Escaping to freedom

Escaping to freedom

Ukrainian family’s escape is supported, filmed by local shul

Ukrainian refugees Julia and Sasha celebrate Sasha’s nursery school graduation at the JCC Rockland. (Beth Haverim Shir Shalom)
Ukrainian refugees Julia and Sasha celebrate Sasha’s nursery school graduation at the JCC Rockland. (Beth Haverim Shir Shalom)

The world is a very big place. It’s hard to fix it. But Jewish tradition teaches us that we have to try. We have to just start somewhere, with something, and then keep going.

That’s what a group of congregants at Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah decided to do. To pick a place — a person — to start with, and then to keep going.

They might have been propelled by their Reform synagogue’s name; Beth Haverim Shir translates to House of Friends and Song of Peace in English.

So how do you work with friends and bring peace into your home?

Lisa Estrin drives Julia and Sasha. (All photos courtesy Beth Haverim Shir Shalom)

Recently, the three members of the committee who have produced a documentary that will be screened on April 30 talked about what they’ve been doing.

Harvey Weinberg of Upper Saddle River has been a member of Beth Haverim Shir Shalom since 1993, was its president for three terms, and now co-chairs its tikkun olam committee. Linda Schwartz of Suffern, who has been a member since 2005, has held many committee assignments, most recently as the other tikkun olam co-chair. And Iris Greenberg of Wayne is now in her 19th year as the synagogue’s executive director.

(A tiny bit of geography — Beth Haverim Shir Shalom is in Bergen County, but it’s very close to the state line. It draws about a third of its membership from Rockland County.)

Together, Mr. Weinberg, Ms. Schwartz, and Ms. Greenberg produced “Julia’s Journey: A Story of Love, Courage, and Hope,” a documentary that tells the story of Julia and her family. Mr. Weinberg directed; the videography was by Kyle Dubiel, a synagogue member who graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and is a professional filmmaker.

Julia talks to the camera in the film’s trailer.

“In March of last year, right after Russia invaded Ukraine, a friend who is active in Jewish organizations sent me an article about a rabbi in Florida who had taken a Ukrainian refugee family in his home,” Mr. Weinberg said. “He welcomed them and got them settled, got the children into school.” (The rabbi is Adam Watstein; his shul is close to Miami, and the story about him was in the Forward last year.)

“That was early in the war, and they were early refugees.

“The rabbi’s thinking was that it is wonderful to donate food and clothing and to contribute money, but the highest order of giving is what he called inconveniencing yourself.

“So we got together, and tried to figure out what to do, how to get matched with a Ukrainian refugee family.” The three got in touch with some Jewish organizations, but the process went slowly. They grew impatient.

Harvey Weinberg wrote and coproduced “Julia’s Journey.”

“Then a member of the group, Lisa Estrin, read a Facebook post about a 27-year-old Ukrainian refugee mom and her 4-year-old son, Sasha, who had lost their luggage in Mexico City. They were in Suffern by then; they needed help and were asking for it directly.

“So Lisa reached out to them by Facebook, and we had a first meeting with Julia” — she’s Yuliia in transcribed Ukrainian — “who was staying at that time on her aunt’s couch.” Her aunt has been in this country for about a decade, Mr. Weinberg added.

“That meeting began a relationship that now is coming up on one year strong.”

In the trailer for the documentary, Julia talks about how hard it was to leave Ukraine — and how necessary. She did not want to leave her husband, Stas, even temporarily — and a truth about immigration, particularly during wartime, is that you can never know if a temporary parting will end up being permanent. If it’s au revoir or goodbye. Men between 18 and 65 are not allowed to leave Ukraine unless they have some sort of disability that would keep them out of the war effort.

On their first visit to Manhattan, Julia and Sasha went to the September 11 Memorial, where the Twin Towers once stood.

But this was war, and Julia and Stas knew that they wanted a better life for Sasha.

Leaving was hard — we never should sugarcoat how hard it is — but they decided that it was necessary. Julia and Sasha went to Slovakia, then to Poland, where they stayed for a few weeks. “She helped in an immigration center in Poland, because she speaks fluent Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish,” Ms. Schwartz said.

