While growing up in the town of Kishenev, Moldova, in the former Soviet Union, Jewish practices were a mystery to Lana Akhenblit.

Her grandmother and father would explain Jewish holidays to her and tell her “this is what our Jewish people in Israel are doing for this holiday.”

Her grandmother was “a Jewish Orthodox” who spoke Yiddish and kept kosher (Akhenblit’s mother would slaughter the chickens herself). Her mother would make latkes during Hanukkah and the family bought matzo on the black market for Passover, yet otherwise, they were forbidden to observe the holidays.

“For me it was always a question – why? Why can’t we do it?” Akhenblit says.

Although she has no recollection of anyone being openly arrested for practicing Judaism, anti-Semitism was still prevalent and the older generation passed on their fear from arrests they had seen.

As she got older, she realized that the same children who refused to play with her as a child because she was Jewish would become the adults who might someday refuse to hire her because she was Jewish.

She wanted more for her children.

At age 25, Akhenblit, her then-husband Yusef, their 8-year-old daughter and Akhenblit’s parents and brother, through the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), traveled through Vienna, Italy and New York; they finally made their home in Phoenix in 1989.

She and her family are some of the more than 4.5 million people who have been assisted by HIAS in its 120 years; they were the first to resettle in Phoenix.

HIAS first became involved in the Valley through the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix and Jewish Family and Children’s Service but now works exclusively with the federation.

“Our role is now very limited because of the lower numbers that are coming here,” explains Fred Zeidman, assistant executive director of the federation.

Zeidman estimates that three HIAS-sponsored Russian families have resettled to Phoenix in the past two years. The federation also works with HIAS in the resettlement of Iranian members of the Baha’i faith.

The federation provides services such as helping the immigrants find housing, providing translation services, helping register for medical assistance and social security, putting immigrants in contact with job placement organizations,

HIAS celebrates 120 years

counseling and English-as-a-second-language classes, Zeidman says.

Adrien Herzberg (Shalowitz) worked at JFCS from 1980-1998 (she was CEO from 1987-1998) and worked with volunteers, synagogues and organizations to resettle the 300-400 people who immigrated to Phoenix from Russia.

The thing she remembers most was “how hard it was for the volunteers – for everybody – because we were bringing these people into a totally foreign land.” Many of the immigrants came from rural areas in Russia and weren’t familiar with things such as coffeemakers, thermostats or toilets.

“Hundreds and hundreds of people were involved” in the resettlement process, Herzberg says. Synagogues and organizations adopted families, doctors offered medical assistance and volunteers furnished apartments and stocked refrigerators – “the community really got together and they did this,” Herzberg says.

There were downsides to resettling in Phoenix – a poor job market, no public transportation and hot weather, she notes.

Seema Liston, JFCS job developer at the time, said the women often worked in the nursing fields or as manicurists and men often obtained jobs in maintenance or manufacturing.

JFCS taught the new arrivals English, helped them find jobs and get driver’s licenses, and tried to set the new families up with mentor families.

For the past two years, Akhenblit has acted as a case manager with the federation to assist new immigrants.

The process is a little different now, she notes, because now they have anchor families – relatives – that help them, whereas when she arrived, she knew nobody.

When her family first arrived in Phoenix, the federation moved them into a furnished apartment, complete with a fully stocked refrigerator. At the time, the program paid $1,200 per month for the family’s first four months in the country.

A few weeks after the move, Akhenblit discovered she was pregnant.

The family’s first year in the United States was documented in a series of articles in The Arizona Republic – the family’s arrival, their first Hanukkah, first Passover seder, etc. Readers responded – somebody organized a baby shower for her, another drove her to doctor’s appointments.

Akhenblit was a registered nurse in Russia but had difficulty with obtaining a nursing license in Arizona due to language limitations. However, she completed some college courses and, in 1995, started “Care of Love,” a private group home for the elderly.

When she first moved to Arizona, Akhenblit remembers feeling like she was on vacation. “You have blue sky and sun and I thought I was in some paradise,” she says. “In February, people were swimming in the pool.”

Akhenblit lives in Phoenix, with daughter Geley, 20, a student at Arizona State University and an intern at the school’s Hillel Student Center, and son Paul, 11. Her parents still live in Phoenix and her brother lives in San Jose, Calif.

She says she has always been appreciative of what HIAS and the Phoenix Jewish community have done for her and her family. The move “was not easy,” she says, but “I can say that I’m proud of everything that happened.”

This article first appeared in the Sept. 7, 2001 issue of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.