Julie Grodin, standing, director of Beth Shalom’s Circle of Friends program, with Yuriy Mushkin, Asya Komarova and Klara Shapiro.

For 20 years, Beth Shalom group helps New Americans settle in.

Circle of Friends, a group at Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park formed to help New Americans from the former Soviet Union, recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.

The group was started to help new arrivals get used to life in America and also to help them strengthen, re-establish or create the Jewish identity they weren’t able to fully develop in the Soviet Union.

The group meets at the synagogue from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. every Sunday. For many, it’s a low-pressure opportunity to speak English, which some of them find difficult even after many years in this country.

Klara Shapiro, 88, of Oak Park and her husband, Simon, were among the founding members.

Some Circle of Friends members
Julie Grodin, standing, director of Beth Shalom’s Circle of Friends program, with Yuriy Mushkin, Asya Komarova and Klara Shapiro.

Shapiro recalled how every Friday afternoon a bus would pull up to the Lincoln Towers apartments, where she and many of the new arrivals lived, to take them to a nearby church for English lessons.

She mentioned the church program to some of the people she knew at Beth Shalom and Circle of Friends got started soon afterward with the support of Rabbi David Nelson, who was concerned about Christian proselytizing efforts. Founders included the late Joanna Berger, Lenny Newman of Huntington Woods and Ellie Slovis of Bloomfield Hills

In the beginning, the group attracted 40 or more to its meetings. Now there is a core of about 18, most in their 80s, who arrived in the 1990s. American-born volunteers include co-director Myron Stein of Southfield and Shirley Sweet of Huntington Woods.

“We spoke about our lives in Russia, and the Americans spoke to us about American culture,” Shapiro said. “We went on a lot of field trips. We visited all the old synagogues in Detroit. We celebrated every Jewish holiday. It felt like a big, big family.”

Circle of Friends taught participants not only language but also “how to be American,” said Yuriy Mushkin, 86, of Oak Park. Once he and Berger had a disagreement about some issue. “You are my enemy,” he told her. “No,” she said, “not enemy. I am your opponent.”

Sarama Portnya, 70, of Oak Park said learning about American customs and habits was difficult, and Circle of Friends was invaluable.

Members also learned about Jewish customs and practices, which they hadn’t experienced in the Soviet Union. Four years ago, Circle of Friends participants had a group bar/bat mitzvah at Beth Shalom.

Current director Julie Grodin of Huntington Woods got involved with Circle of Friends in 1998 after she returned from a teacher-exchange trip to Russia.

Two years later, one of the Russian teachers Grodin had met was visiting her in Michigan when the woman got a call from a friend from her hometown of Vladimir.

Asya Komarova, 70, of Walled Lake and her husband, Samuel, had come to the U.S. in 1999 and moved to Detroit after a year in Kansas City. When she arranged a visit to her Russian teacher friend, she met Grodin.

Grodin invited Komarova into Circle of Friends, and she has been part of the group ever since. In 2001, Komarova learned that the son of a friend still in Russia needed brain surgery the family could not afford. Circle of Friends and Congregation Beth Shalom raised the funds for him to have the surgery. Her friend continues to express her gratitude to the Circle of Friends.