From Yemen To Monsey, A Freedom Journey

From Yemen To Monsey, A Freedom Journey

Yemenites here marking first Passover in America, but the adjustment isn't easy.

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

This is the first Passover when Temia and her daughters won’t be grinding wheat by hand and baking matzah in special wood-burning ovens, as they did in Yemen. Instead, they’ll be tasting their first matzahs sold in a box, celebrating the holiday in their new homes in upstate Rockland County.

For the four women, this year’s season of freedom is their first in America. They were part of a group of 57 Yemeni men, women and children who arrived in the United States last summer as refugees, aided by the U.S. State Department, working with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and a coalition of groups.

Their town of Rayda, about 50 miles south of the capital, Sana’a, had grown increasingly dangerous, with the rise of the Houthis, a Shiite rebel group. In December 2008, a prominent member of the community, Moshe Nahari, a teacher and father of nine, was murdered by a retired Air Force pilot who demanded that he convert to Islam. The killer was eventually sentenced to death.

According to Gideon Aronoff, president and CEO of HIAS, his organization got involved in the issue early in 2008, when they got calls from their contacts at the State Department with concerns for the safety of the Jewish community. Talks were stepped up after Nahari’s murder.

The refugees were processed in Yemen in order to expedite matters and they arrived in the United States from July through October, 2009. At around the same time, approximately 60 members of the community went to Israel, with the help of the Jewish Agency, the Yemenite Jewish Federation of America (YJFA) and Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). Those who came to America wanted to join extended family members, already in the U.S. some of whom they hadn’t seen in a decade or more. The families were resettled in Monsey, about 26 miles north of Manhattan.

Jewish life in Yemen dates back thousands of years. Most Jews left in 1949-1950, through Operation Magic Carpet, when about 49,000 people were airlifted to Israel. Now, the Jewish population is about 200.

Among the groups in the coalition working toward resettling the Yemenites in Monsey – who have legal status as refugees and are thus eligible for government benefits – are HIAS, JFNA, FEGS Health and Human Services System (FEGS), New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), Rockland Community College, UJA-Federation of New York, Jewish Federation of Rockland County, United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and YJFA.

Joe Berkofsky, director of communications for JFNA, says that the coalition raised almost $800,000 to bring them here and for resettlement costs, including housing and social services, for a year. About funding beyond the year, he and other officials explain that planning is under discussion, with the goal, in Berkofsky’s words, that they become "integrated and independent."

Regarding the choice of Monsey, a town with a large Jewish population, including haredi, chasidic and Modern Orthodox Jews, as a resettlement site, Aronoff of HIAS says, "This is a population of very devout Jews from a very conservative corner of Yemen. We wouldn’t have met their needs by having them resettled in just any community."

Monsey already had a Yemenite presence, with a Yemenite shul. Many of the Yemenite Jews who came to the U.S. earlier were assisted by members of the Satmar community, who have been active in Yemen for more than 20 years. Some came with student visas or were undocumented, and were not eligible for government services, nor could they work legally. Now, NYLAG is working with some of them to help them obtain legal asylum status. According to Yisroel Schulman, president and attorney-in-charge of NYLAG, who lives in Monsey and serves on the executive board of Jewish Federation of Rockland, about 30 applications for asylum are pending. Rabbi Yair Yaish, who heads YJFA, adds that helping those who were already here is "a positive derivative outgrowth of our attempts to settle new arrivals in Monsey."

While individual members of the Satmar and other chasidic communities may be doing a great deal to help these new arrivals, Aronoff, Rabbi Yaish and others assert that the Satmar community was not involved with bringing this newest group into the country. "Any previous activities that resulted in people being brought in by Satmar activists are not part of this resettlement story," Aronoff says.

The new arrivals number 23 adults and 34 children; one new baby was born on American soil and the oldest is 79. They live in homes and apartments near the center of Monsey, within walking distance of shops and the Yemenite synagogue. Those interviewed for this story asked that their names not be used because they feared for their relatives in Yemen.

Among the new arrivals, the children are enrolled in state-accredited schools; the adults have opportunities to learn English and gain employment training; and families receive food, housing, medical care, mental health services, though the various groups organized to help them and government agencies, coordinated through FEGS, serving as resettlement agency.

In Yemen, some worked as carpenters, merchants, artisans, tailors, teachers and drivers. As for job possibilities here, Virginia Cruikshank, a senior vice president of FEGS, mentions the challenges of the current economic situation and the challenges faced by any new immigrant who doesn’t know the language and doesn’t understand the American workplace. FEGS has begun to provide wage subsidies to help ease the refugees’ way into the workforce and, at the same time, help them to learn the language. They have someone working with a cell phone company and another in shoe repair, as they explore other possibilities.

