Fueled by boredom and loneliness and lured by the dazzle of blackjack tables and slot machines, an increasing number of Russian immigrants are taking daylong excursions to Atlantic City, such as those that ended in deadly crashes over the past week.
The Dec. 24 bus crash on the Garden State Parkway claimed the lives of eight passengers, including three immigrants from Ukraine, and injured 16, more than half of them Russian-speaking immigrants, according to community leaders. Two more accidents on buses headed for Atlantic City have since occurred, producing 41 injuries but no deaths.
Buses bound for the East Coast's gambling mecca departing from New York, especially Brooklyn, typically carry a large concentration of Jewish emigres from Russian-speaking lands, according to agents who book the excursions.
"They like the excitement of the casinos," said the manager of SGS Travelscope in Midwood, Brooklyn, who gave her name only as Susan. "They want to win some money and pass the time."
Excursions to Atlantic City are increasingly popular among elderly immigrants who are either retired or unemployed, said Elie Rubinstein, administrative director of the Jewish Community Council of Kings Bay. The JCC's surrounding neighborhoods of Sheepshead Bay and Brighton Beach are home to many families of victims of last week's bus accident.
"A lot of them are seniors who basically have a lot of free time and feel lonely at home," said Rubinstein. "These [bus] companies provide incentives like a free ride or free lunch. So for $5 or $10 they can spend the whole day [in Atlantic City]."
Rubinstein said there did not seem to be a serious problem of gambling addiction in the community, or people on fixed incomes spending money they can ill-afford for the chance to get rich quick. Many, he said, take the trip simply for the entertainment or for a diversion from city life.
"They [gamble] on a very small scale," said Rubinstein. "They socialize, see another world in terms of the casinos and rich people. It's another way to spend their time."
William Rapfogel, the executive director of the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty, said none of the immigrant victims appeared to be clients of social services. "They were not worried about where their next meal was coming from," said Rapfogel. "They were independent people, not receiving home care or subsidized housing."
Among the dead were Donya Aronov, 68; and Mira Tsatskina, 74, who had immigrated from Lvov; and Rosa Avritzky, 72, of Odessa. Aronov and Tsatskina were lifelong friends whose children had married.
American-born victims included Minnie Hirshorn, 74; and Shirley Weiss, 70, who suffered from cancer. Her husband, Louis, 72, a member of the Jewish War Veterans, was injured in the crash and brought to her funeral in a wheelchair.
The other three victims were identified as Michael Grumet, Fred Lewis and Paul Lundy.
Funerals for all five women were held in Midwood, Brooklyn on Sunday.
"The families feel a terrible loss which can never be the same," said Rabbi Eli Greenblatt of Sheepshead Bay, who performed the eulogy for Rosa Avritzky.
Councilman Howard Lasher, a Democrat who represents the Brighton Beach district announced at the funerals that he would introduce legislation to require passenger seat belts in buses that operate out of New York.
"A lot of seniors go [to Atlantic City] for recreation," said Lasher. "It's a nice outing unless you meet up with one of these bus companies that decide they have to go 80 miles an hour to get [there] and back."
The cause of the crash is still being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Bureau. The Bruins Transportation driver, Valentin Viner, 52 (also an immigrant from the former Soviet Union) reportedly told police he was swerving to avoid an ice patch when he lost control of the vehicle. Viner's license has been suspended earlier this year due to unspecified traffic infractions.
The chairman of the Council's Transportation Committee, Councilman Noach Dear (D-Borough Park), announced that he would convene hearings on charter bus safety to explore the need for seat belts and examine existing safety regulations. "As these charter bus trips become more and more popular we must ensure that residents are safely arriving to gamble the odds in Atlantic City and not gambling their lives," said Dear in a statement.
About one-third of tourists arriving in Atlantic City travel by bus: more than 9.9 million people, averaging 27,000 per day in 1997. Considering the scale, fatal accidents are relatively rare. The Christmas Eve crash was the only fatal bus accident on the Garden State this year, according to authorities, and about six passengers have died each year in such accidents nationwide.