To be young, Jewish and committed to building community: That describes the Jewish Detroiters who traveled together…
JFS to bring Sharansky to mark the 25th anniversary of Operation Exodus.
Alla Shapiro remembers the day she arrived in Detroit in June of 1991.
She and her family — husband, Eugene, daughter, Zoya, her sister and her husband and their two daughters, plus her parents and her grandmothers — had all left the small town of Tiraspol in Moldova as part of Operation Exodus, the emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union to Israel and the United States.
“The Soviet Union was breaking up; there was a lot of fighting,” said Shapiro of Oak Park. “Jewish Family Service (JFS) had someone to meet us as the airport. They had three apartments for our families that were completely furnished. We opened the refrigerator and it was full of groceries.”
Over the next few days, their caseworker took them to the Secretary of State’s office, the Social Security office and the Department of Human Services, and also arranged for everyone to have physicals at Sinai Hospital.
“We had no idea how to manage a bank account or what credit cards were because everything in the Soviet Union was done in cash,” she said. “We would have been completely lost without our social worker.”
Now Shapiro is herself a social worker at JFS, working mainly with Russian-speaking Holocaust survivors. “It’s a remarkable privilege,” she said.
On May 17 at Congregation Shaarey Zedek, Shapiro will join her JFS colleagues and supporters at the agency’s annual meeting, headlined “Mission Possible” to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Operation Exodus, as the release and resettlement of Soviet Jews came to be known.
Natan Sharansky, chair of the executive of the Jewish Agency in Israel, who became famous as a “refusenik” jailed in Russia because of his efforts on behalf of Soviet Jews, will be the guest speaker.
Speaking from his office in Jerusalem, Sharansky said he’s looking forward to his visit because the Detroit Jewish community provided such strong support for Soviet Jews.
The Jewish Agency continues to rescue Jews from endangered Jewish communities. Last year, the largest numbers came from France, Ukraine and Russia.
The Jewish Agency also supports youth villages in Israel, programs that bring young people to Israel for a year of study and shlichim, Israelis who serve as emissaries to Jewish communities in the diaspora.
In early April, the Jewish Agency coordinated the rescue of 19 Jews from Yemen and declared an end to its programs there. About 50 Jews, who have indicated no desire to move, remain in Yemen.
Operation Exodus brought more than 1.2 million Jews out of the former Soviet Union between 1990 and 1994. More than 1 million went to Israel. About 200,000 came to the United States and Canada, with 7,000 resettling in Detroit.
The JFS expects a good number of those resettled here to attend the annual meeting.
Joel Tauber, a local business and philanthropic leader who is chairing the JFS event, says Operation Exodus is a remarkable story.
“1.2 million is just a number, but think of it as moving twice the entire population of Detroit in just a few years,” he said.
In 1989, Tauber traveled to the U.S.S.R. with the late David Hermelin and Marvin Lender of New Haven, Conn., national chair of the United Jewish Appeal’s Operation Exodus campaign, to try to get some idea of the number of Jews who would leave if they could.
Because many Soviet Jews hid their Jewish identities, they underestimated, reporting that about 750,000 people would emigrate.
“When they were finally able to leave, we found an awful lot of Jews,” he said.
Tauber feels the 25th anniversary may be the last opportunity for those who experienced Operation Exodus to share their stories with the millennial generation, who are too young to remember it.
He said he wants them to know that “when the Jewish people unite to take on problems, we can create miracles.”
The entire Detroit Jewish community pulled together to help resettle the Soviet immigrants, said Perry Ohren, who worked for JFS in the 1990s and has been its executive director since 2011.
At the time, immigration services were handled by Resettlement Service, an independent agency of the Jewish Federation that shared resources with JFS. The two agencies merged in 1995.
“We had the mentality of ‘all hands on deck’ and ‘it takes a village,’” Ohren said.
“JVS provided employment assistance. Hebrew Free Loan lent them money. The Jewish Community Center provided English language classes for the adults. Sinai Hospital offered health care. Local families befriended them through the Family to Family program.
“Everything was very different from what they were used to in the Soviet Union,” he said.
Today, about a quarter of the JFS workforce are people who came here from the Soviet Union, he said.
The resettlement of so many Soviet immigrants within such a short period of time is “a really great illustration of what JFS stands ready to do. We took a lot of people and made them part of the American dream,” Ohren said.
Jeannie Weiner of West Bloomfield, a past president of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) who was very involved in the movement to free Soviet Jews, said there would have been no Operation Exodus without the international advocacy effort that preceded it.
The late Jerry Rogers — along with Rae Sharfman, the late Ida Joyrich and the late Arnold Michlin and others — founded the Detroit Committee for Soviet Jewry, a grassroots effort picked up by the JCRC in 1981.
“Jerry was tireless and able to bridge the gap between the grassroots and the organized community,” Weiner recalled.
Leaders would send activists to picket at Orchestra Hall whenever a Russian artist appeared, “not to prevent people going in, but to raise awareness,” she said. They would send delegations to meet with members of Congress and urge them to act on the issue.
“It ended up being extremely effective,” she said.
Sharansky In Detroit
The JFS event will mark Sharansky’s first public address in Detroit. He will be interviewed by Marvin Lender.
Sharansky was born Anatoly Borisovich Shcharansky in 1948 in Donetsk, Ukraine.
In 1973, after his request for an exit visa was denied, he became an activist on behalf of Soviet Jews seeking to relocate to Israel. In 1977, he was arrested on charges of treason and spying for the United States. He spent 13 years in prisons and labor camps, much of it in solitary confinement.
His wife, Avital, did receive an exit visa, and advocated tirelessly on his behalf from Israel. He was finally released on Feb. 11, 1986, as part of a prisoner exchange, and immediately left for Israel.
He has served as Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., as a member of the Knesset and as deputy prime minister. He has been a cabinet minister for the interior, for housing and construction, and for industry and trade.
He is known for his “town square test” for a free society, which he described in his book, The Case for Democracy, first published in 2004.
“If a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment or physical harm,” he wrote, “then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society. We cannot rest until every person living in a fear society has finally won their freedom.”
By Barbara Lewis, JN Contributing Writer
JFS Annual Meeting
Jewish Family Service’s annual meeting will also showcase JFS awards.
Larisa Korot, Volunteer of the Year, has given more than 3,000 hours of service to JFS over the course of 10 years. She works two days a week in the transportation department, taking on additional days as needed to cover for others. She is bilingual, which enables her to help a wide range of clients.
Sarah Tupica-Berard, Mentor of the Year, has been working with a girl named Emma for about seven years, far beyond her initial one-year commitment. During that time, she changed jobs, got married and had a baby, but she maintained her mentor relationship.
The Employee of the Year award will be announced at the meeting.
The meeting will begin with an hors d’oeuvres and dessert reception at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 17, at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield. There is no charge to attend, but a donation of $18 is suggested, and reservations are a must. Sponsors who donate $1,000 or more will also be invited to an intimate dinner with Sharansky before the event. Reservations can be made at www.jfsannualmeeting.org. *