Jewish Atlanta Opens Arms to Ukraine Refugees
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Jewish Atlanta Opens Arms to Ukraine Refugees

Federation receives $73,000 grant to assist JF&CS’ partnering efforts with synagogues.

  • Ukrainian refugees at the railway station.
    Ukrainian refugees at the railway station.
  • “We know how to navigate the system,” said Paedia Mixon, CEO of New American Pathways, which is working with JF&CS.
    “We know how to navigate the system,” said Paedia Mixon, CEO of New American Pathways, which is working with JF&CS.
  • “I know what it’s like to walk into a school and not know any English,” said Marita Anderson of Temple Emanu-El, who immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine years ago.
    “I know what it’s like to walk into a school and not know any English,” said Marita Anderson of Temple Emanu-El, who immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine years ago.
  • Jessica Lotner’s children, Bella and Jacob, had learned about the plight of the Ukrainian refugees from reading the newspaper and decided their b’nai mitzvah project would be to help them.
    Jessica Lotner’s children, Bella and Jacob, had learned about the plight of the Ukrainian refugees from reading the newspaper and decided their b’nai mitzvah project would be to help them.
  • Shearith Israel held a volunteer day to help their Ukrainian family move in.
    Shearith Israel held a volunteer day to help their Ukrainian family move in.
  • Cindy Zeldin, who leads The Temple’s immigration outreach program, said she contacted JF&CS and explained that a congregant had a house to donate for Ukrainian refugees. Pictured with her dog, Lily.
    Cindy Zeldin, who leads The Temple’s immigration outreach program, said she contacted JF&CS and explained that a congregant had a house to donate for Ukrainian refugees. Pictured with her dog, Lily.
  • At a birthday party for a young refugee, The Temple’s Rabbi Peter Berg blessed the girl in Hebrew. “They understood the power of Hebrew,” he said. “They wanted it to feel authentic.
    At a birthday party for a young refugee, The Temple’s Rabbi Peter Berg blessed the girl in Hebrew. “They understood the power of Hebrew,” he said. “They wanted it to feel authentic.

More than 1,000 Ukrainian refugees have fled their war-torn country in the last six months and landed in Atlanta, according to a local refugee resettlement agency. But the impact on Atlanta’s Jewish community has been incalculable.

Struggling to describe their emotional experiences assisting Ukrainian families, members of various synagogues used words like “powerful” and “overwhelming” in their comments to the AJT.

Atlanta Jews of all ages have jumped at the opportunity to help these families — some of them extended — settle in a new country with a different culture and a new language. The way the volunteers and lay leaders have, nearly at a moment’s notice, launched into action spurred Susan Baker at Congregation Shearith Israel to compare it to a “loaded spring” that had been excessively tightened over the last couple of years of the COVID pandemic.

“We know how to navigate the system,” said Paedia Mixon, CEO of New American Pathways, which is working with JF&CS.

For the Ukrainian refugees, it all started on Feb. 24, when Russia invaded their country. Fleeing westward toward Lviv, then into Poland, they spread out across Europe and beyond, never knowing whether they were leaving for a week, several months or forever. Several of the families now in Atlanta came up north through Mexico.

In March, Jewish Family & Career Services (JF&CS) launched a new program called Atlanta Ukrainian Evacuee Relief Assistance, or AURA. Headed by Zane Blechner, its program manager, AURA manages resettlement cases and is partnering with several synagogues and other organizations to help these refugees begin a new life.

“We decided to work with volunteer circles, with Zane leading the process,” said Chantal Spector, senior manager of communications. “We reached out to our donor base and volunteers.”

At the end of July, JF&CS also hired Rachel Barnhard, whose background is in health and public safety, as a case manager.

Atlanta’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed around the country. This summer, the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta was one of 10 Federations across the U.S. to receive a grant from the Jewish Federations of North America as part of a $1 million national initiative to resettle and support Ukrainians seeking shelter here. The local Federation was awarded $73,000 in the first round of funding.

Eric Robbins called Lipstadt “our hometown heroine.”

“We didn’t apply [for the grant],” said Federation President Eric M. Robbins. “They saw what we were doing. We were one of the few communities helping to resettle Ukrainian refugees.” The Federation had already raised thousands of dollars for the effort. Robbins had seen the need with his own eyes when he traveled to Europe in late March.

“It was surreal to me how people can get on with their lives, some continuing to live there in the middle of an active war,” he said.

Robbins noted that he has not been surprised at the outpouring of support from the Jewish community.

