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A Twenty Year Journey of Risk and Reward and the Hadassah Connection

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Yelena Chernyak

Twenty years ago on December 21, 1991 my parents, my son and I came to America from St. Petersburg (former Leningrad), Russia. It didnt matter that the parties or administration changed names over the years, for the same people were in charge and the policy of hating the Jews and blaming them for everything remained the same, too.

My son Mikhail remembers very little from his time in Russia. He remembers Jew-hating delinquents smearing Stars of David across the hallway walls and while still a small boy, he recalls meeting a new neighbor riding the elevator in our apartment complex. As the neighbor entered the freight, he told my son that someday he would kill him. Its one of the few things Mikhail cannot forget.
Our family would have left sooner, if my father, a former colonel would have been allowed to leave Russia. Because of his job in national security, the dream of leaving seemed impossibility. In fact, in early 1960s the government forced my father to sign a petition, alleging that there was nothing wrong or unusual regarding the Soviet governments treatment of Jews. My dad told me that a lot of famous people had to sign that petition. Fortunately, the United States pressured the Russian government into allowing Jews to leave the country, and the Savannah Jewish Federation was sponsoring families. We moved to Savannah, Georgia.

The adjustment wasnt easy for everyone. Imagine entering a new world where you dont have a job anymore, and you have no things. Even now there is a sadness when I think of those times. I don survived without the Jewish Federation. Though I did not make the connection then, I have since learned that an overwhelming majority of the women who volunteered to help us almost without exception were also members of Hadassah.

The Federation secured us a host family, provided transportation to doctor appointments and helped me to obtain my first job. In Russia, I had earned a Master

My son Mikhail was placed at Rambam Day School, our Jewish community school housed at our community center, the Jewish Educational Alliance. He learned to speak English fluently and also was the only Russian boy who had a Bar Mitzvah in Savannahs 1733 historic Congregation Mickve Israel. We are so grateful that America accepted us and the Savannah Jewish community has been so welcoming. In America we can be whoever we want to be.

My parents are gone now, but are buried side by side in the Jewish portion of Bonaventure, the historic cemetery in Savannah. The Jewish War Veterans honor my parentgraves with American flags each year. Today, at thirty years of age, Mikhail is the assistant vice president of a bank and owns his own car lot. Today, and for the last eighteen years I have been working at the regional hospital as a purchasing agent for the Operating Rooms. It is somewhat related to that medical research field that I studied so many years ago. Luckily, I am the type of person who finds everything interesting. But, when everything is new, it is like seeing the world again as a child, and I am beginning after twenty years to blossom.

With my pride in my sons accomplishments I got over some of my own shyness. A few years ago I joined the choir in our congregation, and also became a member of the Savannah Philharmonic Chorus. Quit recently, I became more and more involved in our community activities. My friend told me about Hadassah. I was amazed at how many people I knew in my community that supported Hadassah. I became a life member and a board member of our Hadassah Savannah Chapter where we are trying not only to bring new fresh stream into our community through Hadassah membership, but also to reunite our Jewish Community, bring all of us together again in support of common causes that Hadassah supports.

In spring 2011, I went to Atlanta for my first Hadassah regional conference, where I had the honor to meet and pose in a photo with Hadassah National Past President Marlene Post. I was amazed by the enthusiasm of all the women involved! Moved by the atmosphere of this event, I felt that we all, as a part of Hadassah, can make a difference in the world because Hadassahs projects save lives and touch lives. Yes, we are doing it!
It gave me the motivation and energy boost to fly to whatever is the next target! Upon my return I gave an interview about Hadassah for The Savannah Jewish News, I encouraged other members in the Russian community to not be afraid to join especially during the 100th anniversary special and two even became life members and started a hospitality committee.

Its a paradox: in Russia, the school books taught boys and girls that the Zionist movement is a very bad thing. I never thought Id be part of that movement. Now, here, we all are in the open, serving our community through Hadassah. As the Hadassah weekend event came to a close, plans were unveiled for celebrating the 100-year anniversary in 2012 in Jerusalem, and though the trip is too costly for me at this time, I am not afraid of dreaming.

On the way back from Atlanta, all I could think was, where have I been all these years?

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