Olga Abezgauz was only 10 when she immigrated to America—a world away from her hometown of Chelyabinsk, Russia. Almost overnight, she and her family were transplanted to a radically different place, where people spoke a language they didn’t understand. They knew restarting their lives from scratch would be tough. But thankfully, Federation was there to help.
Federation provided Olga’s family with an invaluable network of support to ease their transition. Loans covered their first month’s rent, and Federation stocked their home with basic necessities like kitchenware and groceries. A dedicated career counselor helped Olga’s parents find jobs. And when her parents attended free English classes, Olga explored her Jewish heritage every Sunday through free programs at the JCC.
“We soon realized that we were not alone,” said Olga. “The adjustment process was not easy for my family, but it would have been much harder without the Jewish community’s help.”
Since the 1980s, Federation has assisted hundreds of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union—Jews just like Olga’s family—as they establish new lives in North America and reconnect with their Jewish identities. Bilingual summer camps for children, Russian-speaking social workers for the elderly and initiatives linking Russian and other Jewish populations have helped their communities flourish.
Russian-speakers now comprise about 10 percent of American Jewry—an estimated 750,000 people.
After attending a Federation-funded Taglit-Birthright Israel trip in 2001, Olga became a leader at her college Hillel. Later, she co-founded a Federation division in her home city focused on Russian-speakers.
“A light bulb went off in my head,” Olga said about her Federation involvement. “There were people who cared enough to donate money so I could have that [Birthright] experience. There were people who cared enough so that I could come to the U.S. There were people who cared, and they were part of my community—my Federation.”
And with the leadership of people like Olga, Russian Jews will continue to be an integral Federation community for years to come.
"We soon realized we were not alone...
There were people who cared,
and they were part of my community—
— Olga Abezgauz
*Thank you to Olga and our friends at the JUF/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago for sharing this story with us.*