“Most of the people aren’t Jewish, but the Jewish community still wants to help. It shows the fact that our community cares about all people.”

Indeed, individuals, whole neighborhoods, congregations — sometimes in partnership with each other — have all been prompted to donate time or money to help those fleeing the war in Ukraine. The motivations vary, but the determination is widespread.

Congregation Or VeShalom is one of the few Jewish groups that has actually been matched with a Jewish family, although “it didn’t matter to us whether they were Jewish or not,” said Executive Director Adam Kofinas.

Fundraising for the Federation Relief Fund began already in March, and a dinner was held during which Robbins discussed his recent mission to the Polish-Ukrainian border.

“I know what it’s like to walk into a school and not know any English,” said Marita Anderson of Temple Emanu-El, who immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine years ago.

Kofinas also recalls a talk by American Jewish Committee Atlanta Regional Director Dov Wilker.

“He held up a Kroger plastic bag as a visual and said this is what they left with. It was a sobering moment and I thought, how can I help?”

Or VeShalom’s Ann Benator, who is co-chair of the Ukrainian Relief Committee along with Morris Maslia, said that she heard her mother’s voice in her head, telling her that she needed to be involved. Benator’s mother had helped resettle Soviet refugees during the 1970s.

“This is what we needed to be doing in our generation,” she said.

The situation became more real to Benator, who is the mother of a six-year-old daughter, when she heard that one of the young Ukrainian boys was having a birthday. The congregation threw a huge birthday party for the glowing child.

Other Atlanta congregations have also been spurred into action. Shearith Israel had helped resettle refugees from Eritrea with the help of New American Pathways, an Atlanta nonprofit refugee resettlement agency.

Jessica Lotner’s children, Bella and Jacob, had learned about the plight of the Ukrainian refugees from reading the newspaper and decided their b’nai mitzvah project would be to help them.

“We had done this before and we needed to do it now,” recalled Susan Baker, who chairs the refugee resettlement efforts at her congregation. “As soon as we heard of people fleeing,” she said, Rabbi Ari Kaiman approached her and JF&CS called.

“The rules of engagement are different” when it comes to working with Ukrainians and JF&CS, “but setting up an apartment is the same,” said Baker. She knew someone who had an apartment and was willing to provide it. “We geared up pretty fast.”

Jeff Kirsh, a Shearith Israel board member who serves as liaison for the congregation’s social action efforts under its “Shearith Israel for Good” program, explained that the volunteers did some repairs on the apartment and sent out a call to the congregation for help with furniture and furnishings. Within a week or so, they had an “avalanche of help.”

Robin Deutsch Edwards, a member of “SI For Good,” remembers that the “conversation started with how to repeat what we did with the Eritrean family.”

Then it just snowballed, involving more and more congregants. “Everyone had a reason to come forward and help out. It brought out all ages,” said Kirsh.

At Congregation Or Hadash, the efforts actually started as a b’nai mitzvah project. Jessica Lotner’s children, Bella and Jacob, had learned about the plight of the Ukrainian refugees from reading the newspaper and decided they wanted to help. The congregation was assigned a family of 21 people and JF&CS helped to find a house to rent in Sugar Hill. Renee Videlefsky, who chairs the congregation’s Tikkun Olam committee, said they were given just a few days to get the house ready for the new occupants.

Shearith Israel held a volunteer day to help their Ukrainian family move in.

Congregants enlisted their friends and neighbors. Videlefsky found bed linens at the National Council of Jewish Women/Atlanta section. An Amazon wish list was created. Bella Lotner designed a chart that spelled out what was needed and who provided the help.

“One congregant donated tools to one of the refugees who is a mechanic,” Jessica Lotner said. On move-in day, the house was full of Amazon boxes containing items that had been donated by dozens of people.

“On that first day, the family was in shock. We made their beds, made them food and got them as comfortable as possible,” said Lotner, whose profession includes setting up hotels before they open. Even after the family’s initial needs were met, however, her daughter announced, “we’re not done. These people trust us. We are their connection.”

She and her brother started a GoFundMe campaign to cover additional costs, raising more than $5,000. According to their mother, the endeavor has had a huge impact on her household.

Cindy Zeldin, who leads The Temple’s immigration outreach program, said she contacted JF&CS and explained that a congregant had a house to donate for Ukrainian refugees. Pictured with her dog, Lily.

“My kids have gained a family. I can’t imagine having Thanksgiving without this family,” she said.

Although the family isn’t Jewish, when they learned that a Jewish congregation was helping them, something clicked. One of the daughters and sons-in-law had honeymooned in Israel and started singing Oseh Shalom. Videlefsky suggested the musical family perform at a Shabbat service at Or Hadash in August.

