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From Kharkiv to New York

The following is a transcript of Episode 129 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer and we’re recording on Thursday, February 23rd, 2023. 

So sometimes heroism looks big, like President Biden flying to Poland last week and then taking a secret 10-hour overnight train ride into Kyiv in order to meet with President Zelensky in a show of support marking one year since the Russian invasion, and amazingly, the first time in modern history that a United States commander-in-chief visited an active war zone without a US military.

Zelensky himself has been the picture of heroism for the past year. A politician constantly in fatigues, but seemingly indefatigable leading his country and holding off one of the world’s superpowers as it tries to both destabilize and seize control of a region it once dominated.

I found the photos of Biden and Zelensky walking with sunglasses through sunny Kyiv nothing short of heroic. It helped me access images that I only know through reading about them or maybe through old film reels of the great generals of the greatest generation in the Second World War, Marshall, MacArthur, Patton, Bradley, Eisenhower, even though this one is not exactly the same, it’s not exactly our war.

And sometimes heroism looks small. Not the stuff that makes the papers, but all that needs to happen in the midst of a war and a massive series of refugee and humanitarian crises to ensure that all that could go wrong to a displaced and traumatized civilian population doesn’t. That’s both a low bar and a pretty overwhelming one.

A few years ago I saw on Facebook that my friend Joelle Spinner Bolag, who lives in Berlin, had just picked up and traveled to Greece in the midst of the Syrian refugee crisis, just to help, just standing in the midst of a camp with a yellow reflector vest handing out food or directions or whatever anybody needed. That felt wildly heroic to me as.

We Jews know pretty well from the past century the dynamic interrelationship between big heroism and small heroism between military interventions or lack thereof that would’ve prevented or stopped or ended our persecutions and the smaller, more hidden, but no less holy acts of salvation and support that came to us from that group that we know as righteous gentiles. For what it’s worth, I prefer the Hebrew term, chasidei umot haolam. 

To survive and to thrive amidst war and persecution is to pray for both, but ultimately, the big heroism of political and military decision-making, the former, saves societies and states. It might be that isolated individuals and families are far more dependent on the latter.

Around a year ago at this time, my friends Rachel and Paul Jacoby Rosenfield awoke to the recognition of the looming refugee crisis and in response, in what I would consider an act of heroism, they simply opened up their home in Riverdale. 

Rachel wrote an essay this week in Tablet Magazine online, an indispensable essential essay about the experience of hosting the Kovalenkos, the changed name of a family of three, a husband and wife and their toddler daughter for the better part of the past year.

The Kovalenkos have parolee status, which means that they are in Rachel’s words, just passing through on their way to who knows where. As Rachel notes, they and thousands of others will soon lose their right to live and work here in less than two months. They may have to give up their jobs, leave our country, and then begin all over.

I asked Rachel to join me today to discuss this essay, and more importantly, the larger story that refugee absorption tells about us, the people that has often been on the side of need, and now our people often struggles I think, between the heroic impulse of the Jacoby Rosenfield and the other normal human anxieties of what risks we’re willing to take on behalf of others, even on behalf of vulnerable.

Rachel works with me here as the executive cice president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, and we’re gonna link her essay into the show notes. Rachel, let’s start with generosity. Even though, uh, when we talked about this, I know you don’t like this frame. I think, um, I think many people, myself included, view a moment like this as a story that is fundamentally about generosity, about the willingness to do something on behalf of others. And then I wanna talk a little bit about gratitude, but first about generosity. 

What does it feel like to engage with that kind of generosity and maybe even better, why don’t you like the term generosity in this context?

Rachel: It’s not that I don’t like the term generosity. I, I think that what we did was generous, objectively, it was generous, but I, I, it didn’t feel like for me, that act of welcoming the Kovalenkos into our house was primarily one of generosity. Generosity, to me it implies something that goes above and over, something beyond what people would normally be asked to do in the day-to-day.

And this didn’t feel like that to me. This felt like, we’ve been blessed to live at a time when there hasn’t been war showing up at our doorstep at our threshold, and this showed up on my threshold. And so that’s not generous. That’s just, you know, refugees show up on your threshold. You open your door and you let them in. That’s what you do. 

