Local women dedicated to improving the lives of their fellow Jews heard the inspiring story of one woman who was able to discover her Jewish identity through their efforts.
Thirty-two women gathered Oct. 26 at the East Brunswick home of Mindy Highstein for dinner and camaraderie at the annual Lion of Judah, Crown of Esther, and Pomegranate Celebration for the Women’s Philanthropy of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County.
Lion of Judah donors pledge a minimum of $5,000, Crown of Esther donors pledge $3,600, and Pomegranate donors pledge a minimum of $1,800 to the annual campaign.
The guest speaker was Kiev native Valerie Khaytina, deputy North American representative for ORT, who said she received a Jewish education, attended a Jewish camp, and received a nutritious lunch while in school — all thanks to the generosity of the American-Jewish community.
Later, when her family immigrated to Brooklyn from Ukraine, Jewish organizations supported through federation dollars provided them with furniture, English lessons, free subway fare, and scholarship money for college.
“I learned there was another part to my story,” said Khaytina. “Everything that I have gone through and have in life is because of people like you. You have the power to change people’s lives.”
Honored at the event was Phyllis Freed of Laurence Harbor, who was presented with a “Crown of Esther” pin for increasing her pledge to $3,600 in the last year.
“With so many in the Jewish community being hard-hit by the economy, the need for social services is rising,” said Women’s Philanthropy director Audrey Napchen. “It is even more crucial than ever that those of us who can give what we can to help. Our women have already shown their sensitivity and desire to bring positive change to our community.”
In the last year, Women’s Philanthropy raised $1.038 million, or 47 percent of the total federation campaign.
The group was entertained by Kol Halayla, the Jewish a cappella group from Rutgers University.
In her talk, Khaytina said she wasn’t even aware she was Jewish until age nine. The first time she went to synagogue with her father, she recalled, they had to enter through a back entrance to avoid the watchful eyes of KGB agents.
With the Soviet Union crumbling, her parents found a Jewish camp in Kiev, where the young girl learned about Jewish holidays, met counselors from Israel, and found kinship with other Jewish youngsters.
“It was a life-changing experience,” said Khaytina. “After that I couldn’t go back to a state school.”
Instead, she enrolled in a Jewish school, which received funding from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. When government funding dwindled, North American Jewish groups underwrote a full lunch, said Khaytina.
“My brain functioned better when I ate lunch,” she said. “Even when you give $18 you make sure a student like me gets lunch.”
Later, with her Jewish background and proficiency in Hebrew, the new immigrant to the United States found a job in the planned giving department of United Jewish Communities, now known as the Jewish Federations of North America, where she worked for seven years.
In addition to her work for ORT, which runs a network of Jewish education and vocational training programs around the world, she and her family, including her children, are actively engaged in Jewish life and are strong backers of her local federation.