Repair Interview: Zhanna Veyts on Being a Refugee, Then Helping Others with HIAS

This interview is being shared as part of #SupportforRefugees, Repair the World’s Passover campaign focusing on the global refugee crisis.

What if you had the opportunity to give back to someone or something who made a profound difference in your life? For Zhanna Veyts, that is exactly what happened. In 1989, when she was still a child, Veyts and her parents left the Soviet Union for America with the help of HIAS – the oldest international migration and refugee resettlement agency in the U.S. (and our partner in this month’s #SupportforRefugees campaign.)

Today, Veyts works for HIAS supporting refugees going through the same transitions she went through nearly 30 years ago. Repair the World recently spoke to Veyts to find out how her experience shapes her work and how, despite our differences, we all pretty much want the same thing.

Can you tell me a bit about your own refugee experience, and how it impacts your work at HIAS?
I’m originally from Ukraine and came to America with my parents in 1989 with help from HIAS. We went through Vienna and Italy like hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jewish refugees at the time. We had to figure out if we would be able to go to America or Israel. When we arrived in Los Angeles, our experience was not unlike everything that refugees experience today. You get an apartment, it gets furnished, there are social programs, you enroll in school or get a job, you have to learn English, and life starts anew. You get here and very quickly you’re on your own.

The process is quite complicated, but HIAS has been doing it for 130 years. I realized later that some of these big decisions that made a huge impact in my life at different crossroads were directly related to HIAS. It is so interesting to be working on the other side of it now.

What did it feel like to be an adolescent going through this experience?
When we left, we thought we would never see my grandparents again. That happens to so many people today. We did not know that years later, the situation with the Soviet Union would change and we’d be able to bring them here. We really thought we were saying goodbye, and that was really rough.

I also remember the dramatic difference between my life in Ukraine before the Iron Curtain fell, and what I found in Europe. It was Christmastime when we made it to Vienna and Italy. Everything was sparkly and clean, it felt like Disneyland. Before the Internet and with no access to Western television, I’d had no vision of what to expect when I left. Arriving there, I had a definite, “I’m not in Kansas anymore” moment. Soon after we came to America we moved to Los Angeles, and I attended public school the first year. I remember it feeling so much bigger and more diverse than anything I’d experienced. A year later I transferred to a Jewish day school and remember being really aware that there were differences between me and the other kids.

How did you end up working for HIAS?
It was kind of serendipitous. Going to Jewish day school and Jewish sleep away camps had a big part in shaping who I am. In college I attended Hillel events and went on service trips. The service part and social justice part of Judaism always made a lot of sense to me as a person from somewhere else who had been included. When I moved to New York, I got a job at the JDC working for their non-sectarian disaster relief department. I found the work really interesting, and it was in-line with my sense of Judaism to help others beyond our own community. When I got the job here three years ago, everything came full circle.

What do you do at HIAS?
I work in communications and digital media, running social media and our blog. I think of these things as different platforms for story telling. The stories of the people HIAS works with are what makes this work really compelling. This organization facilitates this completely transformative shift in people’s lives. I experienced that myself. I’m not going to sugar coat it, it’s the beginning of a whole journey that people go on. And it’s difficult and hard for many people. But so many people finally find safety and freedom.

I’ve had the opportunity and privilege to meet a lot of people HIAS works with in different capacities. I’ve seen programs in Africa and met Afghanis, Iraqis, and people from so many different corners of the world who all have their own stories and experiences. But the majority of them, when we ask them what’s the best thing about getting to America, say “feeling safe.” When it comes down to it, people really all want the same thing. They just want to have a nice, warm, safe environment for their families.

Find out more about HIAS’ work, and Repair the World and HIAS’ #SupportforRefugees campaign.

Photo: Veyts (second from right) making a home visit to a family of Ethiopian refugees living in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo credit: Glenna Gordon/HIAS

Repair Inteview: Ruben Chandrasekar on Helping Refugees in Baltimore

This interview is being shared as part of #SupportforRefugees, Repair the World’s Passover campaign focusing on the global refugee crisis.

Imagine leaving everything and everyone you know, and starting life over from scratch. For the millions of refugees around the world who are forced to flee war and persecution in their home countries, this unimaginable situation becomes everyday reality.

As someone who immigrated to the United States as a teenager, Ruben Chandrasekar personally understands the challenges that come with being uprooted. And his experiences drive his work as Executive Director of the Baltimore chapter of International Rescue Committee (IRC), an organization that helps refugees rebuild their lives. Repair the World recently spoke with Chandrasekar about IRC’s refugee resettlement work in Baltimore, how volunteers can get involved, and his thoughts on how the Jewish community can make a difference in the lives of today’s refugees. (Spoiler alert: it involves Albert Einstetin.)

