Baltimore's miraculous welcoming

HIllel Kuttler

July 20, 1992|By Hillel Kuttler

WITH almost no national fanfare, Baltimore's Jewish community has been doing a miraculous job integrating thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The effort has been largely voluntary and has saved U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars during a deep recession.

The question is whether such a program, depending on voluntarism and philanthropy -- and the willingness of refugees to take menial jobs until they are accustomed to the English language and American ways -- could be duplicated by any other group.

More than 3,000 Jewish refugees have come to Baltimore since 1989, 1,150 of them in the last 12 months. Uprooted from their homeland (where many of them held professional jobs), lacking money, English skills and job contacts, the immigrants have been afforded a grass-roots-based package of assistance, much of it voluntary.

Although by no means constituting all new arrivals, Jewish refugees predominate here. Since 1989, by comparison, Associated Catholic Charities of Baltimore has handled a caseload of some 400 refugees, mostly Vietnamese, Africans and non-Jewish Soviets. Catholic Charities and other groups provide resettlement support.

There is a lesson here for residents of Baltimore and other cities mindful of local expenditures: Programs in the Jewish community are not only in place; they succeed -- and thereby relieve the taxpayer. Says Jerry Levinrad, director of refugee resettlement programs at the New York-based Council of Jewish Federations (American Jewry's social service umbrella), "Of the communities resettling that many people, Baltimore has the best record -- by far."

According to the Associated: the Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, less than 2 percent of the new arrivals over the last three years find themselves on public assistance rolls.

The Associated's committee chairman for resettlement and acculturation, Robert Catzen, credits historical obligation -- and fortune -- for Baltimore's achievements with the refugees.

"For many of us across the United States and in the Baltimore leadership," he suggests, "the thought is, 'There but for the grace of God go I!' Our parents [also] came out of Europe under tremendous pressure."

To be sure, the community's commitment to effectively resettle its co-religionists echoes the Jewish credo: "All Jews are responsible for one another."

In Baltimore there's a unique welding of two additional Jewish ethics: self-sufficiency and charity. The high priority assigned to local job-placement services reflects a cornerstone of Jewish communal responsibility, which places a greater value on helping one's fellow Jew gain employment than on blind charity.

"Refugees" -- the official government term for immigrants admitted on the basis of documented physical danger in their homelands -- are aided, too, by federal grants. The grants match local Jewish social service agencies' outlay -- but only for a refugee's second, third and fourth months in America. (A State Department grant covers the first month's costs.) The federal Immigration and Naturalization Service processes the refugees.

That is where the Jewish community comes in. Its agencies provide resettlement services during the four-month period.

But the effort extends way beyond that.

Foreseeing the influx -- from 1989 through May 31, according to the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, 479,399 Jews left the former Soviet Union -- the 95,000-strong Baltimore Jewish community raised an amazing $18 million in a special 1988 fund drive.

Two-thirds of that went to Israel, where the vast majority of the emigrants settled. The remainder is being spent here on a four-year plan.

A staff of some 40 professionals in eight social service agencies centered mainly on Park Heights Avenue monitors the immigrants through their American infancy. The agencies provide counseling, medical care, food and transportation allowances, rent and utility payments. Intensive English language courses are coordinated through the Maryland Office of Refugee Affairs and administered through the Baltimore City Community College.

In fact, the Jewish community views its social services as a package deal, with parts interacting throughout the integration process. One explanation for its high placement rate -- 88 percent find jobs, 70 percent within four months of arrival -- is the Associated's conviction that any job inherently builds language skills. But many of the immigrants are forced -- at least initially -- to take minimum-wage jobs well beneath their station in Russia.

The assistance is generous. It includes day care, religious instruction, grocery trips and full scholarships to Jewish schools. In addition, Sinai Hospital donated nearly $2 million in medical services to the refugees in the last year.

Perhaps the best example of the community spirit lies in such role models as Inna Giller.

Ms. Giller, 45, arrived here from Kiev in 1979. Today she directs a new project that has "twinned" 300 newly arrived families with area residents. The relationship benefits both sides.

As for the newest Baltimoreans, excitement is tempered by realism. Lubov Gorovoy, a 24-year-old native of Minsk in a federation-organized English class on Park Heights Avenue, said, "We were ready for the difficulties."

The other English students, all here less than three months, nodded in assent.

Could such an effort be duplicated? Not likely. A unique set of circumstances prevails here. The American hosts, many of whom know something about persecution, feel as one with the newcomers, united in spirit and resolve, and are willing to give of money and time.

The newcomers, for their part, are willing in many cases to step down the ladder of occupational success, sometimes for years, in order to move up again.

Hillel Kuttler is a free-lance writer living in Washington.

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