‘Mission Possible’ honors Mich. support for Soviet Jews

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

There are days when the fullness of their life in the United States so astonishes them, Alex and Sophia Goldberg gaze at each other and say: “Thank God we are here.”

The couple now lives comfortably in Commerce Township, but more than a quarter-century ago, they and their two daughters, Inna and Katerina, called Azerbaijan home.

The nation then was part of the Soviet Union, enmeshed in conflict with neighboring Armenia and considerably less accommodating to Jews.

“It was martial law in our city and it was really dangerous and many people lost their lives,” Goldberg, now 67, recalled on a recent afternoon. “It was absolutely terrible for us and especially for our children. We were afraid to let them out of our apartment.”

Like many others, the Goldbergs sought an escape — earning refugee status and, in late 1990, relocating to Metro Detroit. They were among the 1.5 million Jews estimated to have left the former Soviet Union’s repressive regime through Operation Exodus, an international campaign that formally launched more than 25 years ago to aid their resettlement in North America and elsewhere.

Jewish Family Service of Metropolitan Detroit assisted about 7,000 former Soviet Jews acclimate in southeast Michigan over the years. The nonprofit health and social services agency is spotlighting that effort during its “Mission Possible” event Tuesday at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.

The program features human rights activist Natan Sharansky, chairman of the executive at the Jewish Agency for Israel since 2009. A well-known “Refusenik,” whom Soviet authorities denied permission to emigrate, he was imprisoned on fabricated treason and espionage charges.

Organizers hope commemorating the migration not only highlights history but illustrates how goodwill transformed many lives, often dramatically.

“To help people get from that land to this land was nothing short of miraculous for any individual or any family,” said Perry Ohren, Jewish Family Service CEO. “Some family then was able to flee persecution and live a life in freedom for their children. So this story of Operation Exodus … was an amazing story for Jewry throughout the world.”

The migration also bore personal stories, journeys for those foreigners pursuing “the American Dream” and shedding the shadow of the Iron Curtain.

Many Jews there “weren’t allowed to be Jewish in the classic religious sense of the term … because the Soviet Union was so oppressive and restrictive when it came to religion,” said Howard Lupovitch, an associate history professor at Wayne State University who directs its Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies.

Svetlana Lebedinski’s family left Ukraine in 1994 for the U.S. seeking an escape from threats of religious discrimination, she said. Then a teen, she soon mastered English, found friends at Southfield-Lathrup High, started working and driving, eventually attended Wayne State University. Along the way to becoming an immigration attorney and mother of two in Oakland County, Lebedinski relished the freedom in simply being able to say “I’m Jewish.”

“I wasn’t afraid that something is going to happen to me when I say that or that they’re going to start thinking differently about me,” she said. “Because in the Soviet Union I couldn’t really say anything.”

Constraints also spurred Vita Valetchikov to leave Latvia. She had longed to attend an architecture school but, failing to find any other Jews admitted there, turned to engineering. “If you knew that you would be rejected in the end, why would you waste your time applying?” she said. “No matter what the official propaganda is saying, people know what the reality is.”

At that time, Jews and others could succeed if they “didn’t make waves,” Lupovitch said. “… Anyone who tried to buck the system to express an idea that was contrary to the mainstream or what the government wanted to do could mean a loss of job, could mean you wouldn’t get as good housing, you would lose certain basic benefits.”

In the 1980s, as a wife with a young daughter, Valetchikov found herself “thinking what kind of a life she will have.”

“We wanted a better life, we wanted more freedom in our political views, in our religious views — better personal choices,” she said.

As soon as they learned authorities were lifting restrictions on who could exit, Valetchikov and her family sought refugee status. In 1989, she and eight relatives, including her mother and in-laws, arrived in Metro Detroit.

While they adjusted to sometimes overwhelming new surroundings, Jewish Family Service “helped with essentials: basic furniture, some basic payments for the rent, for the food,” said Valetchikov, who now works in the auto industry and lives in West Bloomfield Township. “They helped with medical, but the rest was up to us. But those were things that we really needed to get started.”

Many immigrants needed a boost navigating life in another territory.

Though Goldberg earned a dual master’s degree and worked as an educator in his homeland, lacking English proficiency prevented him from landing full-time work. In 1992, Jewish Family Service offered a part-time driver position.

More than 20 years and countless long days coupled with part-time teaching later, Goldberg now heads its transportation program, which he expanded into a service the Association of Jewish Family & Children’s Agencies and Beverly Foundation have honored as a model.

His wife and daughters also attained success they attribute to their adopted country, Goldberg said. “We are really happy that we are here, in many regards — in regards to our jobs, in regards to our freedom, to what our children achieve here and their families. It’s absolutely incomparable, I would say, life there and life here.”

Recalling those outcomes are important touchstones for the next generation, said Joel Tauber, who’s chairing Tuesday’s event, which is part of the JFS annual meeting. He has been active with the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and was national chair at the United Jewish Appeal, which spearheaded the Operation Exodus campaign to raise millions for the resettlement effort.

“It shows that when people join together to do good, they can do miracles,” he said.

Some 22 years after landing in Metro Detroit from Ukraine the day he turned 19, Alex Lebedinski, Svetlana’s husband, marvels at how his family, including grandparents, has fared: freely celebrating Jewish holidays, speaking their opinions, excelling professionally, living in generally safe communities.

“My grandparents are still alive thanks to the level of health care that we have. My parents have great jobs. My wife and I have great jobs. My kids are going to excellent schools,” the attorney said.

For his wife, their accomplishments underscore what steered them overseas. “If you have a dream, and you work hard, you will achieve your dream in America,” she said. “That’s what I tell my kids everyday.”