From Our CEO
Parting the Red Sea
February 3rd, 2023

At sundown tonight, the fifth annual Refugee Shabbat will begin, a program of our longtime partner HIAS. We are reminded that for the first time ever, the total number of displaced persons globally is more than 100 million, a staggering, difficult to comprehend figure.

HIAS President and CEO Mark Hetfield often notes that HIAS helps refugees today not because they’re Jewish, but because we’re Jewish.

As we tragically know, Jewish history is marked by expulsion, displacement, and wandering — two millennia of wandering — which is why we hold our hands out now to those who find themselves strangers in a strange land. From the comfort of America, where we have found extraordinary refuge, we have a responsibility to offer comfort and hope to others. To make them feel like newcomers, rather than strangers.

This week, we helped do just that.

On Wednesday, the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst (JCH), thanks to UJA’s ongoing support, hosted a job fair for Ukrainian refugees. One thousand job seekers came, lining up patiently on a block in Brooklyn. Some have been in New York for just days, others almost the full 11 months of war. The youngest was 18 years old, the oldest 64. The vast majority were women, some with small children in tow. Most were college graduates and had been professionals in Ukraine.

None know what the future will bring, but while they’re here in New York, they want to be self-sufficient. And if they can, they want to help family back home.


UJA Federation of New York >> <center>
<p><em>Ukrainians take part in JCH job fair.</em></p>

Ukrainians take part in JCH job fair.

JCH, which has long run job training and placement programs, dug deep into their database to organize the fair. They recruited 70 potential employers, including other UJA partners, small local businesses, and large national corporations, like T-Mobile, TD Bank, and JP Morgan. About 10 of the employers were JCH alums; they were connected to the beloved community center one way or another and came back to help, like they were once helped.

You can watch the job fair in action in this CBS New York clip.

One job seeker had arrived in New York only four days ago with a background in agriculture. He didn’t think there was much hope he’d find farming-related work in Brooklyn…but lo and behold, he was connected to the New York City Parks Department. And the Parks staffer who talked to him? He'd been a camp counselor at the JCH.

Every refugee has a story. Traumatic escapes. Loved ones left behind. Hometowns destroyed. Many are worried about what happens when their protected legal status runs out. Uncertainty shapes their lives. But the staff and volunteers of JCH — many of whom were themselves emigres from the former Soviet Union — heroically and lovingly make the newcomers feel part of a community.

We’ve long provided annual core operating support to the JCH, ensuring its organizational strength and flexibility. Now, with an additional $1 million in emergency funding, part of the $22 million we’ve allocated worldwide in total Ukraine-related relief, the JCH has helped 5,000 refugees. As part of a UJA-funded coalition in southern Brooklyn, together with UJA partners Shorefront Y and Kings Bay Y, JCH is ensuring access to case management and child care, emergency cash assistance, mental health support (with Jewish Board, another partner) and legal support (with NYLAG, also a partner). We’ve been with them — and will continue to be with them — every step of the way.

On Refugee Shabbat, we’ll read parshat Beshalach, one of the most dramatic moments in the Torah. Having fled slavery in Egypt, the Israelites find themselves faced with the seemingly impassible Red Sea, the Egyptian army in hot pursuit. Moses lifts his staff and God parts the sea, allowing the Israelites to pass through to safety. Freedom is secured, and the former slaves are now on a journey back to their homeland in Israel.

Today, Ukrainians are facing their own Red Sea. Stay in a new country or return home: both come with harrowing difficulties. And Moses isn’t here to lift his staff, so we’re compelled to do the best we can with God’s help to lift it ourselves. To help refugees start fresh in New York. Or to help them rebuild in Ukraine if they choose.

Having once stood at the waters, ours is a community that must always strive to part the Red Sea.

Shabbat shalom