East Bay emigres have their own newspaper in Russian

Vmeste means “together” in Russian, which makes it a good name for a Russian-language newspaper in the East Bay, because for nearly two decades, Vmeste has been bolstering the togetherness of the area’s Russian-speaking Jewish community.

Vmeste, which is printed about 98 percent in Cyrillic, with a few English words tossed in here and there, celebrated its 200th issue this month.

Front page of March 2014 issue

What started out as a small periodical with only four pages — mainly about integration issues — has grown to 16 pages with articles on a variety of topics, plus lots of advertising. It’s available through the mail by subscription, or online in PDF format.

And unlike its early days, when it was published every three months or so, there is now a new issue every month.

“If it rains or storms, the newspaper still comes,” said Asya Kramer, Vmeste’s editor-in-chief.

Kramer, who lives in Hayward and has been editing the paper since 2007, has a background in journalism. She worked at the Evening Kishinev in Moldova prior to immigrating to the Bay Area 20 years ago.

Vmeste, Kramer said, greatly aided émigrés in the 1990s, when thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union settled in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

Founded in 1997, the newspaper has “grown with the readers’ immigration” over the years, Kramer said.

“In the beginning, we wrote about topics like how to get a job, how to go through an interview and how to buy meat,” Kramer said.

By looking at how the content of the paper has shifted over the past two decades, Kramer said one can readily see how émigrés have become more Americanized. The most recent issue includes articles on the East Bay Jewish Film Festival, how to celebrate Purim and how to make hamantaschen. There is also a humorous piece about working in Utah.

Most of the writers and reporters live in the Bay Area, but about a third of them (some who have ties to the local Russian-speaking community) are scattered across the United States. They represent a broad age spectrum and work to include articles that are applicable and interesting to a multi-generational audience.

“We want to be open to all generations, not just have topics for old people,” Kramer said.

Volunteers mailing out issues of Vmeste photo/courtesy vmeste

While the S.F.-based New Life Russian-language newspaper has been in print since 1980, the idea to publish a Russian-language newspaper in the East Bay came about in the 1990s. That’s when Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay began printing a newsletter for new immigrants about upcoming events in the community.

“We came up with the idea to have a little newspaper,” said Lila Katz, Resettlement and Russian Coordinator for JFCS.

Katz, who has managed the paper since then, said that during the high wave of FSU immigration in the ’90s, the staff would welcome new immigrants by printing their names in the paper.

“People would call and ask for the phone numbers [of friends] who they hadn’t seen in 40 years,” Katz said.

Circulated to almost 1,000 households in the East Bay, Vmeste also has subscribers across the country.

The paper relies on its many volunteers to make sure Vmeste gets printed and sent out every month.

“We have a wonderful group of people who come and do the mailings,” said Katz. In the early years, only two people were needed for that task.

Kramer is the paper’s only paid employee and gets a small stipend for her work as editor-in-chief. The paper is funded by advertising, JFCS, donations and subscriptions that cost $12 per year.

The amount of advertising is nothing to sneeze at. The most recent issue included more than two dozen ads, many of them for local Russian-speaking doctors, real estate agents and childcare providers.

Kramer and Katz explained that the paper is a group effort, and one that is important because it continues to cement the identity of Jewish Russian immigrants in the area.

“There are three sides of us,” Kramer explained, “our Jewish identity, Eastern European history and American spirit. And all are important.”

Vmeste can be seen by clicking on the link at www.tinyurl.com/jfcs-vmeste.

Abra Cohen