And then Julia and Sasha went to Mexico, and then on to the United States.

Because they realized that the way to establish a strong person in a new life is not by wrapping her in gauze but by allowing her to engage with her new world, “we identified what Julia and her son Sasha needed,” Mr. Weinberg said.

“That included a place to live. It took several months until Julia was on her feet. We helped her find an apartment in Suffern. We subsidized it. And she needed a job. The Saddle River Inn is one of the top restaurants in the state, and the Saddle River Café is a beautiful place right next door.” The owner gave Julia a job. “She began as a hostess and barista, and now does whatever she can there,” Mr. Weinberg said. “She’s been working there since May of last year.”

Stas and Julia have been reunited.

The job was a logical fit for Julia because she had worked in restaurants in Ukraine; the refugees are coming from a country not so unlike the United States that skills learned at home are not useful here. Restaurants, at least to some extent, are restaurants, here and in eastern Europe.

Then there is the language question. Ukrainians start learning English in third grade, Mr. Weinberg said. “Her English was okay when she got here,” but okay isn’t great, he added. “One of our synagogue members taught English on the secondary-school level. She has been tutoring Julia since last spring. Julia’s English is now imperfect but entirely understandable, although she might mess up a tense here or there.”

And then there was Sasha, “who needed to go to school,” he continued. He talked to David Kirschtel, the CEO of the JCC Rockland, and as a result of that conversation, “Sasha was enrolled at the school there, at no cost. He began in May 2022, went through the summer there, and now has transitioned to pre-K in Suffern.” He’s in public school now, “and he’s doing wonderfully well.”

As for Sasha’s English, small children pick up languages quickly. “Within a week or two, I met him and dropped him off at school. I said, ‘See you later,’ and he said, ‘See you later!’” Sasha’s English is just fine.

Stas holds baby Sasha.

The family is not Jewish, a fact that puts off no one on any side of this relationship.

Now that Julia had a job and Sasha was in school, the next question was transportation. “Julia didn’t know how to drive,” Mr. Weinberg said. She comes from Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in western Ukraine. “At home, she would bike or use public transportation.” But public transportation in Rockland and northern Bergen County doesn’t go where Julia has to go, and it’s hard to always rely on a bike, especially when you have a growing child to take with you.

“So Linda organized 10 volunteers to drive to Julia’s apartment, pick them up, take Sasha to school and Julia to work, and then reverse it at 3,” Ms. Greenberg said.

“That went on five days a week for four months,” Ms. Schwartz said. “The beauty of it was the relationships developed. It was intimate in the car,” just Julia, Sasha, and the driver. There were 10 drivers, but each one drove alone.

Julia and Sasha get a ride out of Slovakia.

“We realized that Julia is fiercely independent,” Ms. Greenberg said. “She wanted to learn to drive. So Linda arranged for her to take driving lessons at David Driving School in Monsey. She had, give or take, half a dozen lessons, and then she got her license.” (That’s not a feat that many new teenage drivers can match — six lessons behind the wheel and then passing the road test the first time.)

Now, Julia needed a car. “Here’s where the tears come in,” Mr. Weinberg said.

“We have people giving gift cards for food, furniture, and clothing. So Iris sends a note asking if anyone has a car for Julia, and someone answers.

“It’s Len Kaplan. He’s 76, his wife died a year ago, and he donates her car. You can envision the scene when it happened, with Julia hugging him,” Mr. Weinberg said, his voice suspiciously froggy.

When Julia and Sasha were in Poland, Sasha got sick.

There still was the question of where Julia and Sasha could live. Her aunt’s apartment was crowded, and it’s hard sleeping on a couch. “We found an apartment — and guess what? The landlord is a member of the congregation.”

There hadn’t been time for the apartment to be cleaned before Julia and Sasha moved in, “so Julia cleaned it, and then we had a painting party.”

Everything was going well. And then it got even better.