That’s what my great-grandparents experienced when they came to this country. That is God willing, if we had, were in such a situation, we would want other people to do. To me, that just feels like being a person, that doesn’t feel like going above and beyond. That’s why I resist a little bit the frame of generosity.

Yehuda: Okay. So let’s, we are gonna talk about the Kovalenkos. And we’re gonna talk a little bit about some of the politics of this current moment around refugees and around absorption. But I wanna stay in the philosophical if we can for a minute.

So part of what I hear you saying is it’s not generosity, it’s obligation.

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Yehuda: And that’s a tricky piece by the way, in general about tzedaka, about charity. You’re not supposed to feel good about it, you’re, you’re just supposed to be obligated to do it, right? So some of this might be like a person is standing in front of me, they’re obligating me and I’m doing it.

And then there’s something else here that might not be obligation as much as impulse.

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Yehuda: Which is not obligation. I can, I can rationalize. I’m making a sacrifice and doing something. If you could go back to that moment when you were talking to your friend who said, I think I know a family, and you said, great, we’ll figure out a way. Um, can you help untangle what about that felt like an impulse, of course? And what about it felt like an obligation? Oh, I’m required to do this in this moment. 

Rachel: So what happened was I saw this friend who, who actually, who she immigrated here from Odesa when she was a small child with the whole, that whole wave of Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union.

And I had the privilege of going back to Odesa with her on a fellowship program. And I had this picture of my great-grandfather with an address on it. And I asked this friend, will you just show me where this is? 

Now, this was a block that had, you know, Armani and all these Western stores. It turns out that one building, that was the photography studio where this picture was from, was still intact as an old building. And so I really just had this feeling of, I’m standing where my great-grandfather stood. 

So when I saw that this friend went to the border, like the person you mentioned in your introduction, and was just doing whatever people needed in that moment of crisis, right after the war broke out a year ago, I felt like I had to do something and the only thing I could think to do besides give tzedaka, which we had done and would continue to do, is take her out for drinks. That’s what I did. I was like, Elena, I’m taking you out for drinks because you’re doing something fabulous and I don’t know what else to do.

Um, and so over drinks, she started to tell me about the need and it was clear that there were people coming to this country who didn’t have a place to live. And you know, we live in a modest house in North Riverdale and my kids are both in college, and I just said to her in that moment, our doors are open. 

Now, there’s precedent for this in my family when. During the crackdown in China on scientists, my father, who is a scientist, sponsored a young man from China and he came here and they set up their lives here. My mother-in-law is currently helping an asylum seeker from Afghanistan. 

So this like, to me, this is just what we do. Like we do these things in our family, we’ve done these things. And in that sense, you know, it was both impulsive, but it was also coming from a sense of deep obligation. And I think on some level, you know, now that I think about it, if we’re gonna be in the realm of philosophy, I want my kids to be part of that chain of obligation that I’m part of, that led me to that moment where it was so obvious to me without even speaking to Paul that this was an offer I could make, that I should make. That we had to make. 

Yehuda: Yeah, I, I need to think about that because I sometimes get irritated with Stephanie when she invites over Shabbos guests without telling me, but you, you’re talking about inviting people over to live in your house.

Rachel: It was a lot of Shabboses.

Yehuda: There’s something very deep there, Rachel, because, you’ve now added another layer. It’s, it’s sometimes when, when people do things like what you did, it’s around obligation, and I know how uncomfortable it’s making you right now to talk about this as something great that you did. I know that and we’ll, we’ll move on from it. 

But I think it’s actually really important as part of the Torah of moments like this for us to unpack and understand them, especially if we want other people to live their lives in this way. But you’ve added another layer, which, two layers. Obligation, impulse, continuity. This is what we, our family does. And education. 

And part of the reason to even write a piece like this is not just to help the Kovalenkos with achieving parolee status, but to create some modeling, right? And I know, you wanna talk about that discomfort a little bit. I mean, cause, cause I can see that it’s, you know,

Rachel: Um, yeah. So every year at Pesach we all, like anyone who celebrates Pesach says, let all who are hungry come and eat. Right. We say that and I think we, you know, we try to model that. I think a lot of us invite guests into our home and you know, you have guests for Shabbos, and we, like, we do this, we see this as part of who we are.

