Retelling the story of the exodus to freedom will have a special meaning this Passover for two elderly former Soviet Jews, both of whom became American citizens recently with the help of citizenship courses funded by UJA-Federation.
"When I take the first sip of wine at the Passover seder, I will say, ‘God bless America,’" said Boris Ilynskiy, 77, a retired career military officer from Kiev now living in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. He immigrated to the United States with his wife, their daughter and her family and in-laws in October 1993. He became an American citizen last December; his wife, Irina, died earlier in the year.
Vilya Gil, 70, who emigrated from Kiev in January 1992 and also now lives in Bensonhurst, took the oath this month. He said his family held seders in secret while they lived under Communist rule in Ukraine.
"Just getting the matzah was an ordeal," he said through a translator. "We would spend two or three nights in line to get two pounds of matzah. And we had to bring our own flour to exchange it for matzah."
Gil passed his citizenship exam in September 1996, but it took the intervention of Brooklyn Assemblyman William Colton to get him sworn in as a citizen. Vladimir Vishnevskiy, director of immigrant services at the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst, said a stroke in 1992 that left Gil paralyzed on his left side made it impossible for the Immigration and Naturalization Service to take a clean set of his fingerprints despite several attempts.
"The assemblyman arranged for him to get an interview with the INS last month," said Vishnevskiy. "It was only then that they saw the reason why [the prints were not clear]."
A month later, Gil was sworn in.
"The most important thing about becoming an American citizen is that now we can vote," he said. "We can influence legislators and we can play an active part in the life of the community. … It will also help me fight for immigrant rights and for immigrant needs, like housing."
Gil came to the U.S. with his wife, their daughter and his mother; another daughter had immigrated earlier. He said his family planned to attend seders held at the JCH of Bensonhurst in conjunction with COJO of Bensonhurst.
Ilynskiy said he would attend seders at his daughter’s home on Staten Island. Celebrating the seders as an American citizen, he said, would "double the pleasure" of the holiday.
Both men credited the citizenship courses sponsored by UJA-Federation with helping them and thousands of other former Soviet Jews to pass the citizenship exam. Shelley Horwitz, program manager of UJA-Federation’s Caring Commission, noted that the organization raised $2 million in 1996-97 to help fund those programs, which were offered at 20 locations throughout the city. She said some of those programs are still running but that money from the special initiative is now exhausted.
"There is now a waiting list of those wishing to take classes, and we are trying to get government funding and philanthropic contributions to keep them going," said Horwitz.
Gil said 95 percent of those who took the citizenship exam passed after taking the course at the JCH of Bensonhurst.
"People are very nervous and anxious when they have to take that test, and those classes help a lot," he said.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan) recently introduced legislation that would allow those aged 60 to 70 to take the citizenship exam in their native language and would exempt those older than 70 from taking it.