Growing up in Northern California, Konstantin Kraz had very few Russian friends. That changed in 2000, when, as a student at San Jose State University, he went to Germany with a delegation from Hillel International on a program called “Bridge of Understanding.” Of the 18 participants, six were Russian immigrants. “Wow, these people are just like me,” he said. He soon became active in the San Francisco 79ers, an organization that brought together Russian émigrés who had come to America during the big immigration wave in 1979 (the organization has since been renamed RJeneration-SF).
In 2004, Kraz co-led a trip to Russia for a group of 79ers. “It was like being in a foreign country, but a lot of things looked familiar and I understood the language,” he says, recalling the trip, which was his first time back in Russia since he was seven.
When he moved to New York the next year, Kraz, a software engineer by profession, helped found RJeneration, a volunteer-driven organization that aims to build a community of young ex-Soviet Jews. The goal of RJeneration — which bears the slogan, “Born in the Soviet Union, Made in America” — is to help Russian-American Jews develop a voice and presence within the Jewish community by taking on leadership roles. Kraz models this by serving on the board of the Council of Young Jewish Presidents.
RJeneration has 600 members in the NY area and hopes to build an international brand. The organization “aims to build a bridge between people somewhat alienated from Jewish life and the Jewish community,” Kraz says, by hosting a discussion series, a Passover seder, Rosh HaShanah celebrations and Shabbat dinners. Most of the members are quite secular. “Two-thirds of people who come to the [RJeneration] Passover seder, if they didn’t come to us, they wouldn’t go anywhere,” he says.
Up in the air: Kraz is a licensed pilot who enjoys flying over the Sierras and taking friends on aerial tours of New York City. Playing with fire: He’s also a licensed pyrotechnician, who has produced public fireworks displays for more than 16 years.