So apart from my own family continuity story and apart from any sense of, you know, personal obligation, this felt like something that had been taught to me as part of my Jewish education, as part of my Jewish practice. And so, it felt instinctual. And I think that if we take seriously the things that we talk about when we celebrate Passover, when we talk about hachnasat orchim, when we talk about all these values.

If we really wanna live them, and an opportunity comes along where you get to live that value, that’s the point at which you ask yourself, are these values that I just talk about? And that they’re symbolic and they’re lovely, and I want my kids to understand about them abstractly? Are these values that I try to lean into in my life, even when they make me uncomfortable, even when it’s sometimes hard, even when I’m a little scared, which believe me, I was, we were.

I don’t know if that answers your question and it’s true. This makes me uncomfortable. But it’s really true that to me, this seemed so obviously what Judaism would ask me to do, and it felt like all of the other discomfort around it was trumped by the fact that for all of these years I’ve said that same line at Seder, and I had to, I had to lean into that. 

Yehuda: You needed to figure out whether you were being serious about it. 

Rachel: Yeah, yeah. 

Yehuda: Right. I mean, yeah, part of the reason I’m thinking about this a lot is, and I’ve talked about this on the show before this, this short book by Dara Horn about Varian Fry, about the rescuer, and one of the things that’s most painful about the story of Varian Fry who rescues all of these artists from Europe and then dies penniless, unacknowledged, is because there was actually this whole dynamic with a lot of them that it embarrassed them, that they had been vulnerable and that they needed help.

So sometimes the Jewish communal narrative of like, yeah, we, of course we are grateful to the righteous gentiles and the people who took us in, but like, it’s one thing to say that and have a garden from the memory of the righteous gentiles. There is a totally different emotional dynamic that’s unpacked in this, and it, the philosopher Robert Solomon, in writing about gratitude has this quote where he says, gratitude is very hard for people to engage with because it, it forces us to quote, “recognize that none of us is wholly self-sufficient and without the need of help with others, it’s a window into vulnerability.”

Anyway, that’s why I, I think that a lot of this story about, how do we become welcoming to others, is also a way in which we, we’re almost signaling to others that they are vulnerable and depending on us, and it’s very, it feels very loaded.

Rachel: It’s very loaded. And I have to say that was a dynamic I was very aware of with the Kovalenkos from the moment they walked in the door. I kept thinking about their dignity and what I could offer them and what was too much to offer them. And that changed as they, you know, over time, as they got jobs, as they had money. 

Like by the end, they wanted to pay us rent. Like they felt that they wanted to contribute in some way. And that that part of the work of integrating them into our lives, into our family was ensuring that they didn’t feel like we were taking care of them in some way that, that underscored their vulnerability at this moment.

You know, I wrote about how Vira resisted even using the word refugee. She hates that word. She kept telling me, I hate that word. I hate that word. And I said, you have to tell people who you are for the sake of your employment. This is important. You, you have to explain why you left Ukraine with a doctorate in electrical engineering, and you’re now applying for a job as a caseworker. Like this, there’s gotta be a narrative here. 

But this was a, this was a really important dynamic. I remember the first, when they first got there, the little one, Anna needed shoes. And we went to this, this shopping mall, and I, she saw shoes she loved and I said, I wanna get these as a gift. She absolutely would not let me. And in that moment, I, I had to like, I had to recuse myself. I had to back away and say, okay, this is about, this is dignity. And, and I have to keep letting them draw those lines as to where they need to be.

Yehuda: Right. So your role there was, you took them to the Cross County Mall and showed them where to buy shoes.

Rachel: Yes, I did.

Yehuda: But you didn’t have to be the one behind the shoes. 

Rachel: Exactly. 

Yehuda: It’s interesting because one of the images and mythologies around refugees, which I, when I first met the Kovalenkos in your home, it, it, even I needed to like readjust, is that people are destitute, right? And that those who are not destitute are in a kind of short-term transition. And they’re eventually going back. 

