In One Week, Jewish Community Lands Obama, Brin

By Jacob Berkman (JTA)

Published October 27, 2009.
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The relative calm that annually settles in over the Jewish nonprofit world during the High Holidays season ended with a bang this week, as the Jewish communal world landed two big gets.

President Obama agreed to speak next month at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America to be held in Washington – his first speech as president to a Jewish audience. And one of the country’s richest men, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, made his first major charitable gift to a Jewish organization.

Both developments provide a boost to a Jewish philanthropic world facing tough times.

Brin, the 36-year old programming whiz who is worth $15.3 billion according to the recently released Forbes 400 list, announced Sunday that he would give $1 million to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, one of the aid groups that helped his family when they emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States 30 years ago.

The announcement, made on the 30th anniversary of the Brin family’s arrival in America, came as a welcome surprise to a Jewish nonprofit world that has been speculating for years on whether or not the Google co-founder would become engaged philanthropically in the Jewish world as he ramps up his giving.

For the Jewish Federations, which recently changed its name from United Jewish Communities, landing Obama could provide a boost to a North American charitable network coping with sagging fund-raising campaigns and other significant challenges.

Federation officials had been trying for nearly a year to convince the president to deliver an address at the G.A. But as of early October, when the Jewish Federations announced that Vice President Joe Biden would speak, it appeared as though he had declined to address the meeting of several thousand leaders of the billion-dollar network of local Jewish charitable federations.

Apparently, however, federation lay leaders would not take no for an answer.

Officials at the Jewish Federations would not comment, but according to other insiders, major federation donors who are close with Obama from his days in Chicago helped put on the full-court press to bring him to the G.A., which will be held Nov. 8-10 at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel.

Speculation centered on two longtime Obama allies: Penny Pritzker, the chair of Classic Residence by Hyatt and the national finance chair of Obama’s presidential campaign, and Alan Solow, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“You have to have your biggest people, who are also their biggest people, make the call,” said one communal and political insider, discussing how an organization ends up securing an appearance by the president. “If you don’t have one or the other or both, it has to happen on merit. And it doesn’t happen on merit very often.”

Nonetheless, it seems like a good move for the president, some communal insiders said, noting that Obama will be speaking to an audience of Jewish activists who care deeply not only about Israel but also domestic issues.

The backstory of Brin’s decision to donate to HIAS dates back further but is clearer.

His father, Michael, was trained as a mathematician, but could not get a job as a professor in Moscow, because he was Jewish, and was forced into becoming an economist instead. He decided to move the family from behind the Iron Curtain after attending a conference in Warsaw and coming into contact with Western academics for the first time. The family was granted an exit visa in 1979 and moved to Western Europe, where they lived for several months before Michael found a job teaching at the University of Maryland in suburban Washington.

As the anniversary of the Brin family’s Oct. 25, 1979 arrival in the United States approached, the young billionaire asked his mother, Eugenia, about some of the organizations that helped the family as they transitioned into their new life. Among others, she mentioned HIAS.

“For a while, Sergey was asking us which organizations do we owe our thanks for helping us come to the United States,” Eugenia Brin told JTA in a telephone interview Sunday. “It just happens that the timing was right for him.

“HIAS was the only organization that was totally responsible for our immigration. They met us in Vienna, processed all of our documents. At that time the Jewish immigrants were deciding between Israel and the U.S. We, after a prolonged decision, chose the States. HIAS purchased our ticket and got us in touch with local Jewish organizations in the places we intended to go in Maryland.”

Eugenia Brin also noted that the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington gave the family an interest-free $2,000 loan that she and her husband used to buy their first car – a green, used 1973 Ford Maverick.

Though she is now involved with that federation, it is still unclear whether her son will become a major benefactor of inherently Jewish causes.

Asked if her son would invest in Jewish causes, Eugenia Brin said, “It’s a difficult question for me to answer. I’m not sure about his plans. I for one will be involved with Jewish organizations, HIAS and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. I expect Sergey to be as well.

She and her husband were preparing for a small party for about 20 friends in their home Sunday in honor of their immigration anniversary.

“It is a big discussion. It is an ongoing discussion,” she said of her son’s philanthropy. “It is a concern for us, for Sergey and his wife separately, and for all of us together. It is a consideration, but he is waiting to mature.”

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