In Search of Fairfax

The Chabad Russian Immigrant Program

From the early 1970s through the early 1990s, an estimated 40,000 Jews from the Soviet Union moved to Los Angeles. About half of these newcomers lived in and around the Beverly-Fairfax neighborhood, in no small part due to the area's relatively cheap rents and the presence of Jewish communal agencies that sought to assist these immigrants. Indeed, the Chabad Russian Immigrant Program—with its intention of integrating Soviet Jews into the Fairfax’s social fabric and easing their transition into American (Jewish) life—began its work in 1972. Along with the Jewish Family Service and the Jewish Vocational Service, the Chabad Russian Immigrant Program was one of the key organizations in Los Angeles that helped to establish the Fairfax neighborhood as a destination for Russian Jewish immigrants. 

The Chabad Russian Immigrant program first operated out of a small storefront on Fairfax Avenue at 420 N. Fairfax Avenue and soon moved to a larger location at 221 South LaBrea. Under the leadership of Rabbi Naftali Estulin, himself a Russian immigrant, the Chabad Russian Immigrant Program provided job placement services for teenagers and adults, English classes, medical assistance, summer camp for children, and family counseling for the recent immigrants.
Furthermore, unlike other social service agencies, Chabad was an Orthodox outreach organization that sought to help the immigrants who were not allowed to practice their religion in the Soviet Union “rediscover” their Judaism and raise their Jewish consciousness after living in a country that prohibited the practice of religion. As Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the head of the Chabad movement, explained to his supporters,“it’s not enough to bring them out of Russia and leave them to assimilate. The cry to Pharaoh was not only 'Let my people go' it was 'Let me people go so that they could serve me.'” Following these directives, Chabadnics in Los Angeles greeted new arrivals at the airport with mezuzahs, sponsored mass public bar mitzvah ceremonies, offered adult circumcisions, and provided year-round religious services in the language of its worshipers. These efforts did not turn the majority of Soviet immigrants into Orthodox Jews but, more appropriately, helped to familiarize those Soviet Jews associated with Chabad with Orthodox Jewish traditions and rituals. 

Sources: Chabad (Russian Immigrant Program and Synagogue), 1970-2000, folder 2, box 85, Western States Jewish History Archive, Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles; Herschel Glick, “Rabbi Estulin to head New Russian Shul,”B’nai B’rith Messenger, March 3, 1978; Vimala Jayanti, “From Russia to Fairfax Avenue: The Integration of Soviet Jewish Immigrants in Los Angeles” (University of California, Los Angeles, 1995).

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