From Refugee to Communal Professional

by Valerie Khaytina

Early nineties. We are on the train from Kiev to Moscow for the biggest event of my life – an interview in the American embassy to go to the United States. We have to prove that we were persecuted as Jews in order to get into the country as refugees. This is not difficult to do. I remember all the names my classmates call me just because I’m Jewish. The bomb in Brodsky synagogue that was discovered shortly after my dad and I have left the place. The swastika by our apartment door. Grandma says not to pay attention to it.

Long lines in the U.S. embassy. Families are anxiously waiting to get in. We are interviewed by a woman with a heavy American accent. Waiting again outside the embassy until the results are out. My family has been given the refugee status. We are going to America!

John F. Kennedy International Airport. We are greeted by representatives from NYANA. They are handing my parents an envelope with some paperwork and money to get by for the first few weeks. Shortly thereafter, a truck pulls up by our new apartment building on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn and furniture is brought in. It’s from NYANA, to help us save some money and to feel at home.

I am one of many Russian-Jewish students in E.R. Murrow High School. We are learning English and are trying to navigate the American culture. It’s not easy. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” – my Hebrew language teacher asks. “Well… I want to do something that will allow me to work with the former Soviet Union and Israel.” I do not really know how to explain that I want to work with Jewish people around the world. The words “nonprofit” and “Jewish communal field” are not in my English vocabulary.

The year is 2001. Freshly out of college, I am interviewed in the United Jewish Communities for an administrative assistant position. As I walk out after the interview, I know that’s the job I want. It is a dream come true – a place that will allow me to work with Jews all over the world! I get the job. There is a huge learning curve. The department I work in is called Planned Giving and Endowments. I don’t even know what it means. I am timid of all the people that give me the tasks. And what’s a lay leader?

But I want to learn. I sense that this is the place where I want to “grow up”. I enroll into Master’s program majoring in nonprofit management. And I listen. There are incredible people to listen to at UJC and federations. They become my mentors, and friends. And, they tell me the story.

The story of how I really came to America. The story about lobbying, volunteering and fundraising. The story about thousands of people rallying on the Capitol Hill for my family, relatives and friends to come to this country. The story about passion, dedication and commitment to Jewish people. Because of these people – this powerful Jewish community – I am here now.

How can I thank these people enough and show the extent of my gratitude? I can commit to have a career in the Jewish community. I can tell my story so that the people behind it know their efforts are not forgotten. They helped bring up the next generation of young Russian-American Jews just like me who contribute to this country’s society in many different ways.

I now work for World ORT, JFNA’s overseas partner agency. World ORT helps Jewish students all over the world get the best education possible. We help the students stay Jewish. I know how important it is from personal experience. How being Jewish enriches your life in many ways and helps you find an amazing extended family that is there for you to support in good and bad times.

Valerie Khaytina is Deputy North American Representative/Head of New York Team for World ORT; this article was provided courtesy of the organization.

eJP note: In 1989, with the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, the gates were opening to an exodus the likes of which we had not previously seen. The United Jewish Appeal – then the umbrella fund-raising arm of North America’s Jewish federations’ campaigns – launched the Passage to Freedom campaign to resettle Soviet Jews in Israel and the United States. The campaign was less than successful, only raising $50 million.

The next year, UJA increased its efforts with another emergency campaign, Operation Exodus, which ultimately collected in excess of $900 million and allowed almost 1 million Jews to immigrate to Israel and 150,000 more to come to the United States. Operation Exodus became the largest emergency fund-raising event in Jewish history.

Valerie’s story, and her connection to the Jewish world, is just one of several we will be bringing to you this year.

You can learn more about Operation Exodus by visiting JFNA’s Operation Exodus 20th Anniversary site.