“Someone donated a trumpet for a son-in-law. A daughter is a concert violinist. They all came. People were crying in the audience. They were so joyful and showed us their gratitude.”

Likewise, The Temple will hold a special Shabbat service and oneg on Oct. 7 to welcome the Ukrainian family that its congregation, along with Temple Emanu-El, has been assisting. Cindy Zeldin, who leads The Temple’s immigration outreach program, said she contacted JF&CS and explained that a congregant had a house to donate to Ukrainian refugees.

“Within four or five days, we had a family moved in. This is the luckiest family in the world.”

The congregation held a birthday party for the family at which Rabbi Peter Berg was asked to bless the little girl, specifically in Hebrew.

At a birthday party for a young refugee, The Temple’s Rabbi Peter Berg blessed the girl in Hebrew. “They understood the power of Hebrew,” he said. “They wanted it to feel authentic.

“They understood the power of Hebrew,” he said. “They wanted it to feel authentic. The father gave a speech saying how grateful he was to The Temple.” Berg said he not only felt genuinely moved, but his 14-year-old twins “talked about it all day.” Everything was translated from Hebrew to English to Russian.

It doesn’t hurt that The Temple’s partnering congregation is Temple Emanu-El. Marita Anderson, the wife of Emanu-El’s Rabbi Spike Anderson and a former hospital chaplain, was herself an immigrant from Ukraine and speaks Russian. Synagogues that sign up to help resettle Ukrainians don’t just help furnish a new home. They take families to doctors’ appointments, take them food shopping, help them get drivers’ licenses and register children for school. Anderson remembers when she was about to help her congregation’s family get the children ready for a new school.

“Zane was trying to prepare me,” she said. “I literally was the same age. I know what it’s like to walk into a school and not know any English.”

Unlike previous waves of refugees, Ukrainians fleeing the war are not entering the U.S. through traditional refugee channels. They have been granted humanitarian parole status in order to get them into the country faster. But it has been challenging to figure out what exactly that status entails when it comes to governmental support in the form of food stamps and work visas.

JF&CS has worked closely with New American Pathways (NAP) to handle the resettlement process in Atlanta.

“We are helping JF&CS help the families get the documents they need,” said NAP CEO Paedia Mixon. “We know how to navigate the system.”

Many of the refugees arrived in Atlanta without private sponsors and needed immediate help, which is what JF&CS has provided, matching refugee families with synagogues. Mixon believes the assistance her organization provides to agencies like JF&CS will increase due to a grant that NAP has just received.

“We are hiring staff and will have a full Ukrainian program,” she said. “This grant will enable us to help [another] 350 people.

“This year has involved more complexities than most for us,” she acknowledged, “but we’re well equipped to help. And we’ve seen so much collaboration with the Jewish community this year.”

The goal is for the refugees to become self-sufficient. That means learning English, if necessary, applying for work visas, signing up for Medicaid. The men, particularly, are eager to become self-sufficient, noted Janie Fishman, one of two co-chairs of the Circle for Immigrant & Refugee Justice at Temple Sinai.

“They need work permits, but Zane said they couldn’t get them for 10 months.”

However, one of the men Temple Sinai is assisting is an electrician. “We got him a computer and he knew just what to do [with it],” said Fishman.

Her co-chair, Leslie Walden, pointed out that before the war erupted, Temple Sinai had helped Afghan refugees who arrived in Atlanta.

“We made 100 welcome baskets,” she said. But Fishman admitted that helping the Ukrainians was a new challenge. “It was overwhelming when Zane contacted us and we had to get ready for the family as soon as possible.”

JF&CS continues to reach out to other Jewish organizations to help the influx of refugees.

“Every partner is different on what they can contribute,” said Barnhard. “Everyone has a different ability to assist.”

Partnering synagogues don’t commit to a specific amount of time for assisting the refugees they have been assigned. But, as Or VeShalom’s Benator stated, “I don’t feel a time frame. How do you put a life-time cap on a friendship?”

“I give JF&CS a lot of credit for making this happen,” said Shearith Israel’s Susan Baker. “There’s a lot of potential for the community to do more.”

“I think it’s a very easy thing for all houses of worship to do — and so meaningful,” said Rabbi Berg. “I encourage others to do it. It can be done rather quickly and the impact is so immediate.”

“This effort shows the connectivity across the community between synagogues,” Robbins added. “This is a great example of us at our best. I am hopeful that it inspires other faith communities.”

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