The Kovalenkos are well-educated. I don’t know what class they belong in, but they were well compensated in their roles. I wonder how much that played into your own, figuring out what it meant to be in relationship with them. Because on one hand, they were peers, right?

Had they been destitute farmers, then that peer dynamic would’ve been very different. They were very much peers, as like really accomplished professionals in their spheres. And on the other hand, they were in this really uncomfortable, vulnerable position. How did that play out?

Rachel: Yeah, I kept thinking about what it would feel like to be them. Like what would it be like to one day, you know, she told me Sunday we had a party in our home, and there was saber rattling, and we were being reassured that nothing was gonna happen. And then a few days later, there were bombs falling. And we were terrified and we left with two backpacks.

And what would that look like to leave with two backpacks? What would that look like to have everything change? You know, it’s possible. It’s happened before in history. It could happen again. And I think, I really tried to think about what would that feel like? And to treat them the way I would wanna be treated.

So Vira came with this incredible doctorate in electrical engineering and renewable energy. Even while we were helping her to find jobs that seemed within reach here in North America, we also connected her with people in the field of renewable energy.

I knew a bunch of people from previous work that I’d done and made sure that she had those connections and felt like she had peers in New York. And very quickly, one of the first big purchases they made once they had jobs was this big plastic Mercedes fake car for Anna and I, they come, you know, it came with all like the annoying music and everything, but I’m like, oh God, I have a two-year-old in my house again.

Um, but Vira explained to me that this was the exact same car that Anna had in Kharkiv. And so it was important to them to recreate that. And that happened again and again. The Christmas presents we bought for them. Oh, she had this set of plastic animals, it was this brand, we found that brand. There was like a way of trying to recreate and rebuild. 

And I think I understood that as you know, them reminding us of who they are, and us acknowledging that by helping them to recreate so much of that. And I think a lot of their finding their way in New York has been about finding the things that remind them of Kharkiv.

Again and again, she’s like, oh, the trees here are just like Kharkiv, the playground, I found a cafe in New York that is Ukrainian, just like Kharkiv. And I think that has helped them to feel less vulnerable and more dignified. And they’ve really found that for themselves. We played a very small role there.

Yehuda: And at the same time, so there’s this searching for familiarity. And certainly Jews did that throughout history, not only seeking, what are the things that are already familiar, but how do I turn this environment that I’m in to feel a little bit like it looked, right?

That’s the whole habit of how Jews showed up at the East End of London and the Lower East side of Manhattan. What’s the dynamic I need to create that’ll make it feel like it was, and at the same time, they are in pursuit of totally new lives here. 

And I think you told me this, they did not intend to leave Kharkiv. But there’s also a dream here of what could be possible with a new life here in America. I wanna probe on that because one of the things that is the undercurrent of hostility against refugees and asylum seekers is the mythology that they are, really just quote, unquote seeking economic opportunity.

And that therefore it justifies us closing our doors because okay, if they’re really vulnerable, we’ll take them, but if they want economic opportunity, we won’t. And it feels to me like that’s a totally absurd dichotomy. So maybe you can unpack that.

Rachel: It’s also not true. We’re not taking the people who are really vulnerable either. I mean, I, we saw the news coming down this week about people trying to cross the border. I mean, it’s, it’s really, it might be a dichotomy that we talk about, but it’s not even one we lean into. 

But, listen, their lives in Kharkiv were just like ours, like with middle-class lives, right? And they, and, and, and there’s the, the struggle to try to even begin to recreate that here is one that we can’t even imagine. And it’s absurd to me to think that that’s what people experience when they come here.

I mean, if I, I could tell you stories about the bureaucracy and all of the obstacles and what it was like for them, I mean, I left this out of the piece, but what it was like for them when they crossed the border and the way they were treated when they came in, and you know, this is a Western family who speaks English, who’s educated, you know, who, who, like, they have all this stuff in their favor.

And even then, just every step of the way has been a struggle, even with our support. Which is not what most people get. People end up in the shelter system. People end up, you know, trying with, with, with other people who are, who are less willing to help. And so I think that, that myth is so misguided.

