(New York Jewish Week) — A year ago, Diana and Vitalii Nakonechnyi never expected that they and their two young kids would be living in Riverdale, a leafy neighborhood in the Bronx. Then again, they also never expected a war would force them to evacuate their hometown of Kharkiv, Ukraine.
“We heard it was a possibility, but we never would have expected this to happen in our lives,” Diana told the New York Jewish Week via a translator. “And we never thought we’d ever live in as big of a city as New York.”
The Nakonechnyis, a family unit of five — including Vitalii’s mother — are among the nearly 100,000 refugees who have fled Ukraine for the United States since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022.
They first went to Poland, then stayed in Germany through the summer. There, they heard via Telegram, a global messaging service, that HIAS and other refugee resettlement agencies like it were helping bring people to the United States. HIAS, formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, was created in 1881 to aid Jewish refugees fleeing Eastern Europe. In recent years, however, HIAS has pivoted to resettling non-Jewish refugees, as well as mobilizing the American Jewish community around advocating for immigrants and asylum-seekers.
As it turns out, the Nakonechnyi family were not resettled directly by HIAS or another refugee resettlement organization — a process that can often take years due to bureaucratic red tape. Instead, they were among a growing cohort of arrivals who were greeted at the airport, set up in new homes and introduced to life in the United States by trained “Welcome Circles,” a private sponsorship group, enlisted by HIAS, that consists of everyday Americans who volunteer to help resettle a refugee family. Within the span of just a few weeks, with the assistance of local community members, the Nakonechnyi family settled in the Bronx at the end of September 2022.
“Nobody really believed that there would be some help on the other side, that everything would be taken care of with housing and airline tickets,” Diana said. “Little by little, we are adjusting.”
The Northwest Bronx Coalition — the Welcome Circle of around 10 individuals that has helped welcome the Nakonechnyis in Riverdale — is largely made up of members from local congregations: Riverdale Temple, Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale, Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and Congregation Tehillah. It’s the latest iteration of how Jews, once refugees themselves, are now using their expertise and experience to resettle others.
“Ukraine is so pivotal in so many of our own histories and our own refugee stories, said Holly Rosen Fink, the president of the Westchester Jewish Coalition for Immigration who, working with HIAS, helps organize and mobilize Welcome Circles. “Nine times out of 10, when you ask [Jewish] people in Westchester where their families are from, it’s usually that part of the world. So it stirred a lot of people’s hearts.”
Welcome Circles like the Northwest Bronx Coalition are made up of five to eight community members who have committed themselves to accommodating and resettling a refugee family for the first six months of their time in the United States. These volunteers handle everything a resettlement agency would: helping secure housing and employment, organizing medical appointments and bills, and smoothing over any other logistics required in the transition to a new country. The groups commit to raising $2,275 for each person they are going to help resettle.
Leading the Northwest Bronx group is Irina Kimmelfeld, who came to the United States when she was 13 as an emigre from the Soviet Union in 1988. “I did feel that I was in more of a unique situation to help because I have the language and some degree of commonality of experience right from that same region,” Kimmelfeld told the New York Jewish Week. “But it really came from feeling so helpless about the war and needing to be able to do something.”
Kimmelfeld, an accountant, has been translating for the Nakonechnyis, helping them find and furnish an apartment, guiding them through public transportation, finding a house of worship (the family is Ukrainian Baptist) and showing them around the city. She’s also helped with social and medical services for Diana, who is eight months pregnant, and her son Filipp, who has special needs.
For Rosen Fink, resettling non-Jewish refugees is undoubtedly a Jewish issue. “After visiting a [refugee] camp during the Syrian refugee crisis, I just became determined to not let that happen again to anybody, not just Jewish people,” she said. “So, for me, it’s a very ingrained issue.”
Rosen Fink operates as a liaison between HIAS and New York Jewish communities, encouraging members to join these Welcome Circles in honor of their Jewish values. “We’ve been going into the community, finding the people that want to step up and giving them the tools and the resources and funding to connect with HIAS and start hosting a family,” Rosen Fink said. “We inspire people to do this work because we see this through a Jewish lens because of our history and values.”
Until recently, Welcome Circles such as the Northwest Bronx Coalition were considered part of an emergency government response towards the Afghan and Ukrainian refugee crises, and not an official resettlement policy in the United States. But as of Jan. 19, the Biden Administration announced the implementation of the “Welcome Corps,” a federally backed private sponsorship program in which refugee resettlement agencies will be able to train American citizens to help resettle refugees on a long-term basis with route to citizenship — a departure from the emergency response programs which only offered short-term, humanitarian parole.
The Welcome Corps, which the New York Times called “most significant reorientation of the U.S. refugee program since its inception more than four decades ago,” will allow an increased number of refugees to resettle in the United States for less of a cost to the government.
As such, programs like HIAS’s Welcome Circles will become an even more common way to resettle more refugees more quickly. In the last 18 months, HIAS has helped establish 80 Welcome Circles in 17 states. In New York City and Westchester, 15 of HIAS’s Welcome Circles have assisted in the resettlement of more than 50 refugees.
“It’s an exciting program that’s is opening up the opportunity for many more volunteers on the ground to get involved with supporting refugee resettlement in areas where they might not have resettlement agencies, or where resettlement agencies do not have the capacity to bring in the people themselves,” said Isabel Burton, the senior director of community engagement initiatives at HIAS.
For now, the Nakonechnyis are still getting used to the city, which is a lot bigger than their hometown (Kharkiv’s population is approximately 1.4 million). They’re not sure yet if New York will be their permanent home — the idea of planning for the future, Diana said, feels like it has been taken away from them.
“You do feel helpless — and this is something you can do,” Kimmelfeld said. “You can’t help everybody but you can make a difference for one family.”
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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