Through informal conversations and Web site postings, it’s clear that there is concern among the Yemenites and others about their future, amid all the well-meaning efforts on their behalf. Questions come up about financial issues, communal leadership and the role of the Satmars.

During a visit last week to their English classes, held on the lower level of a Chabad shul, the women – classes are held separately for men and women, in keeping with their religious sensibilities – are seated around a long, narrow table, their books open in front of them. Each has a basic English as a Second Language textbook and a copy of the Oxford Picture Dictionary. This group has been attending class since the early fall, for 10 hours a week, and it is their first time in a formal education setting. They are not only learning English, they are learning to read and write.

Instructor Harriet Kreisel explains that she first had to teach them how to hold a pencil. When she asked them to "write their names on the line," she quickly realized that they had no idea what she meant. She adds that in Yemen, the children who were given reading instruction often learned to read as a group from a single book, crowding around, so that some of them can only read from odd angles, and some learned to read Hebrew upside down.

Kreisel, who has been teaching ESL for 26 years, describes the women – who are all related to one another – as very determined to learn, and also to please her. Often, they bless her.

They appear to be in their 20s through 60s, and one has a toddler in her lap. Most are wearing black, all with hair covered with variations on a dark multilayered garment, sometimes with a colorful scarf peeking underneath. The eldest, who has three daughters sitting across from her, is also wearing a traditional Yemenite headpiece, with dangling strands of silver filigree. In Yemen, Jewish women never go out without head covering, from the age of 7.

In conversation – through an Arabic translator – they’re animated when describing life in Yemen, but they are still fearful about speaking openly, and request that their names not be used. They worry about family members left behind.

"Rayda had good people and bad people," one says, and another interrupts, "There were a lot of weapons." When asked about anti-Semitism, one says that’s why they left, while the woman next to her says she never felt any.

They’re pleased that in Monsey, unlike Yemen, there’s a place for the women in synagogue where they can listen.

With the Monsey streets in pre-Passover gridlock, talk turns to Passover. About the cleaning and preparations, one says it’s very difficult, and all nod. "But we don’t want to complain," another says, and again all nod. As the interview is concluding, they offer, "Eid Mubarak," an Arabic greeting for a blessed festival, and then add in Arabic, "May you be well every year."

Upstairs, a group of six men are also studying English. In their Arabic accents, they’re repeating words like "cavity," "drill," "braces," because they’re going over a lesson about going to the dentist. Instructor David Kalter tries to impart survival and live skills, along with English. Several are particularly interested in talking about auto parts and want to learn about getting a driver’s license.

These men are dressed mostly in black jackets, pants and white shirts, very different from the robes and caftans they wore in Yemen; all have payes, in Yemenite tradition. One is wearing a large black kipa, and others wear a ski cap, a black fedora and a Russian Cossack hat. Some know a few words of Yiddish, taught to them by the Satmars who visited Yemen.

Kalter, also a longtime ESL instructor, says that they sometimes tell him that life in Yemen was very difficult. "You just look at their faces and you see a lot of anguish."

The men are a bit more forthcoming than their wives, cousins and sisters in the downstairs classroom.

"Ten years ago, it was sweet," one says, about life in Rayda. "The problems began when the Houthas started coming. They targeted the Jews," says another. They say that things were particularly dangerous for young girls, who were sometimes kidnapped and forcibly converted by Muslims. When they hear the word HIAS, they express gratitude.

Yes, their seders will go on long into the night, and they’ll conclude with the traditional line, "Next year in Jerusalem."

Would they like to be in Jerusalem?

Yes, they agree, using the Arabic, "That’s up to God."

Terry Sabri, a young woman married to a Yemenite man who was brought here by the Satmars as a child, met many relatives for the first time, including her in-laws, when the latest group arrived. In an interview, Sabri – who’s Ashkenazi, grew up on Long Island and now works as a recruitment coordinator and career adviser at Yeshiva University – describes the newcomers as "very God-fearing, with a lot of belief and trust in Hashem. They try to do the right things, to help fellow Jews."

She mentions that some of her teenage nieces feel very modest and are not used to going out without covering their hair.

Rabbi Yaish, who is in frequent contact with those in the Monsey community, is very positive about the cooperation of HIAS and the other groups. Born in the U.S. to Yemenite parents, the Orthodox rabbi and Yale Law School graduate who used to lead Tifereth Yisrael, the first and only Yemenite congregation in Manhattan, wants to see the newcomers all "settled in a culture that allows them to advance and succeed, while still maintaining their strict religious traditions."

Just as in the Passover saga, the story doesn’t end when the Jews leave Egypt, many challenges and opportunities lie ahead for these newest freedom seekers.

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