It is so difficult to find work here and they found it and they’re making way less comparatively than they did when they were in Kharkiv and they’re doing work that’s not at the level. I mean, like I said, she’s, you know, she’s doing really important work. In fact, her job is working with Ukrainian parolees, right? Just like her, which is very meaningful to her. But she was a professor at a university working with foreign students, teaching them electrical engineering. So that whole myth is just incredibly misguided. 

And then on the other hand, the fact that this family has come here, that they’re making a decent living, that they’re paying rent now, they’ve moved out of our house and they’re paying rent at someone else’s home. The fact that they’re paying taxes, the fact that they’re actually filling a need. I mean, how many people are there who can do what she’s doing? 

And then they’re running into this issue where their ability to renew their parole status and to renew their employment authorization status is so fraught and complicated and difficult to do, it’s absurd.

Yehuda: So let’s stay on that for a second. I wanna come back to something else you said, but I’ll come back to it in a minute. I wanna stay on the parolee piece because this was news to me when you explained it to me months ago, which is, you know, I certainly knew and understood that like, the fact that somebody gets in through the door doesn’t mean that they’re here. I understand that people, you know, it certainly doesn’t happen if you come in illegally, but even if you come in legally, there’s a whole variety of steps that have to happen to move from being in refugee or asylum status to actually become, um, to get a green card or ultimately become a citizen. 

But there’s a particularly, I don’t know, Kafkaesque dimension to this whole parolee piece. So maybe you could explain it a little bit more, what is the structure and what is looming in the system, and what would need to change?

Rachel: So first of all, I’ll just say I’m not an expert in this at all, but I’ll tell you what I know based on my experience with the Kovalenkos. So there’s a category called temporary protected status that Ukrainians who came in prior to a certain date were eligible for. After a certain date, there was a new program that was created called Uniting for Ukraine, which also created a parolee status, but a two-year status.

Now, parolee status means that, just what I wrote in my piece, you’re here, we acknowledge you’re here, but you’re not really here. You’re not an immigrant. You’re not even a refugee. You are a person who is here temporarily, who needs to have permission to stay here, and who needs to have a social security number so you can work. 

And they were granted that status for two days short of one year. That’s the way it works when you come in through the border. If they had been part of the Uniting for Ukraine program, which was activated nine or 10 days later, they would’ve had two years. But because they were a little too early, they have one year. 

Which means that though they took three months to find jobs and finally found them and are working, that their status runs out on April 10th. And we have been in touch with pro bono lawyers and with our representatives, you know, probing and trying to figure out how to help them renew this in a seamless way that would allow them to keep their jobs. This is just to keep their jobs and to stay in the country. This isn’t even to set them up to be able to stay long-term. 

And we, remember, bombs are still falling on their homes. And we, just, there are so many obstacles in the system.

Yehuda: But why? You’re not talking about, it’s not a huge number of people. Just so our listeners understand, we’re in a country of nearly 375 million people. We’re talking about a few thousand. We’ll get back to this a little later, but they’re basically white middle-class. There’s something strange about, what’s, is it all like fear of DeSantis? Like what’s going on here, that there can’t be relatively quick, executive or otherwise, you know, as you said, not accelerate the path to citizenship, but, I don’t know, maybe this is a dumb and naive question. Is it just bureaucracy? What’s the blockage here?

Rachel: So it’s hard for me to believe that it’s just bureaucracy. I honestly don’t know. It seems to me if it’s just bureaucracy, then it’s beyond, it’s, it’s just beyond comprehension that you wouldn’t set up a system where, where you would automatically allow someone to renew when their country is still actively at war. Like it would be so easy to do. 

You know, a lot of our representatives have people who work for them who, who specialize in immigration. I think their jobs would be a lot easier if the system were able to just automatically renew. But it’s not designed that way. 

In fact, until recently, we weren’t even able to apply for renewal of the parolee status. We couldn’t even get click-through on the forms. It, it was, it was like, if they’re already in the country, you can’t sponsor them. You can’t de, like, there’s just so many. And it is Kafkaesque. We’ve used that term a million times. Like these, these are the ways that bureaucracy ends up translating into a kind of demonstration of our political position, or I would say a failure on the part I think of this country to live its values and lean into them.

