by Jeff Macklis
It was late in 1989, a Friday evening, and I was approaching the synagogue. Standing by the locked door was a young woman, 18, who asked when and where were Friday night services. I rang the super’s bell and we gained entrance. We exchanged just a few words; she had a charming foreign accent but was fluent with her English. A few minutes later enough people arrived to conduct services.
The young woman sat in the back of the chapel. After services, during Kiddush, I started a conversation. I asked her about her charming accent. She told me she was from Moscow which didn’t surprise me. I asked her how long she’d been in the U.S. and she replied two weeks. My jaw dropped.
That was the start of a friendship that has lasted to the present, through her college years, then graduate school, and now with a significant job of nearly a decade. But it was also the start of a journey into the lives of newly arrived Jewish Russian immigrants.
What I learned that evening was that the landing point for a part of the Jewish emigration from Russian, once the doors were opened, was an old run-down hotel in Brooklyn Heights, not far from my home and synagogue. I learned how limited the resources were for these very newly-arrived immigrants.
With the help of my new young friend, my synagogue’s congregation (Kane Street Synagogue [KSS]) and that of a neighboring shul (Brooklyn Heights Synagogue [BHS]), we started our Russian immigrant outreach efforts. We met more than 100 families, totaling over 500 people (children, youth, adults and the elderly) over the next 18 months. We started by hosting a weekly brunch on Sunday mornings, since the balance of the week was spent in search of apartments, administrative immigration matters, and language lessons. A permanent apartment was highest priority on the list; but since realtors didn’t work on Sunday morning – that was our time. Whoever was in the hotel that week was invited.
We laid out a breakfast of a half-dozen boxes of cereals, bagels and cream cheese, an assortment of cheeses and fruits, also pancakes. There was always an older Russian woman who would claim the kitchen and prepare the pancakes, whether we asked for help or not. The kids would watch videos, not understanding a word but seeming to thoroughly enjoy the experience. Apparently, the Little Mermaid can be understood without understanding a word of English.
The other needs were soon apparent. KSS started a clothing and furniture drive where we rented a truck and made collections and distributions weekly. One evening a week we asked for help from the current hotel immigrant residents to come to the synagogue to sort clothes. There was always a large quantity to organize and whoever found something they could use would take it.
Both synagogues invited the immigrants to services but not knowing English or Hebrew, it wasn’t a big draw. We did arrange for prayer books in Hebrew/Russian for High Holidays and a fair number joined us for services, either at BHS or KSS.
Weekly synagogue attendance changed for one Shabbat however. A few months earlier I met a family with a son who was just 13. I asked the kid’s parents if they (and he) would be interested his being prepared for Bar Mitzvah. They seemed delighted and lessons were arranged, the boy studied and the day arrived. More Russians populated the congregation that Shabbat then collectively had attended regular services in the year that we were running the outreach program.
The BHS ran weekly language sessions where immigrants could come, have a coffee and use what they had been learning in language school in a more relaxed setting.
Community events at both our shuls always included a complimentary invite for the current crop of hotel residents. I recall an evening performance by a 9 year-old pianist that was a special addition to some other event (that I don’t recall.) I knew the young girl because since she had arrived in the U.S. and we learned that she played the piano, she would practice on the piano in my home.
Passover was a scramble because we had hotel residents request seats at a seder for nearly 75 people, and then requests from 75 more who we had met along the way. Dozens of congregants at both synagogues opened their homes to immigrants and we placed everyone.
It was quite a busy time for me, and for the many people who helped with our efforts. These few remembrances are a small sample of how many people gave of themselves to help others. Our communities always had strong showings on Soviet Jews Solidarity Sundays or on marches to Washington in support of Soviet Jewry. Now people who we hoped would be permitted to leave the Soviet Union were on our doorstep. It wasn’t a choice but an imperative to be as forthcoming with help as possible.
Last year I was invited to a wedding that was significant beyond the fact that the young couple were friends. The groom was the young Bar Mitzvah boy and the bride was the young pianist, now of course young adults. They had met as kids but hadn’t seen each other in a decade or more. When they were getting re-acquainted they discovered that both knew me from their immigration experience. The young man while discussing his background reached into his wallet and retrieved a U.S. $2-dollar bill. He was telling his new girl friend about a Passover seder and the affikoman present he had received and still kept. The seder he attended was at my house and I gave him that bill.
I will be forever grateful to the people I met and the many friends I made during this time, particularly the young woman who started it all.
Jeff Macklis is Director of KBY Congregations Together.
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.
Jeff’s story, and his 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.