Ben Saw Refugees on TV and Wanted to Help. What He Learned Next Changed Everything.

By Rachel Nusbaum,

“In my earliest memories, I remember my parents talking about HIAS,” Elena Svitavsky said.

Svitavsky immigrated from St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad, Russia to the United States with her family in 1977. Like many refugees fleeing the Soviet Union at that time, they came with help from HIAS. “I was five when we left and by the time I got here I had turned six,” she recalls. “We did the typical route so we stayed in Vienna for a couple of weeks. Then we took a train over the alps to Italy, where we lived in a small town north of Rome.”

The family settled in Ithaca, New York and Svitavsky grew up “100% Americanized.”

Her parents began to donate to HIAS as soon as they became financially stable. Her step-mother, who also escaped anti-semitism in the Soviet Union with help from HIAS, was a strong supporter as well.

Yet somehow the topic never came up with her own children, who had no idea about their mother’s own refugee story until her son Ben brought up the topic himself. It was fall of 2015 and the refugee crisis in Europe was all over the news.

“Ben said to me that he doesn’t understand how people can turn people like this away. And I said, ‘you know, we were helped by HIAS.’ And I said ‘this is an organization that still helps refugees, and not just Jewish refugees.’”

“I think he was surprised by how complicated the whole process was, and by how much help we needed. When we arrived, we needed a lot of help. We arrived with nothing. Everything we had was donated.”

Just like that, Ben had found a project for his upcoming bar mitzvah.

“If we help people in their time of need, they can go on to do great things,” he said. “My mom was a refugee at one time, when she was a child, and she fled from the Soviet Union to the U.S. with the help of HIAS. Now we’re trying to help others, too”.

He decided to raise money for HIAS, and to do outreach on the refugee crisis in his community. He gave a presentation to his social studies class at school and spoke to his model UN club, raising awareness among his classmates and peers.

His D’var torah speech was also about refugees. Speaking from the bima on the day of his bar mitzvah, Ben connected the refugee issue to both his torah portion and his family history:

“If you give people a chance in your countries, they can do very great things. With Pharaoh giving Joseph a chance, Joseph saved the entire country from famine, and there are many examples of this in modern day. Think of all of the influential people that immigrated to America in search of a better life.” He described the contributions of Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google who came to the U.S. at a young age with help from HIAS, as well as Albert Einstein.

“If we gave these refugees a chance, who knows what good things would come to our country,” Ben said. “If we give these people a chance instead of shutting them out, we will change their lives and our lives for the better.”

Ben not only met his goal of raising $2,000 – he exceeded it. He hopes to to do more fundraisers and awareness raising in the future, and says more people his age should get involved.

“Every little bit of funds and awareness raised makes a difference,” Ben said.


If you’d like to set up your own personal fundraising page, click here.


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