“Her mother and brother were still in Ukraine,” Mr. Weinberg said.

Sasha buckles his seatbelt for the flight to the United States.

There’s a nine-year age gap between Julia and Vasl — he’s 19. “When she left Ukraine, he drove her to the border with Slovakia, and then he went home,” Mr. Weinberg said. The frog had returned to his throat.

Vasl has a medical condition that is not visible but keeps him out of the army. “He is allowed to leave, but he needed to be sponsored,” so the synagogue committee “facilitated that process,” Mr. Weinberg said. Both Vasl and his mother, Svetlana, were able to leave.

When Vasl and Svetlana got to Suffern, they stayed with Marianna — Svetlana’s sister and Vasl and Julia’s aunt. Vasl slept on his aunt’s couch at first, just as his sister had. But then the synagogue arranged to have him live at Len Kaplan’s house — it’s a big place for a recently widowed man to live in and listen to echoes in alone. “Hopefully he’ll go to Ramapo College in the fall, but he has to perfect his English first, so now he’s working on it at Bergen Community College,” Mr. Weinberg said. Our shul members are at it again. He works in Allendale, at a place called Primo Hoagies.

“It’s new. It just opened up in a strip mall, and I walked in there and told the owner about Vasl, and he was hired on the spot. So now he has a job and a place to live, and he’s getting an education.”

When they first got to Suffern, Julia and Sasha stayed in this basement room.

And then there’s Stas. He’s now in the United States; it’s unclear how that happened, but “it’s 100 percent legal,” Mr. Weinberg said. “He hadn’t seen Julia or Sasha from last February until December, but then we learned that he’d be able to leave and be reunited with his wife and son.

“He had been a chef, so Linda arranged for him to find work. He has a job at the Pearl River Hilton now.”

It takes money to put people on their feet. $40,000, to be precise. Synagogue members raised $36,000, mostly by word of mouth, and received two grants of $2,000 each from the Union of Reform Judaism.

Mr. Weinberg, Ms. Schwartz, and Ms. Greenberg joked about making a movie of the story. “We’d have Jewish actors play the roles, so Natalie Portland would play Linda, Harrison Ford would be in it, and Scarlett Johansen would play Julia,” Mr. Weinberg said. Needless to say, that didn’t happen.

Julia is at work at the Saddle River Cafe.

But there was real intent behind the joking. “It became clear that this story had to be told,” Mr. Weinberg said. He’s retired from a career as a financial consultant; he thought he’d write about it, but soon learned that writing “was not fun.” But then “I had a vision of creating a documentary, and I wrote 13 scenes in six locations,” he said. “It’s the people’s own words, but I wrote what should be said in every scene and who should say it.

“I shared it with my friends here, and most importantly shared it with Julia. She came over to my house, and even before I showed her the script, she said, ‘We’re in business.’

“She is something else.

“So I took her through the whole thing, and she looked me in the eye and said, ‘Let’s make a movie!’”

Julia, second from right, sits with some members of the team who drove her, before she earned her license.

The congregants featured in the film raised almost all the money necessary to create it.

The three producers admire Julia immensely. “She has incredible character, she is strong as hell, and she is smart,” Mr. Weinberg said. At first, Julia was uncomfortable about being the focus of the film, but “she recognizes that she and her family are very lucky to have met us, and we know that we are very lucky to have met her.”

With the film, “we are acknowledging that Ukraine is a real issue, and a real horror.

“Our rabbi, Ilana Schwartzman, has relationships with a Ukrainian priest from a congregation in Passaic with whom she has done a prayer vigil. He will be coming, as will someone from a small Ukrainian church in Ramsey. We hope that someone from a Ukrainian center in Whippany will be able to come too.

Sasha is at the computer in his school library.

“This is more than just us. It’s more than just Julia’s story. It’s about tikkun olam. That’s why we’re so glad to bring in other organizations.

“It’s about how a small handful of people can help another small handful of people.” That’s real help, from which real people benefit. And then, those small groups of people add up, and pretty soon you’re making a real difference.

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