The memories are still vivid, of the stress and confusion of arriving in a strange world, but for the former refugees from the Soviet Union who gathered in South Orange on Nov. 19, another memory was just as clear — gratitude for the kindness they were shown.
Gathered for a 25th anniversary celebration at Oheb Shalom Congregation, they greeted those who welcomed them in 1991 with hugs and tears. “These people saved our lives,” one woman said. “They found homes for us, and jobs, and they helped us learn English, and they taught us what it means to be Jewish.”
The organizers drew parallels to the refugees now needing help settling in the United States. They might not be Jewish, speakers pointed out, but their plight is very similar and the responsibility to help is the same.
Members of about 10 of the 43 families sponsored by Oheb Shalom were present on Saturday evening. Ella Shmoys described how she came with three children and her 96-year-old grandfather. He died at the age of 100, but his granddaughter now has eight grandchildren of her own.
The newcomers were welcomed at the airport; accommodated in apartments, most in the Ivy Hill section of Newark; given donated cars, furniture, and clothes; and provided with assistance in dealing with government agencies. Some were given scholarships to help their children attend area Jewish day schools. Addressing the synagogue members, Shmoys said, “You gave us courage and hope.”
The language barrier is way lower — though some still struggle with English — but the fellowship established 25 years ago seemed unchanged. The immigrants and congregants — and some immigrants who have become congregants — caught up on news and reminisced over beet blintzes and mini-tarts, and enjoyed a concert performed by one of their own.
Internationally acclaimed cellist Andrey Tchekmazov initiated the whole idea. Now a Manhattan resident with a long resume of awards and solo and group appearances, he was a child when his family arrived in the United States and found themselves sponsored by the people at Oheb Shalom. A year ago, he called the congregation’s Cantor Erica Lippitz and said he wanted to do a concert for the congregation “in gratitude for what his family received.”
She, and a committee headed by Inna Gulberg, who was also a child in that refugee group, turned that gift into a celebration of the quarter-century mark. Accompanied by his friend, pianist Lily Friedman, Tchekmazov played an assortment of classical pieces by Russian composers, including Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, and Tchaikovsky, and a medley of Russian folk songs. A few voices rose in harmony from among the immigrants in the gathering.
Lippitz and her husband, Rabbi John Schechter, had encountered the problems faced by Jews in the Soviet Union during a clandestine trip there in 1989. Meeting those people, she told the audience of around 140 on Saturday night “changed my life.” Helping Soviet Jews who managed to reach the United States expanded that impact.
“We received so much more than we could give,” she said.
Sheila Appel, one of the most active in the effort, said that initially, Americans weren’t sure how to help those coming from the Soviet Union. But by the time the second wave arrived, their entry eased by federal legislation shepherded by New Jersey’s Sen. Frank Lautenberg, Jewish organizations had worked out what would be most effective.
The newcomers, Appel said, were received with “enthusiasm and love.” People for whom Judaism had been a surreptitious connection at best were guided at services and given Hebrew lessons and religious instruction; in some cases, huppa weddings and bar and bat mitzva celebrations were provided.
Two key community initiatives grew out of the refugee project: the Bobrow Kosher Food Pantry, houses at the synagogue, which continues to serve needy families across northern New Jersey, and the Oheb Shalom Free Loan Society, which is now Hebrew Loan of NJ. According to Michele Bobrow, a congregant who was active in the initial efforts, every loan made to the Russian immigrants was fully repaid.
Tatyana Zbirovskaya was among those in attendance. A celebrated theater personality in Russia, she arrived in the United States with a child who was terminally ill. He lived years longer than predicted, thanks to the medical care congregants helped her gain access to, and she has gone on to work to help others with the disease. Still a comedian and singer, she has also become a filmmaker and computer programmer — and remains a member of the Oheb family.
A number of those present at the event — participants in the absorption effort and others who have joined the congregation more recently — commented on what a massive undertaking it was, and how hard it would be to replicate it now.
The organizers made it clear this is not the end of their commitment to help refugees. To keep up awareness, in January, there will be a screening of Stateless, a documentary about Soviet Jews. While those in need of help now are of a different religion, congregants said plans are being developed to help Syrian families who have been placed in New Jersey.