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Historic campaign to rescue, resettle Soviet Jews celebrates 20 years

The exodus of Jews that began in 1989 would ultimately add about 2 million Jews to communities throughout the world.

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When Ilya Milshteyn’s family emigrated from Rovno, Ukraine, in 1991, they were immediately plugged into a support network that spanned language training, Jewish education, healthcare, housing assistance and job placement.

“[Coming to Chicago] was an eye-opening experience,” said Milshteyn, who was 11 at the time and remembers studying in a class full of other recent Russian-speaking immigrants.

Families like Milshteyn’s benefitted from the Chicago Jewish community’s active participation in Operation Exodus, the massive effort that netted more than $1 billion between 1990 and 1997 to rescue and resettle Soviet Jews in Israel, the United States or Canada. Chicago raised about $60 million in the first three years of the campaign and welcomed 10 percent of Soviet immigrants to the United States.

“[Operation Exodus] is a historic opportunity and we must not fail our Soviet brothers and sisters for whom we have fought so long and whose freedom is a blessing for all of us,” JUF President Steven B. Nasatir wrote in a letter to the community in early 1991.

A large portion of the funds raised by the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago supported the work of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Israel and the former Soviet Union. The two organizations are the JF/JUF’s primary overseas partners and played an important role in readying Jews to leave the former Soviet Union and absorbing them into Israeli society.

The roots of the campaign lie in 1989, when the Soviet Union suddenly eased restrictions on emigration. Although some Jews were able to leave in the 1970s, emigration was practically non-existent in the 1980s. The exodus of Jews that began in 1989 would ultimately add about 2 million Jews to communities throughout the world, mostly in Israel and North America. U.S. Jewish leaders recognized the historical nature of the move and joined together to finance the resettlement of a community “thought to have been lost to the West forever,” as 1990 General Campaign Chairman and later JUF Chairman Barbara Hochberg said in 1990.

“Not only is this a humanitarian undertaking, but the populations that receive these emigrants will also be enriched for generations hence,” JUF Chairman John Colman told The Chicago Sun-Times in December 1990, when the effort was already underway.

At the time Operation Exodus began, analysts projected that as many as 5,000 Russian-speaking Jews would settle in Chicago. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) estimates that about 35,000 came to Chicago. Those who left before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 often escaped with a couple hundred dollars and a suitcase. Those who moved later had more resources to begin with, but still required guidance to navigate their new home.

As part of Operation Exodus, the Federation established Shalom: The Welcome Center at the Mayer Kaplan JCC in Skokie. Part of a long-term resettlement effort, the center and community partners such as the Jewish Vocational Service, Mt. Sinai Hospital, CJE SeniorLife and many others, collaboratively provided intense three-day orientation sessions that featured English tests, education assessments, and networking with local Jewish agencies. The Center also offered programming for children and the elderly. Educational agencies, day schools, and the JCCs helped the younger generation learn about being Jewish in a free society. Meanwhile, HIAS Chicago offered special citizenship classes for new Americans that culminated in large-scale citizenship ceremonies completing the long journey from the former Soviet Union to the land of opportunity.

In addition, volunteers from the Chicago Jewish community provided a personal connection for the newly arrived. They hosted Shabbat dinners, Pesach seders and family nights, helping to foster an adjustment to a new life and integration into the American Jewish community.

“We developed a great relationship with our volunteers,” Milshteyn said. “The family’s older son helped me prepare for my bar mitzvah.”

As Chicago celebrates the 20th anniversary of Operation Exodus with a year of programming, JUF News will continue featuring the Jewish community’s large-scale response to the needs of Soviet Jews and will profile some of the people whose lives were changed by this monumental effort as well as some of those who were at the helm of the undertaking.

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