How did you get involved with refugee work?
I was born in Chennai, India and moved to the US with my mom when I was 14. I lived in a small town in Upstate New York, and was the first non-white kid in the school. I faced a lot of challenges and discrimination as a student. My mom, who was a prominent nurse in India, couldn’t find work as a nurse until she passed the board exam. She studied for the boards while working as a home health aide. I remember driving her to someone’s home to take care of them once. An elderly gentleman opened the door, took a look at her, and said, “We don’t want your kind in our house.”
Read more

Spotlight On: Project Hive

This April, Repair the World is teaming up with HIAS, the country’s oldest refugee resettlement agency (it was originally founded in 1881 to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe) for a campaign focused on the current global refugee crisis.

In the lead up to Passover – a holiday that recalls a time when our ancestors wandered in search of a new home – #SupportforRefugees will share the stories of refugees around the world, and offer opportunities to get involved.

We will also be highlighting awesome organizations like Project Hive, which shine a light on the nearly 60 million people around the world who have had to flee their homes because of violence or persecution. Project Hive is changing the way that Americans talk and think about refugees, encouraging them to learn about people’s experiences as refugees, and unlock the potential of US to support and advocate for them.

Join Project Hive, Repair the World, and HIAS all April long for ways that you can make a difference!

How Young Adults Serve with Others and Build New Jewish Community at the Same Time

By David Eisner

This article originally appeared March 24, 2016 in E Jewish Philanthropy.

Across the country, organizations and leaders are looking for proven ways to engage the so-called “unaffiliated” Jewish young adults who don’t connect with the “organized” Jewish community. Finding these young adults is not as mysterious as you might hear: head to a multi-ethnic, urban neighborhood that’s grappling with gentrification; spend some time in a second-hand book store; or hang out at a boutique coffee shop. They’ll be there. And, just as finding these young adults requires going where they already are, engaging them requires empowering them to do what they already care about – not looking for ways to get them to care about something different.

Fortunately, what these young adults care most about – having a positive impact in their community, in communities in need, and in the world – is exactly what our Jewish community would do well to focus on. These parallel interests are a positive sign for the future of Jewish life, and the future of Jewish young adults creating that life in their vision.

We also have new data that crystalizes how we can connect with these “unaffiliated” young Jews and meet their needs and desires in life. This data is documented and analyzed in Building Jewish Community Through Service, Repair the World’s report on the independent evaluation of its flagship Communities program. Based on the first two years of programming in Baltimore, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the data constitutes compelling evidence that:

Jewish young adults, especially “unaffiliated,” find service through a Jewish lens compelling when it is authentic, pluralistic, impactful, and meets the self-articulated needs of local communities. 75% of Communities’ participants are Jewish young adults, of whom an astonishing 70% have low prior Jewish experience.
Service can achieve scale. Repair’s pilot Communities programs grew from engaging 4,000 unique participants in Year 1, to 12,000 in Year 2 (we’re on a path to exceed 17,000 in year 3) – this is in only 5 communities.
Service is “sticky” when it is meaningful and cause oriented – most participants return for more. Among the large numbers of participants who continue to deepen their engagement more than three-quarters say they come back for the impact and the community, both being with “other people who care about what I care about,” and fining opportunities to build authentic relationships with “people from backgrounds different from me.”
Well-structured service programs can effectively convey Jewish content. To deliver deepest meaning, service programs should include three elements: hands-on (direct) service, contextual Jewish and civic education, and personal reflection.  In that framework, 67% of Communities participants increased their understanding of the connection between their social change passion and Jewish values.
Peer-to-peer engagement works. Participants almost universally expressed strong appreciation for the Fellows, and three-quarters credited the Fellows for their ongoing connection to the Communities program.
The Jewish community benefits. Strong findings emerged from focus groups with Jewish community leaders that Communities’ new approach to engagement for young adults has inspired the broader Jewish community toward service, toward working more effectively with young adults and toward building stronger relationships with other communities.
Now let me back up. I joined Repair the World three years ago from the secular service world, eager to further Repair’s mission to make service a defining element of American Jewish life. I found that Repair had built, in its first four years, astonishing depths of knowledge about how to make Jewish service programming authentic and impactful, and also how to engage Jewish young adults in that work. However, no Jewish organizations were leveraging that knowledge at any scale. In fact, the number of service opportunities offered with a Jewish lens was actually shrinking as organizations closed or deprioritized programs they considered unsustainable and poorly connected to their core missions.

