Standing in line at the Second Harvest Food Bank in Mountain View, Gregory Novick, 68, saw several Russian women crying and yelling in front of him.
"It was turmoil. The American people didn't understand them because they were old and didn't speak English. I asked if I could help," says Novick, who had only been in this country two months himself.
Two years later, Novick is an official translator for the food bank, a junior high school math tutor and a central part of the volunteer work force at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto. His wife, Lola, also helps out at the center, organizing concerts and preparing kosher, Russian food for bake sales.
The Jewish community "was a big help to us, giving us advice, special grants, explaining a lot," Novick says. "Our work is in great thanks to the JCC for helping us in the first steps of our life here."
The former Moscow math professor and his wife are among some 160 emigre volunteers honored Sunday at the JCC's "An American Thank You," a first-time event held to acknowledge the volunteer efforts of new Americans. The event was sponsored by Jewish community organizations of the South Peninsula and included speakers Anita Friedman, executive director of Jewish Family and Children's Services in San Francisco, and Joe Simitian, mayor of Palo Alto.
In the Bay Area, emigres from the former Soviet Union have been known more for using community services than contributing to them, says JCC volunteer coordinator Sue Klarreich.
"There are negative attitudes in this community. We want to say that they [emigres] are paying their way through their volunteer activities," she says.
Still, Klarreich admits that "volunteering is an unknown concept in the former Soviet Union." But that doesn't stop emigres from catching on fast, she adds.
"They are so grateful for the support given to them that they come forth and help. I've had people here only a week or two that tell me they want to volunteer. It's high time we recognize the way they feel about this."
At the JCC alone, about 100 volunteers do everything from teaching computer skills to maintaining libraries of Russian films and books.
Novick edits a Russian magazine, creates bilingual flyers and helps other senior emigres apply for government services through the JCC.
Volunteer efforts not only help emigres adjust to a new life here, but also help them preserve their own culture.
Lev Matusev, 68, who left Moscow in 1990, volunteers at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. The former aircraft engineer is now designing a way to help capture the stories of elderly Jewish emigres. So far, he has videotaped the oral histories of 11 seniors for posterity.
"Jewish people were persecuted for studying their history, culture, religion. This left us without roots. I'm trying to restore them. This is my main goal," Matusev says.
And Klarreich hopes emigres will continue to plant themselves in the Bay Area by volunteering to help others.