And what the politics are behind that, whether it’s DeSantis, whether it’s, you know, the careful act that Biden needs to do here between like trying to move things along in one way while giving on the other. I don’t know what this is about politically. But it’s clear to me that it is designed in some way, either by intent or by accident, to not enable it to be as smooth as it as it seems to me, as a citizen, it should be. 

And then what it does is, you know, it puts it on us, right? So here we are, American citizens, doing this, partly because our grand great grandparents were treated this way and we don’t see our country rising up to meet us. And that feels, that feels so disappointing. I, you know, I would, that’s like, that’s an understatement.

Yehuda: Mm-hmm. It seems to me that there’s a deep cultural bias in this country and probably in a number of Western countries as well, that it’s not, doors are not doors. Doors are periodic ladders that we lower to others to enter, but that our primary political force lies the closed border side of things, the fear of the other. 

So when I create a pathway or a gateway for someone to temporarily come in, that temporarily thing is big. And when somebody crosses in ways that are cons, like, even when those who are more on the side of open borders versus closed borders, even participate in the language of legal and illegal immigration, you’re conceding a tremendous amount to the notion that immigration has to be legal in order to be legitimate.

Like this is a whole rant. I mean, we Jews have, we have suffered horrifically through legislative approaches towards the legality of immigration and the whole story of Zionism is predicated on the heroism of illegal immigration.

So there’s something I think much bigger here that’s not just a particular bureaucratic problem around parolee-ness. It’s that our country doesn’t really like strangers, and to the extent that we want to periodically tolerate them, we’re gonna make sure that there’s an exit strategy that, that moves us out of there.

Rachel: Mm-hmm. Very much so. I mean, I think that’s why this whole system is set up the way it is, because it’s communicating to them and to us, actually, we don’t really want you to stay. And that, that to me is pretty devastating. I mean, I have thought more than once about the St. Louis and what that meant for the, for the people on board the St. Louis. And, you know, when we’ve been count counseled by immigration lawyers, just, don’t let them leave. I think that they have this vision that well, maybe if we go out and then we come back in, we can be part of the Uniting for Ukraine program. We can get two years instead of one year. And kind of, and I’ve been told in no uncertain terms by any number of advisors to let them leave. Just don’t. And they say, let them, you know, let them use the safety net they already have. That’s us. 

Yehuda: Yeah. And now it’s their, you know, the people that they’re renting their apartment from below market who are also taking a hit to endure this.

Um, you know, you, one of the things we, we talked about before when you said about the ways that they are kind of the right type of immigrants or the right type of refugees, and the word you didn’t use, but I’ll use is that they’re white, right? 

Um, I, I, I don’t know. You’re neither of us works for HIAS or for other immigration organizations or refugee service organizations, and I’m not putting this on you, but I suspect that the heroism in the Jewish community is different around Ukraine than it is around Syria. But like in theory it should be a, race should be irrelevant in this conversation. 

And I’m, I’m wondering if you’ve seen, because you’ve now had a front-row seat to this whole process, if you see a way for the culture around refugee and asylum seeker absorption in the Jewish community to really, to start to embrace that it’s a commitment that transcends whether these are the, the immigrants, the refugees that remind us of ourselves, or the ones who, who actually are in theory, not friends, but foes. 

Rachel: Absolutely. So a few notes on that. So I, I have a number of friends, obviously now that I’m doing this, I’m networked with a bunch of people who are doing this kind of work in various ways, in really amazing ways. And, you know, some of the families they’re working with are from Afghanistan, some of them are from Syria. The Jewish community is, I mean, to HIAS’ great credit, they’re creating these welcome circles and they’re welcoming people, refugees from all different countries, and the Jewish community is stepping up in huge ways, and it’s really inspiring and amazing what’s happening out there. 

You know, Paul and I talked about it. We talked about, you know, this happened to fall in our laps because of this relationship I had with Elena. And this moment, and had these evocative resonances for me. But we did ask ourselves and we had a whole conversation about, well, what if this had been a family from Syria, from Afghanistan, and we have a family from Afghanistan in our family also who we’ve been supporting through my mother-in-law.

So, you know, I would like to think that that the moment these issues enter, are on our threshold as Americans, as Jews, as individuals, that we’ll open our doors. I would like to think, you know, that all of us would, and I also agree that it’s complicated and I think that, you know, Vira and Ivan’s success is, you know, is probably different than a lot of others’ experiences.

