Jews here worry Families here wondering if Soviet relatives will be free to emigrate

August 20, 1991|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Evening Sun Staff Liz Atwood, Stephanie Shapiro, Melody Simmons and William Thompson contributed to this story. nHC XB

How quickly people learned to take glasnost for granted.

The Soviet Union's increasing openness, now threatened by the upheaval in that nation, affects hundreds of people throughout the Baltimore area in ways large and small.

Programs involving state government, businesses, schools and non-profit groups have become almost commonplace since Mikhail S. Gorbachev was chosen as Communist Party chief six years ago. Now those involved in such programs are wondering about the future.

Perhaps those who are the most concerned are the families of more than 1,300 Soviet Jews in the process of immigrating to Baltimore. People began calling and visiting Jewish Family Services yesterday after hearing the early morning news, desperate for information.

"At this point, we're just waiting," said Elana Kuperstein, a spokeswoman for the Associated -- the Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, the parent organization for Jewish Family Services. "Some people came this morning. They were totally terrified."

"[But] it's too early to panic," she said. "It's premature to generalize."

Since May 1989, nearly 2,000 Soviet Jews have immigrated to Baltimore, thanks to the liberalization of policies there. Before that, Kuperstein said, the largest immigration to Baltimore had been 550 people in 1979. And, in total, there are still only 3,000 in the local community.

Mosey Katsnelson, 55, arrived here June 20, and was hoping his 58-year-old brother might soon follow. Now he's worried that reunion may never take place.

"If Gorbachev went away because of the military, it's bad," he said by telephone from Jewish Vocational Services, which helps people such as Katsnelson find jobs in Baltimore. "Yes, I'm worried."

Another non-profit agency with a stake in the Soviet Union is the American Center for International Leadership, which had planned to hold a Leningrad conference.

The conference, postponed in January because of the Persian Gulf War, has been rescheduled for Sept. 11. Some 200 American academicians, scientists, religious and social leaders and politicians have signed up for the conference.

The earlier postponement of the event was a major financial setback for the center, which has struggled to stay afloat until it could receive fees from conference attendees.

"It's sickening, but it's probably as important to go now as any time," said Stephen Hayes, president of the center.


Maryland exports corn, soybeans, construction materials and expertise to the Soviet Union. Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who has visited the country twice on trade missions, said from a governors' convention in Seattle that he expects the relationship to remain unchanged for now.

But some programs could be affected immediately -- such as the Department of Agriculture's exchange program, Deputy Secretary Bob Walker said.

Walker was to meet seven Soviet agriculture students today at Dulles International Airport in Virginia. The students are to work on local farms, part of a 3-year-old program set up by the agency.

"As far as I know, they're still coming," he said yesterday. "But I haven't been able to get through. The phone lines have been tied up all day."

At the same time, two Soviet agricultural experts who have been visiting Maryland this summer were to return to the Soviet Union today, Walker said.


The coup may mean setbacks for fledgling Maryland-Soviet businesses ties as well, although those businesses with long-standing Soviet ties seemed to greet the news with more aplomb.

The Odessa/Baltimore Trade Council had just started to make progress in encouraging business between Baltimore and its sister city in the Ukraine, said its chairman, Baltimore lawyer Tom Lewis. "We're all sort of stunned," he said.

The trade council, operating with the support of Baltimore Economic Development Co., started in February and hosted a delegation of Ukrainian business leaders in June. The council had just recently received its first products -- handcrafted model ships -- to market in the United States.

Tom Henry, coordinator of the Maryland/Eastern European People's Program, said: "I think everything is going to go on hold immediately. No one is going to risk investing in a country when you don't know what's going to happen tomorrow."

Meanwhile, Tom Anaya, project manager of the Rockville-based Argus Trading Co., said his company stopped shipments of goods to the Soviet Union, but expects Argus' business deals to continue.

Westinghouse Electronic Corp., which is leading a consortium to improve the Soviet Union's air space system, said it is too early to tell whether the coup will have any effect on its plans. The consortium, which has offices in Linthicum, was scheduled to make its recommendations on upgrading the air system next month.

Brian and Tatiana Hudson, interpreters who run Exclusively Russian, a Columbia business, are taking a wait-and-see attitude.

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