From Our CEO
Turning the Page
September 23rd, 2022

We typically come to this point of the year — the days before Rosh Hashanah — ready to turn the page. The disagreements and disappointments of the past year can be forgiven and forgotten, and we eagerly embrace the promise of new beginnings.

That’s the aspiration. But for far too many, the reality is starkly different. The ability to start afresh is not in their hands. The page is not easily turned.

This is tragically the case today for millions of Ukrainian refugees, who are caught in a kind of limbo, between the trauma of what they’ve endured and the unknown of what comes next.

Last week, I visited the Marks Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst (JCH), a longtime UJA partner, who with our support has been operating a crisis response center for Ukrainian refugees since February 25, the day after the Russian invasion began.

To this point, more than 14,000 Ukrainian refugees have arrived in New York. About 6,800, almost half, are receiving help at UJA-supported agencies across our community.

And at JCH, seven months after the invasion, 12 to 15 new refugees still walk in daily for initial intake, as many as 20 on a busy day. While I was there, some of the new refugees eagerly shared their stories; others were more reticent. Specially trained social workers listen carefully and avoid asking questions that might re-traumatize the new clients.

UJA Federation of New York >> <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: Calibri;"><em><span style="font-size: 13.5pt; font-family: MaisonNeue-Book, serif; color: #242a39; background: white;">A Ukrainian client shares her story with me and Gelena Blishteyn, associate executive director of the JCH</span></em></p>

A Ukrainian client shares her story with me and Gelena Blishteyn, associate executive director of the JCH

After assessing needs, JCH staff members jump into action, enabling the refugees to access benefits and services and connecting them to JCH programming. A mental health professional from the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, another major UJA partner, is also a key member of the team — working tirelessly to address the deep trauma.

During my visit this past Friday, a young Ukrainian couple walked in for intake. They'd arrived in New York just a week before and were sleeping in a tent under the pier on Coney Island. Like most of those walking into JCH's crisis response center, they learned about JCH by word of mouth.

Realizing the young couple was hungry, the social worker immediately got them lunch from JCH's senior center. She gave them emergency cash assistance for food and clothing, helped them begin the process of applying for public benefits and medical insurance, and signed them up for English classes. JCH also arranged temporary housing at a nearby hotel and is now working to hopefully secure a more permanent solution for the couple.

This is the same JCH we funded in the 1990s to support the large influx of immigrants who arrived after the fall of the Soviet Union. JCH became a home to them; the younger generation grew up here, and today, 70% of JCH’s staff is from the FSU. Their heroic undertaking comes from a deeply personal place; they know what it is to be strangers in a strange land and they’re grateful now to be the helpers.

From that same place of giving back, JCH has asked families to “adopt” refugees for the Jewish holidays and Thanksgiving. And in a couple of weeks, JCH is arranging a group trip for new refugees to visit the Statue of Liberty. This was the refugees’ simple wish, one that can be easily granted.

This Sunday evening, we welcome in 5783. Many of us will be sitting at our holiday tables surrounded by loved ones and friends. We'll reflect on the many blessings we enjoy (even just being together, in person) and the innumerable opportunities before us in this new year. As for me, I’ll have the privilege of being in Israel with my wife and family, including a son and daughter-in-law who moved to Tel Aviv last October and another daughter who made aliyah just this week.

In this time of sweetness and celebration, let us hold in our hearts and minds those who live under the shadow of ill-health, mental anguish, loneliness, or poverty, and those whose lives have been ravaged by trauma and war. Let us not be numbed to the headlines, and instead recommit to being there for those in need, a source of shared strength and resilience, for as long as is necessary.

Until, please God, the page turns.

Wishing all of us a year of peace, stability, and the possibility of new beginnings.  

Shabbat shalom and shanah tovah