The Yemini Jews of Rockland County
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The Yemini Jews of Rockland County

Meeting of National Council of Jewish Women to explore the lives of political refugees

The bride is flanked by her mother and Leslie Goldress of Monsey at her traditional pre-wedding henna.
The bride is flanked by her mother and Leslie Goldress of Monsey at her traditional pre-wedding henna.

There is a civil war in Yemen that according to observers includes horrific human rights abuses.

This phase of the war started in 2015, but there has been fighting, death, starvation, and torture there for much longer.

Jews have lived in Yemen since antiquity, but most of them were airlifted to Israel in 1949 and 1950, in Operation Magic Carpet. Some, however, remained. Their lives had not been easy before Magic Carpet, but they became harder as time went on and conditions in the country grew worse.

In 2009, some of the remaining Jews were flown to Israel, and some were allowed into the United States as political refugees. Some of those families were resettled in Monsey and Spring Valley.

Leslie Goldress of Monsey has been working with some of those families ever since they arrived; she and some of the women will tell their stories at a meeting of the Rockland County section of the National Council of Jewish Women on October 3. (See box for more information.)

“There already was a Yemini community in Monsey when these families arrived,” Ms. Goldress said. They moved to an area that already was home to many well-established chasidic groups, but their mizrachi traditions, which have developed to be markedly different from the Ashkenazi practices over the many centuries during which the communities had little contact with each other, made their assimilation difficult.

Yemen is not the West, and the Yemini Jews knew little about Western culture when they arrived here, Ms. Goldress said; she and other American Jews provide the bridge that joins them to the world in which they now live.

There are about 300 families in the Yemini community in Rockland, Ms. Goldress estimates; about six or seven came in 2009, and each has about 10 children, although not all the children came to the United States with their parents.

Leslie Goldress stands with the bride

Ms. Goldress is a modern Orthodox Jew and she earned two graduate degrees from the Conservative movement’s flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary. She has done volunteer fundraising for Rockland Jewish Family Service and she’s taught in both the Florence Melton and Midreshet programs at the Jewish Federation of Rockland County. She knows a lot about Jewish education and the way that the Jewish community works, but she is not a trained social worker.

Or to be more accurate, she is not a formally trained social worker, but on-the-job training counts, and by now that is a credential that she has earned many times over.

Ms. Goldress began her intensive work with the Yemeni families because she could talk to them. She’s fluent in Hebrew. The Yeminis spoke no English when they got to the United States. They speak Yemini Arabic at home, but they also know biblical Hebrew. “It’s remarkable,” Ms. Goldress said. “They have been cut off from the rest of the Jewish world for 2,000 years, but they speak Hebrew.” So they could talk. But the language barrier does cut down the number of volunteers who can do this work, Ms. Goldress said.

The children all speak English, but many of the parents have been unwilling or unable to learn.

“The parents aren’t old,” she said. “They are in their 40s, maybe at most their late 40s. So they are not at all old —but they are old. They have been through so much. The women talk about what life was like in Yemen, and what prompted them to come here.

“One of them told me that her husband, who was a bus driver, was a passenger on a bus and he saw his friend stabbed to death on the bus. That day he came home and said ‘We are leaving.’

“And they left, and they left everything behind.”

The Jews who came in this wave of immigration generally tended to be more rural, less well educated, and less skilled, less likely to be artisans or businesspeople, than the Jews who left Yemen earlier, she said. That means that the older generation finds it even harder to assimilate, and they need help.

That same young woman is sworn in as an American citizen.

But not their children. “The kids will make it,” Ms. Goldress said. She works with them, and “I teach them that they must work on the books. They have to file income taxes. I tell them why it is important to pay taxes. I teach them to be good citizens.”

Meanwhile, while their children often flourish, their parents sometimes would flounder without guidance. “I help them navigate the system,” Ms. Goldress said. “Sometimes they call me from the social service agency because they don’t understand what they’re being told, or because the need another document.

“Because they are political refugees, they are entitled to certain things. Rockland gives them a stipend for rent — Rockland is very good to them. They get food stamps and Medicaid, and they get some health care.” Often local doctors and dentists provide free services to them, and there is a kosher food pantry available to them, she said. And local yeshivot have been very generous in giving children very discounted tuition rates. That’s necessary, she said, because the parents would not allow their children to go to public school. “They just wouldn’t,” she said. “They are too religious.” Also, the community members do not marry out; all the marriages so far have been between Yemini Jews.

The community also has chipped in to help send the community’s children to summer camp. And Ms. Goldress often finds herself making up the difference between what community members can afford and what they need.

She’s become welcome in their homes, and has shared Shabbat with them. She is struck by how different their approach to food is. Her Yemini friend “makes all the breads and dips; they make all different kinds of breads,” she said. “They eat very simply. Their food for Shabbes is very simple, and the amounts are so much smaller. They eat a piece of salmon the size of a minute, some salad, some vegetables, some soup. Everything is homemade.”

Some of the women have found jobs that use those skills, she added. “A lot of them work in the matzah bakery in Monroe from November through Pesach. They’re very good at it. By the end, they say, their arms and hands are killing them, but they really are very good. They’ve found their niche, and they use their money to buy the things they need.”

Among the things on their wish lists are second stoves, for Pesach; they need them because “they take out the bottom rack and make their pita right on the bottom of the stove,” and so they can’t clean it thoroughly enough to make it pesachdik.

Some of the Yemini Jews have become citizens, she said; she’s helped them prepare for their citizenship exams, and she’s gone to the ceremonies where they become Americans. As most people who have seen similar ceremonies report, it is a profoundly moving transformation, she said.

“This has become a full-time job for me, and it is a learning experience,” Ms. Goldress said. “And it has been good for me. I feel that I am doing something real, something that really helps other people. My husband always says to me that if I didn’t do this, this family would be lost. And they are not lost.”


Who: Leslie Goldress and some women from the Yemini Jewish community

What: Will talk at a meeting of the Rockland County section of the National Council of Jewish Women and Rockland Jewish Family Service

When: On Wednesday, October 3, at 7:30 p.m.

Where: At JCC Rockland, 450 West Nyack Road, Nyack

How much: It’s free and open to the public

For more information: Go to ncjwrockland.org.

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