomats attempting to normalize relations with the U.S.S.R. saw a potentially large, voting constituency in the grassroots Soviet Jewry movement. The culmination of this alliance was the Jackson-Vanik Amendment of 1974, tying American trade privileges to the release of Soviet Jews.

Subsequently, there were two major waves of Russian Jewish refugees: the activist intelligentsia of the 1970s and early 1980s, and those later touched by the changes in–and ultimate dissolution of — the Soviet Union, itself. Under the leadership of Mikhail S. Gorbachev (1985-1991), the government moved toward perestroika, a series of reform initiatives that, among other elements, liberalized immigration policies. Perceived decentralization at the top of what once had been a monolith soon caused various republics to proclaim their independence from the Soviet Union. Jewish citizens suffered the effects of much smaller, chaotic economies and (partially as a result) anti-Semitism fueled by new nationalism. Daphne Dennis, the Social Services Manager of the City of West Hollywood, also noted a third immigration wave: Ukrainians who fled after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster.

Resettlement and the Choice of a Community

The Hebrew Immigration and Aid Society (HIAS) has served as the major pipeline for Jewish refugees since 1880. From 1954-1975, HIAS assisted merely 14,300 Soviet Jews in coming to the U.S. Approximately 90,518 arrived here during the period of 1976-1985, averaging over 9,000 per year. The figure skyrocketed to 306,707 from 1986-1999, about 21,900 annually.

Refugee aid has varied with foreign policy, and at times public funding was more plentiful. While the U.S. government provides the diplomatic vehicle for emigration, nonprofit organizations serve as the actual resettlement agents. Family members here must initiate their relatives’ release from the FSU; through networks overseas, the nonprofit “volacs” (volunteer action agencies) begin the diplomatic and administrative processes necessary for immigration.

Jews and Armenians constitute the largest immigrant groups from the FSU, and three organizations operate within Los Angeles on their behalf: the Jewish Federation; International Institute; and, International Rescue. According to Gregory Braverman, a Soviet Jewish emigre who’s now a resettlement worker for the International Institute, the choice of agency can depend on: how close the host family resides to an agency’s offices; the word-of-mouth reputation of and respect for a particular resettlement worker; or, on the nature of the services, themselves.

Although the figures have fluctuated somewhat over the years, the Jewish Federation currently assists an even greater percentage of former Soviet Jewish constituents than in the past, roughly two- thirds of those who come to Los Angeles. All told, the agency has resettled 20,026 since 1973. Of that amount, about two-thirds (13,000+) have at one time or another resided in West Hollywood– more than any other Southern California jurisdiction. The city presently is home to between 3,000 and 3,800 JFSU.

Tomorrow: The story behind the four-decade journey of members of West Hollywood’s Russian-speaking Jewish community.

1 Comment
  1. While it’s lovely to help oppressed asylum seekers from around the world, how many US citizens (especially seniors) have been bumped from Weho by refugees taking advantage of limited low income housing/Section 8 vouchers? I get it, they want us fighting over the crumbs, but let’s give the complete picture.

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