You know, on the other hand, I have to say, when he first came, Ivan, he’s a front-end software designer. One of the first sets of job opportunities that became available to him was being a doorman and there was just no way that he was gonna do that. First of all, he had to work on his English and second of all, that just wasn’t, 

Yehuda: He was offended by it.

Rachel: Yeah. He, he actually, you know, he spent, he stayed up most nights late into the night learning new software languages to be able to work in this country on the software. Like that was what he was doing. But this Afghani family that another friend of mine is working with, that’s what he did. He’s a doorman and he works the night shift.

And then he comes home in the day and he does other things around, like cleans up the apartment building in exchange for rent. And so I, you know, someone actually said to me when they came, it’s actually much harder for people who come who are middle class in some ways because the trade-offs are so huge. If you’re willing to do anything, you can, you know, it can be easier. 

So, yes. I think that there, of course there’s prejudice. Of course there’s bias. Of course, it’s easier for white people in every way, whether you’re a refugee or whether you’re not. Um, and I would like to think that if my friend had been a friend from Syria and that had been the connection that we, that we would’ve done the same thing.

Yehuda: I like that, what you, that story about Ivan. Cause it reminds me of my favorite Talmudic passages, which is about how, in theory, again, it’s always in theory, but that’s what you have this, that’s why you have a religious literature, cause it’s telling you kind of how you should be. Doesn’t always tell you how you are.

In theory, charity is supposed to correlate to not only people’s needs, but to the lifestyle that they’ve become accustomed to. And there’s amazing Talmudic stories about like, the way they cared for this particular family that came from a particular status. And the rabbis are incredulous. What do you mean? Shouldn’t the baseline of tzedaka be a fixed amount?

And they’re like, no, if this is what this person needs, because ultimately, it’s not just need in terms of, you know, the lowest level of the Maslow’s hierarchy, of just like food, drink, and shelter, it’s actually dignity. Dignity is a big piece of the story also. How do you enable people to feel like they are being taken care of in their full selves and not that the obligation has become exhausted, simply by providing them with the bare minimum.

Rachel: Totally. I mean, this takes us back to the beginning of our conversation in a certain way, this conversation around dignity. I, people gave me bags and bags and bags of used clothes and I went through them before I shared them with Vira because I knew that Vira has a lot of taste and I saw that from her Instagram feed and I just didn’t even wanna show her things that weren’t, things that I thought would be things that felt dignified to her.

In fact, also, you know, we bought them a set of, of meat dishes. We didn’t have any meat dishes for we, we’re vegetarians. And they are big meat eaters, and I explained they had to eat kosher meat when, when Vira and Anna showed up at our house in these matching blue chiffon dresses, the first day we met them like, clearly, you know, she cares about this stuff.

When I bought the meat stuff, I bought it all in that color because I could tell it was her favorite color and I could tell that she cared about things like that. So it’s like these little things I think, that we did that just signaled to them, who knows if it worked, but to signal to them that we really cared about them and, and empathize with this moment for them.

Yehuda: One of the most interesting things that comes up in your story is a moment that you describe when you’re explaining to them Jewish holidays that are coming up. And Vira says something to the effect of like, oh yeah, Ivan’s grandparents, the grandmother is Jewish. Everybody in Ukraine is Jewish. 

That was kind of a jolt because Ukraine has been historically one of the most famously anti-Semitic countries in the world. Um, so of course that’s not true. But there’s something, that was equally weird of the weaving of this, of what starts as you know, Mark Hetfield from HIAs talks about, once upon a time we took care of refugees because they were Jews. Now we take care of refugees because we are Jews, therefore we don’t care about them. 

But there was this weird ethics of proximity that come in of wait, what if they actually are Jews? So I’m curious if that story evolved or changed throughout the time that they were in your home, their sense of proximity to Jewishness, your sense of them as like, oh, they’re not strangers, they’re actually us. I’m curious how that evolved.

