For Jewish Refugees, a More Perfect Union in America
Guest post by Elana Broitman, Senior Vice President for Public Affairs, JFNA
Growing up in a Jewish family in Odessa in the 1970s, I listened, wide-eyed, to my grandparents’ tales of fleeing our Nazi-occupied city during the Second World War. I was reminded of the plight of Tevye’s family in the stories by Sholem Aleichem that were my constant companion. Little did I imagine that this situation—being driven from one’s homeland because of antisemitism—would be my fate as well.
As it became increasingly more difficult for Jews to pursue higher education and professional opportunities in Ukraine, many, including my own family, determined to leave for America or Israel.
The largest wave of Russian Jewish immigration to America, which occurred roughly between 1970 and 2010, brought 700,000 refugees to these shores. However, these numbers obscure how wrenching each family’s experience of immigration was.
Before we departed for the United States in 1975, the authorities confiscated the keepsake jewelry my parents sought to bring as a memory from their parents, forbade my mother, who was a professional pianist, to bring her piano, and ripped apart my little sister’s teddy bear to make sure we weren’t smuggling jewels or gold. I was unable to share my feelings even with my teacher in school; if I had told her that I didn’t want to leave, the government could have taken me away.
We flew to Vienna and took a train to Rome, where my sister and I slept together on a reclining chair for four months, waiting for U.S. visas to come through. During the day, we went to museums and anything else that was free. Finally, after many trials and tribulations, we were cleared to come to America. We ended up living in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania, where my family was active in the local Jewish community.
The tumultuous experiences my family underwent instilled with in me two core values. One is a deep-rooted love for America, the country that opened its doors and provided my family with the opportunities to live freely as Jews. The other was that there is still work to be done, and I decided to go to law school to work for justice for all those who are marginalized in our society.
After law school, I worked for about a dozen years in government, including as a senior advisor on foreign policy, national security, and Jewish affairs to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). It was so fulfilling to take the senator to Sderot to show her the dreadful threats that Israel faces. Back home, we visited Monsey in the wake of the horrible stabbing attack there in December of 2019; we then marched with leaders of all backgrounds across the Brooklyn Bridge to demonstrate solidarity with victims of antisemitism.
After leaving Senator Gillibrand’s office, I returned as a senior vice president at UJA–Federation of New York, where I managed capacity building and funding for almost 100 Jewish organizations. One organization that I was particularly grateful to help was Rachel’s Place, an independent living program for runaway and homeless girls from the religious community. I also spearheaded a new New York City government-funded program for people with autism.
When Eric Fingerhut offered me my current role leading JFNA’s Public Affairs Division last summer, it felt like the culmination of the work I had set out to do. At JFNA, I would collaborate with the Federations to drive policy, create civic partnerships, and expand our own communal diversity and inclusion on the local, state, and federal levels.
And what a journey it has been—launching a comprehensive set of initiatives for pandemic relief throughout Jewish communities nationwide, mobilizing more than a hundred Jewish and non-Jewish organizations to lobby for the bipartisan Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act (which the president signed last May), and enlisting the participation of numerous members of Congress, civil rights leaders, and celebrities in the hugely successful Virtual Rally Against Antisemitism.
Among my priorities have been to deepen the work of our Israel Action Network to combat antisemitism and antizionism, particularly after both spiked so precipitously last spring, and to jumpstart a series of innovative programs to promote justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion throughout the Jewish community and beyond. I love the entrepreneurship of the Federation system and am focused on building the Advocacy Corps, a national program to engage volunteers in supporting government priorities.
I was particularly gratified that Federations from coast to coast took a major role in resettling Afghan refugees in their communities; it highlighted for all of us the importance of caring for the stranger in our midst.
Our amazing Public Affairs team is growing, and so are all the needs that the Federations have. We have much to do to support the Federations and the communal interests that they represent as systematically and deeply as possible.
Ten percent of the American Jewish population now has roots in the former Soviet Union, although Russian Jews remain seriously underrepresented in the leadership of both the American Jewish community and of our society as a whole. I hope that this will change as a new generation of Russian Jews comes to the fore. After all, Russian Jews are already making a mark in the cultural realm. Think of actress Mila Kunis, writer Gary Shteyngart, and singer/songwriter Regina Spektor.
The blessings of liberty are real and tangible to me, and I feel extraordinarily fortunate, as both a Jewish refugee and as a woman, to have the opportunities I might not have had, if my family had not fled here, to support the best of America’s promise.
Every so often, I think back to my childhood in Odessa, to the painful decision that my parents made to leave their homeland, and how my own experience of being uprooted, as traumatic it was, gave me empathy for those who have had to surmount so many challenges to begin their own lives anew. I feel an almost sacred responsibility to them on two fronts that reinforce each other—to help ensure the vitality of future generations of the Jewish community and to make this country, as much as it often struggles to fulfill its own promise, as perfect a union as it is possible to be.