Picnic recalls Dayton’s last wave of Soviet Jewish immigration

20th Anniversary of Soviet Jewish immigration, October 2009

Photo: Paul Kulback
Svetlana and Moisey Shapochnik (L) were among 125 guests to join Joe and Elaine Bettman (R) at a picnic in Englewood Reserve Park to celebrate 20 years since Dayton’s Jewish Federation began resettling 80 Soviet Jews in the Miami Valley over two years

By Masada Siegel, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer

August marked the 20-year anniversary of new beginnings for Jews from the former Soviet Union who began arriving in Dayton, and for the volunteers who helped them find their way here. To celebrate and reminisce, key volunteers from the days of Dayton’s Operation Exodus project, Elaine and Joe Bettman, hosted a potluck picnic at Englewood Reserve Park on Aug 23. More than 125 people showed up, from as far away as Detroit.

“There was no room on the table for all the food,” Joe said. “We had four generations present at the event.”

In 1989, with the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, United Jewish Appeal — then the umbrella fund-raising arm of Jewish federations’ campaigns — launched the Passage to Freedom campaign to remove Jews from the Soviet Union and resettle them in Israel and the United States. This national campaign fell short, only raising $50 million.

But in 1990, UJA redoubled its efforts with another emergency campaign, Operation Exodus, which ultimately collected $900 million and allowed almost 1 million Jews to immigrate to Israel and 150,000 to come to the United States. Operation Exodus became the largest emergency fund-raising event in Jewish history.

The Council of Jewish Federations and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society asked Jewish federations across North America to absorb a percentage of Jews from the Soviet Union.

Dayton’s Operation Exodus campaign, chaired by Joe, raised almost $2 million. Barbara Sanderow chaired the overall Operation Exodus project, and along with Bill Franklin and Milton Marks, oversaw the Operation Exodus Steering Committee. Larry Burick was president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dayton during Operation Exodus. As of 1993, Dayton’s Federation, through its Jewish Family Service and with dozens of volunteers, accepted and acclimated nearly 200 Jews from the Soviet Union. This was the last wave of Jews from Eastern Europe to immigrate to Dayton.

Photo: Paul Kulback
Lucy Fishman and her granddaughter Rita Fishman

“We needed to raise money immediately for the families who were moving to Dayton,” Joe said.  “We did not have months, we had weeks, between Pesach and Shavuot. For so many of us, our roots were in Eastern Europe. We felt a kinship to the people who were moving into Dayton, because our parents and grandparents had made the same move.”

Often, the émigrés were delayed in Italy for four to six months before their arrival in Dayton. During this time before the first wave of two dozen immigrants, volunteers from the Dayton Jewish community mobilized to provide English tutors, job opportunities, transportation, medical and dental care, hospitality and friendship. Elaine coordinated these volunteers.

“One of the members of our community donated an empty store room,” she said. “We collected beds, sofas, linens and everything you would need to set up an apartment. When these families walked into their new homes, they were absolutely astonished by the gorgeous fully furnished apartments. Every detail was taken care of, from a fridge filled with food to flowers on the table.”

Dr. Polina Sadikov was a member of the third family that came to Dayton. “At the time, in the former Soviet Union, they taught us at school that Americans were not friendly and did not help one another,” Polina recalled. “So it was scary to come. We were not prepared, we just had plane tickets. On the plane we wondered where we were going to sleep. It was great. We arrived at the airport, and had people meeting us there. It was a wonderful support.”

Each family was matched with a local satellite family, people they could go to with questions and concerns about adapting to life in the United States.

Photo: Paul Kulback
Donyel and Anna Polotsky with their granddaughters

“Once we were here,” Polina said, “we also tried to help the new families as they arrived, with translations and acclimating to America. It was great to help them, as it is much more enjoyable to give than to receive.”

Guests at the picnic included Rabbi Sheldon Switkin of Columbus, retired director of Dayton’s Jewish Family Service, and the Federation’s retired executive vice president, Peter Wells.

“The picnic was very emotional for me,” said Linda Patterson, who worked for the DJCC at the time and was in charge of the English As A Second Language program. “When every family arrived at the airport, they were greeted by Elaine and Joe with balloons to make them feel welcome in America. The response was overwhelming; families came over to me and said they were the luckiest people in the world because they were sent to Dayton. No other city welcomed people the way Dayton did, with all their needs anticipated; from apartments to classes.”

Linda said it was a moral obligation to reach out to these Soviet Jews. “How many times in my life, in any of our lives, do we have the opportunity to make a difference in another human being’s existence? It touched my heart and made me feel if there was anything right I did in my life, it was that I made a difference in other people’s lives.”

Previous post

The Jewish Federation centennial quiz

Next post

It's time to grow up