In Time for Passover, Ukrainians Find Jewish Community in U.S.
By Ayelet Parness
Apr 10, 2023
Last April, Eduard Levit, 36, and his family had just arrived in Warsaw, Poland, having fled their hometown of Kharkiv, Ukraine for their safety. They spent Passover at the Jewish Community Center with other displaced Ukrainians and those working to assist them.
One year later, they are celebrating their first Passover in their new home of Portland, Oregon, after being resettled by the ShalomPortland Welcome Circle.
It’s been a dizzying change — but one Eduard and his family have adjusted to with remarkable poise.
“We have stayed here maybe only two months, but it feels like [people here have] known me for 10 or 20 years,” said Eduard, a software tester, who made the long journey to the United States with his wife, Daria Levit, 34; his parents, Oleksandr Kushnarov, 60, and Tamila Kushnarova, 61; and their three cats. “Because they are always thinking about what I need and what my family needs.”
HIAS Welcome Circles are groups of community members who provide financial, resettlement, and emotional support to displaced people when they first arrive in the United States. They may be associated with a synagogue, organization, or other faith or interfaith community, or they can be made up of private individuals. The ShalomPortland circle is associated with Congregation Neveh Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Portland.
Passover, one of the most significant holidays on the Jewish calendar, commemorates the ancient Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt as told in the book of Exodus. Jewish people around the world retell this story during the seder, a ritualized meal observed on the first and, in many communities outside of Israel, second night of the holiday. The family spent their first seder at the home of Sara Safdie, who leads the Welcome Circle, and the second at the home of Rabbi David Kosak, the congregation’s senior rabbi.
“It was the first time we celebrated Passover with a family,” said Daria. In Kharkiv, where the Levits and Kushnarovs were very involved in their local Jewish community, seders were typically a big, community-wide affair. “It was very nice because we feel part of a big family. It’s not [just] a community.”
“It was like home, very warm,” agreed Eduard. “After all these evenings, I think about how I miss Ukraine. But now it feels like we are home and with family. It was great.”
“When the war started, it was like a horror [film]”
On February 24, 2022, the Levits awoke to the sound of explosions in their home in North Saltivka, a neighborhood in the northeast of Kharkiv, a city in eastern Ukraine and the country’s second largest. Within days, the Levits, Kushnarovs, and Daria’s parents had all moved in with Daria’s grandparents, whose home in Kharkiv is further from the border and has a basement that could be used as an improvised shelter.
“There were 12 people and nine cats [in the house],” recalled Daria. “We slept on the floor and with winter clothes because we kept needing to go to the basement [to shelter].”
After a neighbor of Daria’s grandparents was killed in an explosion, the Levit/Kushnarov family decided to leave Kharkiv on March 5, traveling to Yaremche in the west of Ukraine. Daria’s parents stayed behind with her grandparents, who could not be convinced to leave their home. It took four days to cross the country due to traffic from the large number of other displaced people and trucks carrying aid on the roads. Eventually, the family made their way to Warsaw, where they stayed for nearly 10 months.
In Warsaw, they became involved with the Jewish Community Center, which provided them with services like temporary housing. The family began volunteering their time to assist other new arrivals. At the JCC, with which HIAS has been working since the beginning of the current crisis, the family first learned about HIAS and Welcome Circles. Eduard met with a HIAS Poland employee who interviewed him about his family and their preferences for their new home. Having a strong Jewish community in the area was at the top of the list for the family.
“He said, ‘don’t worry, we will find you good people who want to help you,’” said Eduard.
It takes a village
Meanwhile, in Portland, Congregation Neveh Shalom was ramping up their efforts to assist those displaced by the war in Ukraine.
“I was very upset when the war began, and wanted to do anything that I could to help,” said Sara Safdie, a retired college-level English and ESL teacher and former Peace Corps volunteer who now leads the ShalomPortland Welcome Circle. When she learned about HIAS Welcome Circles, she reached out to Rabbi Kosak about starting one of their own.
Together with co-chair Rebecca Smetana, whose husband was resettled by HIAS from Ukraine in the 1990s, Safdie established the ShalomPortland Circle and recruited seven other members from the Neveh Shalom community to join. Each brought different skills and competencies to the table, from medical knowledge to English-language teaching skills. When HIAS connected them to the Levit/Kushnarov family via Zoom in December of 2022, Safdie says that the match felt “bashert”, or destined.
“The feeling all of us had after meeting with the Levits and Kushnarovs was, ‘yeah, this is it,” she said. “Before the Zoom meeting, I asked if they had any questions that they wanted us to address. And one of the questions was if there were any opportunities here for them to volunteer to help other people. They don’t just want to receive things. They constantly want to give back, wherever they are, to other people, because they know what it is to receive help themselves.”
The family arrived in Portland on January 28, 2023. Safdie attributes the success of their journey not only to Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, which has provided a great deal of financial support to the circle, but specifically CEO Marc Blattner, who reportedly spent over 11 hours on the phone with various airlines to arrange flights that would allow the family’s three cats on board. The circle has also received a great deal of support from the local Jewish Family & Child Service.
“Before we arrived I didn’t know exactly how it would be,” said Eduard. “But from the airport we came to our house — a private house. We have furniture, food, we have everything. From zero to hero! We have everything we need.”
“He said, ‘don’t worry, we will find you good people who want to help you.’"
The whole congregation and the wider Portland community have been instrumental in helping the Levit/Kushnarovs get started in their new lives.
“The outpouring of generosity from people was just amazing,” said Safdie. ”My home became a temporary warehouse, and people just started showing up with things. One of the members of the community owns a couple of bed stores and donated two brand new beds. Not to mention — outside of the Jewish community, they got very lucky with their landlords, who have provided so much. I wonder if the landlords are breaking even on their rent!”
In such a short time, the family is already beginning to feel at home in their new community. Back in Ukraine, they planted flowers and vegetables in a beautiful garden outside their summer home. In their new home — selected in part, according to Safdie, because the outdoor space would give Oleksandr somewhere to grow his tomatoes — they have started a garden in their yard. They have also put out a bird feeder — though to the chagrin of their neighbors, it has so far more often attracted squirrels and the occasional raccoon.
While the circle has been helping the family improve their English in informal ways, the Levits and Kushnarovs recently started taking English courses at the local community college. They are also authorized for work and have started looking for jobs.
For Safdie and the other Welcome Circle members, the experience has been very rewarding.
“We always thought of this work as a mitzvah,” she said, using the Hebrew word for both commandment and good deed. “Doing this has reinforced my sense of the basic goodness in people, that they are willing to help ‘strangers’, to use a HIAS term, into their community.”