In a move that seems to confirm that the era of large-scale Russian Jewish emigration to the U.S. has come to an end, the president of the agency that has resettled more than 250,000 Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union in New York City has resigned after 25 years on the job.
Mark Handelman, president and CEO of the New York Association for New Americans since 1979, announced his resignation Aug. 13, apparently worn out by an intense, mainly unsuccessful struggle to preserve his agency intact in the face of a precipitous decline in the number of Jewish refugees arriving in New York from the FSU.
Despite Handelman’s efforts to expand NYANA’s services to non-Jewish immigrant populations, the dropoff in emigration by ex-Soviet Jewish refugees from tens of thousands a year during the 1990s to less than 1,000 today has led to sharp cuts in funding for NYANA from Jewish community and government sources. The decline also has forced an ongoing massive retrenchment of NYANA staff.
In a letter to the NYANA staff concerning Handelman’s departure, board chairman Michael Loeb announced that the acting president and CEO of NYANA “for the foreseeable future” will be Jose Valencia, 50, the agency’s longtime chief financial officer and more recently its chief operating officer as well.
Valencia, a native of Ecuador and an accountant, is one of the first non-Jewish professionals to take command of an agency linked to UJA-Federation.
Handelman, 60, in an interview said that NYANA’s Refugee Resettlement program is “practically extinct” today with only 200 refugees arrived from the FSU during 2003. During the mid-1990s the program provided English instruction, help in finding apartments, vocational training and American and Jewish life and other services to 25,000 or more newly arriving Jewish refugees from the FSU a year. At that time it employed more than 500 people.
Handelman, who will remain a consultant to NYANA until the end of this year, plans to start his own consulting firm focusing on working with organizations that serve children with disabilities — an interest he developed in recent years as he struggled to find proper schooling for his autistic 6-year-old son, Max.
Handelman said the number of refugees to whom NYANA provides resettlement services — including not only Jews from the FSU, Iran, Ethiopia and Syria but non-Jewish refugees from countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, Tibet, Bosnia and Kosovo — has dropped sharply since 2001 in part because of fewer refugee slots allocated each year by the U.S. government in the wake of 9-11.
NYANA has tried to compensate for the decline of its Refugee Resettlement Program, he said, by branching out into areas like mental health and substance abuse services for immigrants of many nationalities, and helping to train immigrants in entrepreneurship.
These programs have been successful, Handelman said, but “they are small compared to what we had been doing with refugee resettlement.”
Handelman said that while the agency’s lay leadership “still sees NYANA as a Jewish organization,” he believes Valencia’s non-Jewish background will be a positive factor for an agency now aggressively seeking to serve “a more universal constituency.”
Handelman’s sudden resignation is said to have caused consternation among some staffers, who fear that NYANA, a venerable social service agency founded in the aftermath of World War II to resettle Holocaust survivors, may not survive much longer.
Alec Brook-Krasny, executive director of the Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations, the New York Russian community’s main umbrella organization, said Handelman has been “one of the most important figures in the resettlement process and someone who personally helped thousands of Russian Jews start new and successful lives in New York.”