Seniors | 85-year-old migr is local hero to Russian Jews

When Gregory Novick was a prominent mathematics professor and computer specialist in Moscow, Sergei Khrushchev, son of the late premier, asked him for help securing a Ph.D. After writing a revealing memoir titled “Khrushchev on Khrushchev: An Inside Account of the Man and His Era,” which was published abroad in 1990, Sergei was persona non grata in Russia and unable to acquire a doctorate.

Novick wondered why the prominent scientist would need a Ph.D.

Gregory Novick chats with Susan Wolfe of the Oshman Family JCC at his birthday party last summer.

Sergei looked at him and said, “I want to emigrate.”

Today Sergei Khrushchev, 78, is an American citizen, ensconced at Brown University, where he is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute of International Studies.

Novick, 85, is a U.S. citizen living in Mountain View. Besides distinguishing himself in his profession, he stood out early on by helping defend his city at the age of 13 during the Siege of Leningrad, after his father was killed by German soldiers in 1941, and has a medal to show for it.

His heroic acts continue, though they’re of a different nature. After emigrating in 1993, he pitched in at Palo Alto’s former Albert L. Schultz JCC as a volunteer, teaching elderly émigrés to use computers and helping them negotiate American social services and the legal system. He has helped them find housing, fill out forms and has even accompanied them to court to resolve knotty legal questions.

He also works 15 hours a week as assistant manager of the Russian department at Palo Alto’s Oshman Family JCC, where he edits a Russian-language publication, Vstrecha (Encounter), maintains a database and assists with the JCC’s Russian programs, along with his wife, Lola.

However, Novick’s job description is only the tip of the iceberg. That’s why the OFJCC honored him in August on his 85th birthday. When the MidPeninsula Community Media Center put out a call for unsung local heroes, Novick was nominated and made the cut. His story will air on Palo Alto cable channels later this spring and will also be on the website.

“He’s one of our most active volunteers,” said Boris Vladimirsky, JCC performing arts manager who plays an active role in the JCC’s Russian emigré activities. “Thousands in the community have been helped by him.”

One of them is his granddaughter, Natasha Novick, 29, who teaches English to elderly Russian speakers at the JCC. “Everybody knows if you need help, go to Gregory Novick,” she said. “Even if he’s lacking, he’ll find a way to give to others.”

Natasha, whose parents left Russia in 1989 as political refugees when she was 5, also had a profound influence on her grandparents’ decision to emigrate. After her father, Alexander, now 60, found a job as a computer programmer and her family moved to Mountain View, her grandparents came over from Russia for a visit. One morning, after taking Natasha to her elementary school, her grandfather wondered who was going to take her home on a day-to-day basis.

The solution was easy, but the decision was difficult. “We decided that we have to take care of the children,” said Novick. “We decided to change our lives for them.”

At the time, he and Lola were 65 and retired. They had left Russia along with younger son Dmitry, now 50, expecting that he would eventually have children and would need their help. (Dmitry, who also lives in Silicon Valley, now has two young daughters.)

But despite the joy in helping to take care of Natasha, an only child, and the prospect of more grandchildren, Novick was at loose ends. For one, the adjustment to life in America was monumental. In Russia, he had been a well-known professor and dean. In Silicon Valley, he was unknown. In Russia, he had two secretaries. Here he had to do his own paperwork — in English. Although he could read English, particularly technical papers, speaking it was another story. And then, for the first time in his life, he had time on his hands.

“I can do something besides take care of grandchildren,” he said to himself, so he called the JCC, offering his help as a computer specialist. Soon he was pitching in on a variety of projects, from publications and translating to serving as an advocate in the Russian community. Later, he recruited other volunteers. Lola also recruits and helps with special events, including the annual Russian fair.

In recent years, work has been more difficult for Novick. Five years ago, he survived cancer. More recently, he’s had kidney problems and undergoes dialysis three days a week. In addition, he’s experienced hearing loss.

But if someone in the Russian community calls upon him, Novick is there. Some weeks ago, when he was very ill, someone came over to his home seeking help. “He woke up from his nap and started working,” said Natasha.

Natasha, who is studying for her MFA at San Francisco’s Academy of Art and freelancing in merchandising, said her goal is to teach college students who need remedial help. Meanwhile, every Wednesday, she drives to Palo Alto to teach the ESL class at the JCC. Afterward, she goes to her grandparents’ home in Mountain View for dinner, where Novick gives her pointers about teaching English. “He’s never stopped being a student,” she said, noting that he’s always learning new things.

She is proud of her parents, who are now in Los Gatos “living the American dream” after experiencing grueling poverty when they first emigrated. But she attributes her commitment to community service to Novick. “My grandfather has given me this blessing for the rest of my life,” she said. “Truly he made me into the person I am today.”

Janet Silver Ghent