Organizations pitch in to aid Yemenite immigrants
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Organizations pitch in to aid Yemenite immigrants

Marla Cohen is a freelance writer. She lives in Rockland County.

Nine Yemenite families brought to Monsey, N.Y., three years ago as refugees have found themselves in need of additional financial assistance since an organization that had provided them with aid has dropped out of the picture.

Local organizations and people, including some in northern New Jersey, have been pitching in to assist the families, by either donating funds or “adopting” by providing financial assistance, transportation and any services that can help them, according to Leslie Goldress. She is a member of Bais Torah, a Monsey synagogue that has adopted one of the families.

The Yemenis have needed help with their rent, yeshiva tuition, and other financial obligations, since the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, which had been assisting them, stopped paying several months ago, said Goldress, who is also a member of Rockland Jewish Family Service’s board of directors.

“They receive a stipend from the county for rent, but it in no way pays the rent,” said Goldress, who was drawn to the plight of the Yemenis, and then found herself sorting through their school and rent obligations. “In every single month, they are short. The money stopped in May 2011. That’s when UJO disappeared.”

UJO is a Williamsburg-based social service organization connected to the Satmar chasidim that assists with immigration and resettlement, among other needs. A call to the organization was answered and forwarded to its executive director, Rabbi David Niederman. His voicemail recording said that Niederman is unavailable indefinitely and directed the caller to an e-mail address. E-mails to that address went unanswered.

Goldress has sought assistance from area synagogues and other organizations so that the Yemeni families will not be evicted and the children can continue attending their yeshivot.

“The schools say that they will not accept the children back or take new kids [as the younger ones become school age] unless someone vouches for them,” she said.

The nine families represent more than 60 people, ranging from infants to adults. Some of the families have as many as 14 children, while others have only two. One family lives six to a room, according to Goldress.

While the school-age children have picked up English quickly, the adults speak little, if any. Some barely know how to hold a pen, and a television was a foreign curiosity to them, Goldress noted, and so they have been unable to find employment, other than cleaning and odd jobs. The Federation Employment and Guidance Service’s health and human services provided assistance to acculturate the families, including English instructions, but their language skills remain very poor, she said.

Goldress has sought help from a variety of organizations. Congregation Shaarey Israel, a traditional synagogue in Montebello, N.Y., decided to adopt one of the families recently. Before Rosh Hashanah and the new school year, the congregation raised money to buy shoes and school supplies for the children, as well as diapers, toiletries, and other clothing. Members also have helped with assorted bills, according to Elly Egenberg, a chair of the shul’s Temani committee. (Temani is Hebrew for Yeminite Jews.)

“There is still so much to do,” Egenberg said. “Just like when my grandparents came to this country, there were people waiting for them to help them navigate the ways, the road. That’s what Shaarey Israel wants to do for this Yemenite family.”

Goldress has been raising funds from individuals and organizations to pay off the nearly $11,000 owed in back rent for 16 months, when UJO’s involvement stopped, she said. She has received some funds from the Good People Fund in New Jersey, which provides small grants for a variety of tzedakah projects; as well as the Jewish Federation of Rockland County; the Orangetown Jewish Center, and the New City Jewish Center.

“This is such a funny melding of cultures and Jews,” said Rabbi David Berkman of the New City Jewish Center, who provided assistance from his discretionary fund, as did the synagogue’s rabbi emeritus, Henry Sosland.

“Yemenite Jews, brought over by Satmar, supported by Conservative Jews, it’s really ‘kol yisrael arevim zeh b’zeh,'” Berkman said, using the Hebrew phrase “all Jews are responsible for one another.”

At OJC, the issue was brought to the congregation’s Chesed Committee, which normally handles internal tzedakah projects, according to co-chair Adele Garber. The group is putting together a committee to oversee greater involvement with one of the families, but for now the congregation has donated clothing, school supplies, and toys. One of the Hebrew classes may adopt a family, helping to meet some of its food and Chanukah needs, she said.

“They are Jewish families that are trying to make and live a Jewish life against all odds,” Garber said. “They have a face. It’s not like giving to a faceless charity. These are people in our community who are suffering, and it’s our obligation to be there and do what we can to help them make a successful life. ”

The Yemeni’s journey began seven years ago when a first wave was resettled with the help of the Satmar chasidim in Monsey. In 2008, the situation in Yemen worsened for the Jews when a local leader, Moshe Yaish-Nahiri, was murdered there by a Muslim fundamentalist. In 2009, the Yemenite government paid to relocate the city’s Jews to the capital, Sanaa, to protect them, although many Jews refused to move. The Jewish Agency for Israel launched a clandestine operation to bring the community to Israel.

The group that came to Monsey had family in the area, but their destination proved controversial at the time. There were accusations in the media and from some Jewish groups that Jewish Federations of North America, then known as United Jewish Communities, which was the umbrella organization for the North American Jewish federation movement, was working with anti-Zionists. This was reference to UJO of Williamsburg, which while not a specifically Satmar organization, has strong ties to the community. (Satmar is one of the largest group of chasidim, with large communities in Brooklyn and Kiryas Joel in upstate New York, as well as in Monsey. The movement is known for its anti-Zionism.)

The resettlement effort relied on the cooperation of several organizations working with the U.S. State Department. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the New York Legal Assistance Group and FEGS’ health and human services system, in particular, played large roles in the resettlement, and continue to provide some ongoing legal assistance.

“Yes, we are working with this group of refugees,” said Olga Avrasina, a senior attorney at the NYLAG Immigration Protection Unit. “The funding is over, but the need is not over. It is ongoing.”

NYLAG has assisted with passport, visa, and green card applications, as well as complicated name procedures involving name changes on legal documents, where spellings did not match, Avrasima said. The organization also is helping two daughters of one family resettle in Monsey – the two young women now live in London.

The Yemenite Jews are no strangers to resettlement. From 1949 through 1950, a secret joint operation involving the imam who ruled North Yemen, the British authorities in Aden, the State of Israel, the Jewish Agency, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee whisked nearly 50,000 Yemenite Jews from their homes to Israel. The operation is also known as On Wings of Eagles, and it is one of the romanticized stories of the early days of Israel’s founding.

Goldress is hoping other synagogues and organizations will pitch in and aid the Monsey group with their ongoing needs. If other congregations could adopt some of the families, as they did during the influx of Soviet Jews in the 1990s, the families’ futures would be more secure.

“They are so appreciative of whatever we do for them,” Goldress said.

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