By Ilya Galak
Ari, what are your family’s ethnic roots?
My paternal grandmother Sophia with two little children was killed by Nazis in the Minsk ghetto on March, 1942. My father Michael was the only survivor – by miracle. My grandfather Ayzik died on May 9, 1945 from injures and wounds he received at battles with Nazis.
Every year our family visited mass grave in Minsk Yama (Belarus), where thousands of Jews were slaughtered by fascists. Here, in Brooklyn, I became a Vice Chairman of the Holocaust Memorial Committee. It is too personal for me what happened to my family during World War II.
When did your interest in journalism start?
I liked writing essays when I was in my second grade in Minsk elementary school. I always loved to read books, even at parties and weddings. Much later in my life I published several articles in civil and military papers and was able to enter the prestigious Journalism Department at Lvov military political college. After my graduation in 1988, I was lucky to work in various papers during the Gorbachev era of Glasnost and Perestroika when criticism of authorities was allowed and sometimes even encouraged. Before immigrating to America, I had worked at several Baltic and Byelorussian non-governmental papers.
What are the three accomplishments as a journalist you are most proud of?
In 1990, I published in one military newspaper a story about two honest young lieutenants who decided to leave Soviet army because they could not stand corruption and nepotism. Together with my Editor-in-Chief we were called to the military headquarters in Riga and endured heavy criticism for writing this clearly anti-Soviet article as one general called it. Instead of being scared of repercussions, I felt proud that my story had such an effect.
Here in New York my story in Russian Forward about immigration bureaucrats who ridiculed a life story of Baby Yar survivor Raisa Dashkevich helped her to get an American citizenship. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Governor Pataki, Senator D’Amato, Mayor Giuliani and other elected officials sent their letters to Immigration and Naturalization Service headquarters petitioning for Raisa (she survived Babiy Yar massacre because all shots from Nazis went into her 7 month old son). Eventually Dashkevich became a U.S. citizen.
In 2002 I received two important Journalistic awards – one from the Independent Press Association of New York for my series about problems in Co-op buildings, second one – as a winner of nationwide competition among Russian language reporters.
Why are you so popular in Russian American Community?
Very simple – I care about people and their problems. For 15 years I had worked as volunteer for the American Brotherhood for the Russian Disabled (ABRUD). For 10 years I was a board member of Brighton Ballet School. I volunteered in nursing homes and in synagogues. So, I helped many children and seniors, disabled people and working parents. And as a TV, radio and newspaper journalist, I had always focused my energy and talents on writing and talking about the United States, New York, community issues, including achievements and problems of Russian Americans. Each time I am able to help a person, even a stranger; I feel a sense of great satisfaction and pride.
What is something most people on Brooklyn and Staten Island don’t know about Ari Kagan?
Sometimes people don’t realize that I do my volunteer community work while having four paid jobs (full time and part time), writing for my personal blog www.arikagan.com (in Russian) and raising two fabulous kids. Of course, my wonderful wife Bela and my mother-in-law Milya are always supporting me in all of my endeavors.
Besides politics and community activities, I love to swim and to play chess. I also like wearing suits. But most of all, I like to smile. It helps me and people around me to feel better and to overcome any challenges.
How did you become an assistant of US Congressman?
In 2006 I ran for the New York State Assembly from Brighton Beach, Coney Island and Bay Ridge. I lost to Alec Brook-Krasny, but managed to receive 49.2% of votes. During this campaign I met many amazing, interesting people, including Leticia Remaro, a former Staten Island GOP Chairwoman. After the campaign, she introduced me to her Democratic friend, then-Councilman Michael McMahon. When he decided to run for Congress in summer of 2008, he called me and asked for my assistance with outreach to Russian speaking community of Staten Island and Brooklyn. In December of 2008 I received a call from Congressman-Elect Michael McMahon. He offered me a part time position as a Community Liaison in his office. I accepted his offer because I respected McMahon a lot and because it was an interesting, historic opportunity to work for the U.S. Congressman.
What are the three accomplishments as an assistant of Michael McMahon you are most proud of?
It took me about two months to help one Bay Ridge senior with multiple sclerosis to get Medicare coverage after some bureaucrats lost his papers and later made mistake in writing his name on application.
It was even longer to restore justice for one Russian speaking constituent with Down syndrome. Her fingerprints for a green card application were lost by USCIS agents and she was on a brink of deportation for not having an updated documents. After months of negotiations, USCIS apologized to this poor, 70-years-old woman, took another set of her fingerprints and finally sent her a green card.
I was involved in organizing meetings between 9/11 families and Congressman McMahon when the sensitive issue of building 13 floors Islamic Center near Ground Zero came to the center of public attention. When another controversial issue of mosque at Midland Beach came to my attention, I immediately brought all information I had at the time to my Congressman. To his credit, in both occasions he took the principal stand and was not afraid to speak out about it publicly when some other elected officials were looking for excuses.
I still believe Michael McMahon was a great Congressman for 13th District. He brought tons of federal money to local schools, hospitals, senior centers, colleges, libraries, ferry terminal, highways and many other valuable projects. He has always listened to his constituents – from Tea Party activists to labor groups. And he was a staunch supporter of Israel.
What is your vision for our country over the next five years?
I love America and hope the current recession will end in a few years. People are angry now because they are hurting and do not feel government really cares about them. But I am still optimistic. We will recover and the United States again will be strong and prosperous. Each one of us can do our part to improve lives of people and our great city. Working hard, participating in civic and political organizations, helping neighbors, criticizing government, standing together against injustice and bigotry, we can help our country to return its strength.
I believe in hard work. It pays everywhere, especially in America.
How can we create more bridges between old and new citizens?
Citizens Magazine is trying to build that bridge. Unfortunately, tensions and misunderstanding as well as pure jealousy or ignorance are still alive. You can see it from some comments at some public forums in Staten Island and Brooklyn. Russian Americans should participate more in local civic organizations like community boards or police precinct councils, to be more involved in a mainstream community, to work together with their neighbors for the common good.
And we have to condemn in strong terms any crimes, including fraud of any kind. But at the same time we need to promote the achievements of new citizens in business, culture, arts, sports, and law enforcement, military. As more we learn about each other, the room for the stereotyping will be smaller and smaller.
What’s your favorite place to spend time on Staten Island?
I like to relax at boardwalk and to attend great cultural events at Staten Island JCC (Manor Road). I have many friends and some relatives at Staten Island. They are smart, tough, hard working and generous people and I feel nothing, but huge respect to them.