Jewish Community Prepares for Arrival of Soviet Immigrants
The Los Angeles Jewish community is bracing for the arrival of up to 4,500 destitute immigrants this year, many of them Soviet Jews who are beneficiaries of recent efforts by the Soviet Union to mend its human rights image.
About 1,000 immigrants were expected to arrive in Los Angeles from the Soviet Union and Iran during the 12-month period starting Sept. 1, 1988, about the same as the 515 Soviet Jews and more than 700 Iranian Jews who were resettled in 1987-88.
But with emigration from Iran continuing and the change in policy under Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, it now appears that the total may be four times larger, said Wayne Feinstein, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, an umbrella organization made up of more than 500 groups.
Gorbachev “has let our people go,” Feinstein said, calling it “a wonderful problem to have, but . . . financially very difficult.”
To help deal with the problem, groups that lobbied Washington and petitioned the Kremlin to free Soviet Jews in previous years are looking for ways to help them once they arrive in the United States.
Since the early 1970s, more than 20,000 Soviet emigres have found homes in Los Angeles. Most of them initially found housing in West Hollywood and in the Fairfax District, traditional magnets for Jewish immigration.
Some Westside families have started gathering furniture and pots and pans to help the new arrivals furnish their apartments, while others are organizing Sabbath dinners and other contacts with recent arrivals.
“Of course after three months, you can’t feel quite at home, but people have helped us and Jewish Family Services (a federation agency) has helped us, and that’s very important,” said Faini Tokar, who recently arrived in Los Angeles from Odessa, a port city in the Ukraine.
“And it is not just the material aspect, but because you feel the support,” she said.
Some of the newcomers are former refuseniks, so called because they waited in poverty and disgrace for many years before they were allowed to emigrate.
“Just as we adopted refusenik families in the Soviet Union, the idea is that after working so hard to get them here, (we should not) lose them here,” said Susan Jacoby Stern, an attorney who recently set up a small group to help immigrants.
Another effort, organized by Es ther Krisman of the federation-sponsored Bureau of Jewish Education, seeks to link immigrants with synagogues and other community groups.
“When they first come here, they’re interested in learning English and getting a job--basic survival skills,” she said. “Then they get interested in other things.”
Although he welcomed the change in Soviet policy, Feinstein said the resettlement effort will strain the budget of the federation’s social service agencies, which help provide housing, English-language instruction and employment services.
“We’re looking at red ink of $3 (million) to $6 million, depending on the final numbers, and that’s money we don’t have,” Feinstein said.
He said the federation’s fund-raising drive will have to yield $53 million this year, compared to $48 million in 1988, if other services are not to suffer.
The resettlement effort begins well before individual refugees arrive in Los Angeles, said Sima Furman, director of immigration and resettlement for Jewish Family Services, an agency financed by the federation.
She said one of her three Russian-speaking social workers contacts the newcomers’ friends and relatives to advise them of their arrival.
Benefits for the newcomers include payments that vary depending on the size of the immigrant family; ranging from $1,925 for an individual to $6,000 for a family of six. The payments are stretched out over four months, with a bigger check in the begining to help pay for first- and last-months’ rent.
The agency also arranges for English classes for the emigres and for health care at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
“The goal is for the family to become financially viable and independent within four months, if possible,” said Ethel Taft, executive director of Jewish Vocational Services, a sister agency.
She said most Soviet immigrants develop the language and job skills needed to get a job, and that family and friends help support them until then.
“L.A. is very big,” said Isaac Brooks, an electrical engineer who emigrated from the Soviet Union eight years ago. “Even if there are 4,000 new people, I don’t think there will be a problem, because they have support here. When we came, we had no support, but the new immigrants have relatives, friends; they will support them more or less, and the community will try to help.”
Ironically, planning for the expected onslaught of refugees has been complicated by U.S. immigration policy, which limits the number of visas issued to refugees from different parts of the world each year. The policy has created a backlog of emigrants awaiting entry into the United States, making it hard for local planners to know how many to expect.
Responding to reports that some Soviet Jews are being denied refugee status and that others face long waits before coming to the United States, President Reagan last week raised the quota for refugees from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe from 24,500 to 30,000, taking the extra visas from an under-used quota of 25,000 set for refugees from Vietnam.
But with the total number of Jews, Armenians and others leaving the Soviet Union estimated to exceed 50,000 this year, thousands of would-be immigrants may have to wait for months in Italy and other transit points for their turn to enter the United States.
Refugee status is significant because it brings with it federal money to help pay for transportation from Europe to the United States and to help underwrite resettlement efforts. Without it, local agencies have to dig deeper to finance their absorption programs.
“It’s our success that they’ve gotten out now, and we accept the challenge of dealing with the influx,” said Ellen Rabin, director of the federation’s Commission on Soviet Jewry.
“It’ll cost a lot of money, but we hope to find it somewhere. We’re hoping that the federal government will be our partner,” she said.
“The issue of funding can’t be ignored,” agreed Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City). “Los Angeles is organizing a massive private effort in recognition of federal deficit problems, but no one is naive enough to think they’re not going to need federal help.”
Berman, who sits on the House subcommittee on immigration, refugees and international law, said he is working with Administration officials to increase the funding and raise the number of refugee visas to clear up the backlog in Europe.