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(photo credit: AP [file])
In Coney Island on the Saturday morning before election day, a group of elderly Russian immigrants listened patiently. Fiora Stukelman, a Holocaust survivor, handed out stacks of campaign literature and explained the rules of the game - all in Russian.
They had gathered at the campaign headquarters of Alec Brook-Krasny, who, come Tuesday, may be the first representative of recent waves of immigrants from the former Soviet Union to be elected to a state legislature anywhere in the country.
"Your job is to make sure those who want to vote for Krasny, vote," said Jerry Weber, campaign manager for Brook-Krasny.
Brook-Krasny, 48, who has the overwhelming support of Brooklyn's Democratic establishment including local elected officials, is expected to defeat Ari Kagan in the primary race for the 46th District Assembly. Whoever wins Tuesday's primary is expected to win the general election in November.
But ethnic origin will not be the determining factor in this race. In what many consider to be a milestone, both candidates vying for the Democratic nomination are Russian Jews who immigrated from the former Soviet Union in the last 20 years.
Brook-Krasny's immigrant experience mirrors that of his community. Even before his political career began, he was a familiar face.
Arriving in 1989, Brook-Krasny began delivering produce, and later stocked shelves for a meat store where he eventually became a manager. In 1995, after failing to find a place to host his daughter's first birthday party, Brook-Krasny converted an old warehouse space into an entertainment and education center where many people from the community gathered together.
"I started to realize that working for people makes my life the way I want it to be," Brook-Krasny said. "I don't think I have a choice."
What makes this race interesting, according to David Pollock, executive director of the New York Jewish Community Relations Council, is that "essentially the political establishment cleared away so that this would be a race among Russians because the establishment knows they have to evolve and admit new immigrants."
Since the fall of Communism, immigrants from the former Soviet Union have made their home in many parts of the Brooklyn borough. The 46th District includes the heart of Brooklyn's Russian community, Brighton Beach, also known as "Little Odessa." And many of the recent immigrants are Jews. The 2002 Jewish Community Study of New York found 124,000 Jews living in Russian-speaking households in Brooklyn.
But despite their presence in the borough, recent Russian immigrants have yet to leave a mark on local politics. During the past half decade, several immigrants from the former Soviet Union have lost State Assembly and City Council races to descendants of older immigrant groups.
Though Brook-Krasny lost three previous bids for City Council and State Assembly, he is slated to win this race with a wide base of support from the community and community leaders.
When Brook-Krasny asked his friend Tony Eyzenburg, who retired to Florida after running a meat market in Brooklyn for over 20 years, to return to Brooklyn to help him campaign, Eyzenburg said "Alec, you have no chance."
But Eyzenburg, like many others in the city, soon realized he was wrong. Already many city and state officials have endorsed Brook-Krasny. More than that, the number of registered voters is growing quickly. Eyzenburg estimates that six years ago the number of Russian voters in Brooklyn was roughly 400. Now they are up to 6,500 registered voters.
"From the beginning he was active in the community," said Eyzenburg, who came back to Brooklyn in April to campaign for his friend.
Prior to running, Brook-Krasny served as the executive director of the Council of Jewish migr Community Organizations, a central coordinating body for 34 community-based Russian-speaking organizations in New York.
"I began with two file cabinets out of the trunk of my truck, and now COJECO is one of the most innovative organizations," Brook-Krasny said.
With that organization, Brook-Krasny was able to raise money and rally support for Israel, which today serves as a unifying force among Jewish Russian immigrants.
According to Brook-Krasny, support for Israel has "replaced religion" for this largely secular population of Jews.
A series of focus group studies conducted in 2004 by the Jewish Community Relations Council showed Israel to be number one on the list of concerns for Russian Jews in New York.
"We received a variety of responses, but far and away the most important issue in every group, from senior to young, was the safety and security of Israel," Pollock said.
A strong expression of support for Israel is almost a pre-requisite for any candidate's success in this community. Where three-quarters of American Jews voted for Kerry in the 2004 presidential election, a significant number of Russian-speaking Jews voted for Bush, for his support for Israel.
"Israel now is at the forefront of the world and civilization," Brook-Krasny said. "Russian Jews are worried about Israel as the Jewish state, but we are also worried about Israel as the forefront against our enemies, and I'm saying enemies even if its not politically correct."
At the state level Brook-Krasny, who was in Israel during the recent war, intends to convince both Jews and non-Jews of the importance of supporting Israel.
"I have to explain to them that Israel is at the forefront of the world for everyone, not just for the Jews," Brook-Krasny said. "It goes beyond my duties, but this is something very close to my heart."
Back at headquarters, the group of volunteers were visibly excited. Electing someone from their own community is a freedom most never dreamed of having back in the Soviet Union.
"I wish for Alec to win," Stukelman said. "He knows our problems, he knows our life, our tradition and our language."
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