Posted by Igor Khayet on Mon, May 09, 2011 at 17:12 pm
Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to celebrate Pesach in San Francisco, California. I've been living here for the past two months as part of a fellowship program for the Kauffman Foundation for Entrepreneurship and I was worried about finding a place to have a seder. As it turns out, one of my closest friends from Kansas City has relatives in San Francisco and graciously invited me to their house.
I could never have imagined the unlikely connection that I shared with one of the guests at the seder. Before I explain, I should share that my family came to the U.S. through the assistance of HIAS in 1989 as refugees from the former Soviet Union. My hosts knew that I was born in the Soviet Union and wanted to introduce me to their friend who also spoke Russian.
*(our conversation in Russian)*
"So, where are you from in the Soviet Union?" (me)
"I am from a small city called Gomel in Belarus." (her)
"Wow! Me, too. (me)
To make the long story short, this woman, who I had randomly met at a seder knew both sets of my grandparents. My grandfather (on my dad's side) was a well-known construction manager in Gomel and she worked in a building that he helped reconstruct. He is now living with my grandmother in Jerusalem and has published multiple books in Yiddish on the history of Russian Jewry. The woman was also a close friend of my mom's parents, who immigrated to Kansas City in 1993.
For the next few days after the seder, I could not stop thinking about the incredible coincidence of meeting what was probably one of the only people in California who not only was from the same town as myself in Belarus, but also knew both sets of my grandparents. At the same time, the meeting reminded me of how far my family and I had come from living as second class citizens in the USSR. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude to HIAS and everyone else involved in helping us move here.
This sense of gratitude is what originally got me involved with the HIAS Young Leaders in Washington DC. I started out by volunteering with the Young Leaders in planning some of their fundraisers but soon organized my own initiative, an after-school chess program for immigrant children in conjunction with the Shalom Education Center in Rockville, MD. Beyond chess, the real mission of my project was to provide immigrant children with mentors who encourage language acquisition, build social skills, and ease the transition into American society. The program lasted for more than 2 years with several HIAS volunteers and dozens of kids.
My hope is that the HIAS Young Leaders program grows and expands its reach across more cities and builds a network of supporters advocating on behalf of populations most in need. This will ensure that millions more people are helped by HIAS and that they too can experience the freedom that we celebrate on Passover.