Chernobyl kids in S.F. for Judaism, medical aid

Yuri Disman was just 4 when the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded in 1986.

Yet he is well aware of the "big turmoil" that followed and of the radioactive rain that fell on his hometown of Gomel, one of the two cities inundated with the most radiation after the disaster.

The boy, who wears a kippah and a pro-wrestling T-shirt, has heard dire predictions about the fate of Gomel in the next century. And he believes them.

"It will be a dead city," he said through a translator.

But Disman, along with 11 other Jewish boys from Belarus and western Russia, has been able to leave the trauma and radiation behind temporarily.

The boys, ages 11 to 15, arrived in San Francisco in mid-July. They will spend a year here without their families while they undergo medical evaluations and treatment for any problems resulting from radiation exposure.

Right now, they are taking part in a Jewish day camp. After Labor Day, they will enroll in Beth Aharon, a Chassidic day school in the Richmond District.

All the boys were younger than 6 when the world's worst nuclear accident occurred in Chernobyl, a city with a rich history of Chassidism. If not immediately hit with radiation, the children likely have been eating irradiated food and drinking contaminated water much of their lives.

According to reports from the World Health Organization and international research groups, the Chernobyl accident has produced markedly higher rates of death, cancer, weakened immune systems, thyroid disorders, heart disease and birth defects in the region.

"I hope we'll be able to cure them," said Rabbi Bentzion Pil, project coordinator and executive director of the non-profit Jewish Educational Center that runs the day school and camp.

But first comes the diagnosis. Pil, in fact, doesn't know exactly what is wrong with the boys.

"Russian medicine is so bad — it's very hard to know," said Pil, a Chassid who emigrated 21 years ago from Uzbekistan in the former Soviet Union. "We know they were affected by the radiation. The question is, how much?"

Several of the boys look years younger than others their age. One complains of eye infections. Thirteen-year-old Disman can only say he suffers from "a lot of illnesses."

The boys already are undergoing preliminary evaluations through the UCSF Medical Center, which is providing them with discounted care.

Ya'aqov Abrams, a UCSF family physician who helped arrange for the medical treatment, has examined half of the boys so far. Many arrived only with vaccination records, which he said are difficult to decipher.

The examinations include screenings for leukemia, lymph node cancer and thyroid disease — conditions associated with radiation exposure.

Although Abrams can't release information about their specific medical conditions, he said "nothing major" has been found.

"They seem pretty healthy," he said. But Abrams added that the long-term effects of radiation exposure might not show up for many years.

Despite their circumstances, the boys seem much like any American youths. They are shy around strangers and clam up when asked about themselves. But when they are together in a classroom, they start to goof around and crack jokes.

They enjoy playing pingpong, watching TV, collecting stamps and listening to pop music.

Roman Maximkin, a 14-year-old who wears a Houston Oilers cap and is already sprouting a wispy mustache, said he likes to play guitar and has a red belt in karate. He is one of only two boys in the group who speaks some English.

Americans tend to think of the areas surrounding Chernobyl as wasteland. But Maximkin has an affection for his hometown of Bryansk.

At first he described that Russian industrial city as "nothing special." But Maximkin quickly added that he hopes to live in Bryansk for the rest of his life, simply "because I was born there." Away from home for less than three weeks, Maximkin also misses his family and friends.

Others feel less attached to their native cities, which sit anywhere from 75 miles to 350 miles from Chernobyl.

Vladimir Dushakov, a 12-year-old from the Russian city of Smolensk, said he misses only his parents and his cat, Pooch.

Although Disman smiled when he recalled the beautiful park in his Belorussian city of Gomel, he already is considering a move to San Francisco someday.

But then again, the boys are having more fun and adventures than they are used to. Besides receiving daily Hebrew lessons and religious instruction, they also spend a good chunk of their days playing.

As part of Camp Chai — the summer program at Beth Aharon Day School — they have visited the Exploratorium, the California Academy of Sciences and Oakland's Lake Temescal. They also spend time in city parks, playing soccer and basketball.

After Labor Day, their studies will become more serious. They will take secular and religious classes with specially recruited teachers. That's because Beth Aharon itself is only an elementary school, while the boys' academic levels range from seventh to 10th grade.

Pil, a Lubavitch Chassid who is not part of the official Chabad organization, first decided to organize such a program in 1990, when he was helping open a Jewish camp near Moscow.

"In this camp were kids who were victims of Chernobyl," he said. "I got pity on them."

For Chassidic Jews, interest in Chernobyl extends into the last century. In the 1800s, the town was home to a dynasty of Chassidic leaders and became a center of the movement. But Soviet rule and later Nazism destroyed the Jewish presence there.

Pil, meanwhile, hopes this will be the first year of an ongoing program that will bring larger groups of boys, as well as girls, from the Chernobyl area. It was simpler to bring only boys on the first program, the rabbi said, because Chassidic practice would not allow a mixed group to live together in close quarters.

Because he isn't charging the families for the program, Pil is trying to raise money and find volunteers. The final price tag depends on the extent of the medical treatment, but Pil estimates the project could cost at least $1 million.

Luba Troyanovsky and Sam Budovsky already have responded to Pil's appeal for help. Emigres themselves, the married couple offered their three-bedroom house in the Richmond District after they decided to move into a new residence.

"I decided I could at least donate the house for the year," Troyanovsky said. "The boys need good food and good care."

Pil has also recruited other Russian-speaking rabbis and rabbinical students to help.

Shimon Margolin, a 23-year-old native of Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, left New York City and postponed his rabbinic ordination for a year to help oversee the kids. He also will teach Hebrew and religious studies.

While it might seem unusual for parents to give up their children for a year, Margolin said the Chernobyl case is different.

"The parents are happy to send their kids out of the radiation," he said.

Some of the boys have studied a bit of Judaism, but their knowledge and observance levels vary.

All the boys cover their heads, either with kippot or baseball caps. Tzitzit, or ritual fringes, hang from the waist of one boy's jeans. None of the boys has formally celebrated a bar mitzvah so Pil is planning a group b'nai mitzvah.

But Pil added that none of the boys will be forced to do anything.

"We don't believe in pressuring Judaism," he said.

The rabbi isn't the first to help Jewish children from the region. Chabad began a similar though unrelated project five years ago in Israel called Children of Chernobyl. Since then, it has brought more than 1,200 children to the Jewish state for medical help.

There's at least one difference between the two projects, however. Chabad requires the parents to promise they'll immigrate to Israel. Pil, on the other hand, said his boys will return to their families and homes in the former Soviet Union next summer.

But the rabbi hopes that a year living away from the radiation and living with observant Jews will ultimately help the dozen boys.

"I feel we will save 12 Jewish lives," he said.