Together with our board and young, ridiculously smart staff, we began retooling the organization to demonstrate the power of meaningful service through a Jewish lens in our own communities, to mobilize young adults to engage in Jewish service at a larger scale than previously seen, and to equip Jewish organizations and professionals to build a service movement. Within months, in the fall of 2013, we launched Repair the World’s new flagship Communities program, under the entrepreneur’s creed of “Launch and Learn” that included commissioning the independent evaluation of the program’s first two years. Operating in Baltimore, Brooklyn, Detroit, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the program leverages best practices from AmeriCorps, Habitat for Humanity, Public Allies and Points of Light. We deploy cohorts of full-time Repair the World fellows in each community with the explicit goal to connect young adults in those communities with education and food justice causes and with opportunities to serve with organizations embedded in those local communities that are excellent at addressing these critical needs.

Now fast forward back to today. Repair’s service programming, including direct service and contextual education, has matured in just three years to driving ever-deeper relationships between young Jews and local communities working together to address pressing social injustice. Leading national and local Jewish communal organizations are today using resources, training and opportunities to participate in cause-oriented campaigns, delivered by Repair the World – and they are working to build authentic and meaningful social justice programming and to engage Jewish young adults.

Based on my experience in the service field, my assessment of the culture that thrives at Repair the World and the data from this study, I believe that the reinvigorated momentum around service that Repair the World Communities has started in only two short years, as documented by this evaluation, has four drivers beyond a strong board, staff, planning and execution (not, of course, that we take those things for granted!):

Our commitment to make service and educational work authentic and impactful by taking our cues from our community-based partners, so that we serve with, not to or for, the impacted communities;
Our enforcement of “extreme pluralism” in terms of Jewish (and non-Jewish) inclusion and our rejection of any form of “bait and switch” or encouragement of religiosity or observance – we believe service through a Jewish lens can be not just a step toward a Jewish life, but the full expression of a Jewish life;
Our willingness to experience and discuss without flinching or avoidance the sometimes uncomfortable challenges and complexity associated with both the social issues and injustices we serve to address and the multiple narratives of the Jewish connection to those issues; and,
Our ethic of building fast cycles of data-driven learning in all of our activities, which we reinforce across the organization as well as with our partnerships.
We are hopeful that many more Jewish organizations and communities will take advantage of these learnings to build impactful and sustainable programming that embraces the passions of our next generation. This will, simultaneously, strengthen a robust, diverse Jewish community that is fully engaged in improving the lives and communities of our neighbors, a central feature of our commitment to Repair the World.

David Eisner is President and CEO of Repair the World. Building Jewish Community Through Service is available for download here.

March 2016 Social Good Roundup

In addition to our monthly Newsletter, we are also bringing you a monthly round-up of our favorite programs from our partners and from across the web. The opportunities below are separated by long term (6+ months), short term (6 months or less) and ongoing service, social good, and travel opportunities.

Be sure to check back monthly for updates and new finds!

Commit…To Service!     (Long-Term Programs)

You Want To Go To There.      (Short-Term and Travel Opportunities)

Be Social. Do Good.    (Social Good Jobs, Events and Campaigns)

Repair the World, In Detroit, Philly, Pittsburgh and NYC!

Don’t forget to check out upcoming opportunities in our Repair the World Communities:

From Queen Esther to Emma Watson

It’s no coincidence that the Jewish holiday of Purim typically falls in March, AKA Women’s History Month. Okay, maybe it’s a coincidence, but it’s a great one. The Purim story, after all, is built around two mighty women: one who stands up for her rights (Queen Vashti) and another who stands up for the rights and safety of her people (Queen Esther).

As we remember and celebrate Jewish tradition’s early female heroines, it is also important to remember that women’s rights issues – everything from gender pay inequality, to women’s healthcare and education access – are still critically important both in America and around the world. That’s why, this Purim, we want to shed light on this ongoing work.

Who better to do that than Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations, Emma Watson, herself? In addition to giving a killer speech about gender equality at the UN a couple years back, Watson is a leader of HeforShe, a UN Women campaign focused on bringing all voices around the world together in support of women’s rights.

In the video below, Watson teams up with Broadway star Lin Manuela Miranda (of Hamilton) for an amazing beat box/freestyle flow session about gender equality. It’s worth a watch – we may have watched it twice – and a visit to the UN’s HeforShe campaign page.

And for more on Purim’s heroines, check out this post on My Jewish Learning called Vashti & Esther: A Feminist Perspective.