Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

Operation Exodus and Flights to Freedom revisited

 

Circa 1990, Bob Yarmuth and Barbara Grodin pose with an Operation Exodus banner.

It was 25 years ago that Linda Amon and Harriet Corey,z"l, of Congregation of Liberal Judaism (now Congregation of Reform Judaism) stood waiting at the Orlando International Airport with a sign that read "Welcome Levitasovs." It seemed to take forever before the anticipated Russian family finally walked through the gate. There were four of them-grandfather Anatoly Mantelman, 71, his daughter Marina Levitasov, her husband Mikhail (Misha and Americanized as Michael) and their daughter Yana. For Mantelman, this was also a reunion with his sister Aleksandra Zoiberman, whom he had not seen in more than 16 years.

What stood out to Amon was that the family only had a few suitcases with them. She remembers thinking, "Is this everything they have?" And then the realization that they could only take with them what they could carry.

Marina Levitasov remembers that day vividly as well, and the preparations the family made before coming here. "We organized ourselves to live without an income and saved and sold much of our stuff. We then quit our jobs before we filed for immigration," she said, explaining that when a Jew applied for immigration they were usually fired from their jobs, stripped of all their assets, and endured virulent anti-Semitism.

Levitasov began crying as she spoke of how Amon and Corey not only met them at the airport, but continued to help, becoming close friends for many years as her family adjusted to resettlement and became Americanized. "We never expected so much kindness," Levitasov said. "I didn't understand why everyone smiles here. In Russian no one smiles, everyone is miserable."

After the initial greetings and welcomes at the airport, Amon and Corey whisked the family away to a newly furnished apartment in Mait-land. Amon's husband, Max, carried two suitcases into the apartment and walked into a room full of crying people. "What's going on here?" he asked in alarm. It was a small apartment, but to the Levitasovs, it was a palace. "We all started crying," Amon said. "This was more than they ever dreamed of."

Their new home was fully stocked with dishes, flatware, linens, and furniture (provided by Slone Brothers), even the refrigerator was full of fresh vegetables, meats, bread-enough to get them started.

"It was amazing how everybody stepped forward," Amon said.

It was a time when the entire Jewish community-across the country and locally-stepped forward to help the Russian Jews, the "refuseniks." Back in the 1970s, they were a people without a nationality. In the Soviet Union they were not considered Russians or Ukranians. Their passports stated that they were Jewish. They lived in a land that had been their home for generations and now they were not wanted but could not leave.

Recording the early history of the Orlando Jewish community in "Our Story," Roz Fuchs wrote: It started with a few letters, some weekly phone calls, and some protests. No one could have guessed, in 1975, that these small efforts made in the Jewish communities all over the country would actually make such a difference in the lives of Jews in the former Soviet Union.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando formed a Soviet Jewry Committee, chaired by Eva Ritt, who brought awareness of the imprisonment and isolation of the Jews in the former Soviet Union. Dr. Mickey Shapiro, z"l, and his wife, Marilyn, went to Russia and met many refuseniks, and reported to the community their first-hand experiences. Freedom seders were organized, bracelets were worn that bore the names of refuseniks, people reached out to help in any way they could.

The Federation raised money through a Passage to Freedom campaign in 1989, and then the worldwide Jewish community started the Operation Exodus Campaign. During a JFGO Blue and White Ball, Hy Lake, z"l, was so motivated that he went from table to table asking for pledges. He was determined that American Jews would help save Russian Jews' lives. He raised $300,000 that evening. It was the beginning of this community's Operation Exodus campaign, and Lake became the first chairman, followed by Charles Schwartz, z"l, two years later. In the final count, JFGO raised more than $2 million for the campaign. "We were actually buying Jewish lives and Jewish freedom," Fuchs wrote.

Another campaign was started in 1990, called Flights to Freedom. Headed by Barbara and Jim Grodin, people were asked to buy a seat on a plane to help get Jews out of Uzbeckhistan. The Orlando Jewish community raised enough money for 900 seats-filling two 747 airplanes.

The JFGO with other federations across the country raised more than $900 million in loan guarantees to resettle Jews in Israel and the United States. In Central Florida, the JFGO set up the Resettlement Committee, chaired by Gene Joseph, z"l, and about 175 Russian immigrants, including the Levitasovs, were given a new beginning here in Orlando.

The Federation distributed Exodus funds to Jewish Family Services Orlando to handle the process of resettling the new Americans, as they were now called. Allen Yasgur, then executive director of JFS, invited all the synagogues to sponsor a family. Congregation of Liberal Judaism, Congregation Ohev Shalom and Temple Israel adopted families, taking these new Americans under their wings.

Rabbi Larry Halpern, former rabbi of CLJ, remembers informing the Federation that they wanted to be part of this local program. Halpern was involved in the relocation of Soviet Jews as part of the national UJA. He contacted Amon and Corey, who became the committee chairwomen for CLJ.

"This family's resettlement will really be a community effort," Amon told The Heritage in 1990 two weeks before the Levitasovs arrival. At that time, the apartment had been found, but was still unfurnished. Amon gave a list of items needed to The Heritage to publish, and the response was astounding.

"This community works together so well," Amon said.

The Levitasovs, as well as all the other new Americans, stepped off the plane and into the care of the Orlando Jewish community.

Marina taught English while in Russia, so her English was manageable. The rest of the family did not speak any English. Michael's cousin had a newspaper route and was able to get Michael a job. Yana, 15 at the time, was enrolled in Winter Park High School. She, too, quickly found a job at a local Taco Bell, taking orders, even though she spoke no English. She told her mom that they were hiring. Marina was also able to get a job there working in the back where she didn't have to talk. But she asked Yana how could she do her job in front taking orders? Full of youthful confidence, Yana replied, "Who cares? They'll figure it out!"

Eventually, CLJ helped Marina find a job in a photo studio office and then a beauty salon. They moved from the apartment to a house.

"It's a lovely house," said Amon. "When we see them, I feel so proud that we helped. But they really helped themselves."

Spoonful of Sugar Photography

Marina Levitasov with her youngest granddaughter, Abine Leah Goldberg Hotter

Marina and Michael are now retired. Yana graduated from Brandeis University with a degree in political science, and is married to Christian Hotter. They have two daughters and live in Missouri where they own a photography business called Spoonful of Sugar Photography and Videography.

Marina describes the situation in Russia and Ukraine today as "messy."

"Putin grabbed Crimea. It was strategic. But he did it because he could. And if he could, he'd grab Eastern Ukraine as well," she stated.

Two of her cousins immigrated to Israel from her hometown of Donetsk three months before this interview. They had no income, no pensions or medication. She has no contact with other relatives who are still in Donetsk. She spoke of an artist friend whom she hasn't heard from in more than eight months. "They leave to go to work and you don't know if they're coming back. We have little hope for something to happen."

Perhaps it is time for another Operation Exodus to happen.

 

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