The copy of Leon Uris’ “Exodus” that Mark Tsesarsky read as a teenager was fragile, having passed through many hands before his. This was a samizdat copy, published underground and secretly circulated among Jews in the former Soviet Union. In the 1970s, reading it could have gotten Tsesarsky arrested, but, as he told Uris many years later as a new citizen of the United States, it made him “a Zionist in hiding.”
Twenty years after leaving Kiev for America, Tsesarsky, 37, now a Wall Street executive and a resident of the Upper West Side, is very much a proud Jew. “There is no comparison with where I have been and where I am now,” he told an audience of colleagues last December when he was honored by the Wall Street division of UJA-Federation and presented with their Young Leadership Award. That evening, he looked quite similar to the rest of the well-dressed people at the Hilton, but he may have been the only person present who was not only a contributor to UJA, but had also been a beneficiary of the Jewish community’s philanthropy.
When Tsesarsky was growing up, he knew he was Jewish — it was a fact that Soviet authorities never let Jews forget — but he didn’t know what it meant, as he tells The Jewish Week. Unlike his Wall Street peers, he never complained about Hebrew school, for he couldn’t study Judaism at all. He wasn’t able to attend the only synagogue in Kiev; he had no bar mitzvah. At age 13, tragedy struck his family when his father was killed in an accident, and life became even more difficult. Four years later, his family’s prayers were answered, he explains, when they received permission to leave the Soviet Union. With $90 and all of their possessions in a few suitcases, the 17-year-old, his mother, grandmother and sister resettled in Denver, where family members had recently emigrated with the assistance of Jewish Family Services of Colorado.
He says that he expected America to be loud, full of bright lights, “a Las Vegas-type environment” with skyscrapers. When he landed in Denver in the middle of a snowstorm, he was taken aback, pleased with the fresh air. Arriving with a vocabulary of only a few English words, he studied English for two months and then enrolled in the senior class at George Washington High School. During that year, he served food in a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, ushered in a local movie theater, and maintained almost a 4.0 average. He recalls that at school he felt like an outsider — speaking differently, dressing differently — and began to understand that “this was a place of equals but not really.” He received a scholarship to attend the Colorado School of Mines and after four years of studying and delivering pizzas, graduated with a degree in chemical and petroleum refining engineering. Two years later in 1986, he received a master’s degree in business from UCLA. He didn’t stop feeling like an outsider until he began working on Wall Street. His first job was at Salomon Brothers, where now, after 13 years, he is a managing director and co-head of the mortgage department.
Speaking softly with a slight trace of an accent, Tsesarsky is polite and humble about his accomplishments, but also driven and goal-oriented; he suggests a formal outline in response to a reporter’s open-ended questioning style. About being honored by UJA, he says that at first he was reluctant, “I didn’t want to be a symbol or a poster boy. People on Wall Street become jaded and think that money is all that’s important in life. The indifference really bothers me. I wanted to shake them up, to explain to them that we’re no better than the people who need our help.” He adds, as though addressing his peers directly, “I’ve been there. You may have been there generations ago.”
Tsesarsky, who became a U.S. citizen in 1985, speaks with passion of the “responsibility,” of giving back to the community. “I’ve been prejudiced against, discriminated against. My background makes me stronger and different, and gives me the opportunity to appreciate things in a different way. Now I’m trying to do as much as I can to pay back the people who got me where I am.” He adds that you can’t do much better in life than living on the Upper West Side “as a free Jewish human being.”
“In both his personal and business lives and in his charitable activities, Mark really is the embodiment of what the American Jewish community was fighting for in the Soviet Jewry movement,” says Misha Galperin, chief operating officer of UJA-Federation, who immigrated from the Soviet Union in 1976. “He brings to the American Jewish community the strengths and energy of the new immigrant generation, with a strong Jewish identity which was steeped not in the environment of Jewish affiliation and education as often happens in the U.S. but in the environment where being Jewish was about national ethnic peoplehood.” He sees Tsesarsky “emerging as one of the new leaders of the American Jewish community.”
Galperin tells a story that Tsesarsky modestly leaves out. In 1991, he raised funds to buy airplane tickets for 250 Russian refugees who sought emigration to Israel during Operation Exodus. Tsesarsky’s efforts didn’t end with fund raising: He accompanied the flight to Israel.
Along with continued work on behalf of JFS of Colorado, where several members of his family now work, he also serves on the boards of the New York Association of New Americans (NYANA), the Educational Alliance, the American Friends of Pardes and is treasurer of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, where he can be found every Shabbat.
In discussing his work on behalf of NYANA, Tsesarsky describes a deep, personal connection to the newest immigrants now arriving from the former Soviet Union, who are served by the agency. “American Jews went to such great lengths to get Russian Jews here,” he says, suggesting that greater efforts should be made to embrace the newer arrivals and provide Jewish education. He’d like to see more leadership training for the younger generation.
Since his days of reading “Exodus,” he has been very interested in Jewish education. A critical event in his life here was being selected as a Wexner Heritage member in 1992, when he engaged in a two-year course of Jewish study, which provided a foundation for continued study. “When you discover your roots at a more advanced age, you don’t take it for granted.” He says he looks forward to having time when he retires to pursuing further study and “spiritual pleasures.”
Last year, a trip to Kiev brought back a lot of difficult memories. Encountering friends from childhood, he found that although they spoke the same language, they “could have been strangers.” He hopes to go back again with his wife Robin, a Reform rabbi, and their children — who are blonde like him — ages 5, 3 and 18 months.
Like many parents, Tsesarsky speaks of the stresses of balancing work and family. Most mornings, he’s in his office by 7:15 and spends many evenings doing work-related entertaining. While he used to be a competitive tennis player, he laughs and says that his athletic life now involves running in Central Park after his children — one of whom interrupts a telephone conversation to be kissed. His vision for his children’s lives? “To be fully responsible, to learn to be caring and giving Jewish people. That for me is the Jewish American dream.”