Rachel: That, that was a really, a crazy moment because, I mean, listen, one of the key fears I had bringing them in, and my son, my college-aged son said to me, he’s like, Ima, you know that Ukraine wasn’t very good to the Jews during the war? And I was like, yeah, I know that. I, he, and, and I said, but that’s, we don’t, that, that’s not why we do that. Like, we don’t not do this because of that. 

But there was this sense of like, what, you know, how do they feel about us as Jews? I don’t know. I was really uncomfortable about that for the first several weeks and kind of listening for it in this careful way.

And then when I, you know, a little bit self-consciously started to explain that we were gonna have all these holidays and be doing all these kinds of weird things. And, and they said that, you know, the grandmother, who, it’s not just his grandmother, the grandmother who raised him, he was raised by his grandmother, was Jewish and then he knew about New Year. That was like, the fact that it hadn’t, hadn’t even occurred to them to tell us that, that that’s how marginal and insignificant this was to them as an identity, when it was so front and center for us as an identity? It just highlighted for me the huge cultural gaps.

But then, you know, we did Shabbat dinner every week and they looked forward to it and loved it and started to say Shabbat shalom. And when they put Anna to bed at night, Layla Tov and they adopted so much of our language of our family, and really clearly liked it and saw the value in it.  And actually when they moved out, Vira said to me, you know, oh, we’ll have to do Shabbat, we’ll have to do Shabbat on our own. 

And I’ll say the other thing is around food, right? Like, so I made challah, they’re like, oh, that’s Ukrainian bread. Or they made blintzes, so there were so many moments of those cultural familiarity and that yeah, of course that helped. It helped to break down the barriers and the nervousness.

Yehuda: I’m gonna ask you one last question, which is about Pesach, which is not far off. So it’s a, it’ll be a big question. One is, one piece of it is one project you’ve been leading here at Hartman for the last couple of years has been the translation and redesigning of a project that our colleagues in Israel started called the Hitkansut, which is kind of like a new old technology to make Yom Hashoah, the experience of Holocaust Memorial Day, more proximate to the ways the Jews have historically done memory, which is less about the performance of someone’s testimonial and more about the ritualized experience of a story that becomes ours, right? 

The same way that we pretend in this amazing thing, we pretend that we were in Egypt, we’re gonna have to figure out how do we pretend that we were the people who were, who came out of Auschwitz. 

So you’ve already been engaged in that work and I’m sure that throughout this year those two projects were just swimming together in your head cause you’re doing exactly the same thing. Thinking about like, what does it mean to have once been strangers in a recent past and now to ritualize that, but not as performance, but sincere, the ritual observance of hospitality.

I’m curious, you know, with Pesach coming up, what’s it gonna feel like? What is gonna be different at your Pesach because of this experience? 

Rachel: Yeah, so I, I have to say a lot of that hinges on what happens in the next couple of months, honestly. Their status runs out on April 10th. It’s not at all clear to me what’s gonna happen. I really, really hope that there’s some way that their status gets extended and they’re able to, you know, stay on for at least another year and give us some time to think about what’s next. That would be one Pesach. 

A different Pesach would be they leave, because they feel like, this is exhausting. We can’t do this. We can’t do it with a small child. We can’t every year lose our jobs, reapply for parole, lose our jobs again, without any kind of pathway to citizenship. We can’t do this. We’re leaving, we’re going to Bulgaria, we’re going somewhere else, and we’ll figure it out from there.

That’s a different Pesach for me, and I don’t know which Pesach it’s gonna be,but when we get to that line, you know, let all who are hungry come and eat. I guess I’m gonna be thinking about what that means this year and how it is that I leaned into that in the ways that I had the opportunity to last year. How do I keep doing that? How do we keep doing that? What does that look like?

Yehuda: Well, thank you for listening to our show this week, and special thanks to my guest, Rachel Jacoby Rosenfield.

Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman and was edited by Gareth Hobbs at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M. Louis Gordon. The show is produced with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz, with music provided by Socalled. Maital Friedman is our vice president of communications and creative. 

Transcripts of our show are now available on our website, typically a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online at We’re always looking for ideas of what we should cover in future episodes. If you have a topic you wanna hear about, if you have comments on this episode, or if you have questions you’d like us to answer on air, please write to us at [email protected]

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