JF&CS and Volunteers Make a New Home for Ukrainian Evacuees

June 10, 2022

JF&CS and Volunteers Make a New Home for Ukrainian Evacuees

“I’ve never been prouder to be Jewish,” exclaimed Jessica Lotner, Or Hadash volunteer.

“I am very proud of Atlanta and what we have been able to do,” she said. Lotner, a member of Or Hadash volunteered for her family to “adopt” a large Ukrainian Evacuee family and help with housing needs through JF&CS’s new program, AURA (Atlanta Ukrainian Evacuee Relief Assistance). The family has multiple generations and includes 17 people and 6 small children. Renee Videlefsky, Tikun Olam chair at Or Hadash supported her during the process.

AURA is currently working with Atlanta area synagogues, Temples, and other volunteers to support more than 56 individuals. The program is generously funded by Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. Zane Blechner, AURA Program Manager, explained the needs of the evacuees and their challenges.

“The evacuees escaped the devastating war in Ukraine, leaving everything behind. They journeyed to Mexico, where they received temporary status. They then traveled to Atlanta, where they have relatives and friends. They are eligible to apply for a work permit once entering the country. However, the work visa application comes with a hefty $545 fee and an average wait time of 10 months. American families who volunteered to help bring Ukrainians from Europe to the U.S. were not aware of this and could not have anticipated the burden of housing someone for so long,” he said.

“When Ukrainians arrive here, they are categorized as people with “Humanitarian Parole” and are eligible for a work visa. Technically they are not eligible for any other government assistance programs — no food assistance, no medical assistance, and no access to government funded services provided by the refugee resettlement program. That is where we at JF&CS can help.”

Blechner worked with Jewish Federation to get the word out to area synagogues to assist with relief efforts. Or Hadash was one of the first to step forward, with Jessica Lotner and Renee Videlefsky leading the effort.

“My kids, Bella and Jacob were working on their B’nai Mitzvah Project, planned for next June, and they had seen the news and wanted to help Ukrainians. I asked my Rabbi at Or Hadash if there was a way we can help. She said I’ll let you know – I have a call tomorrow with JF&CS,” said Lotner.

A resounding yes came from Rabbi Lauren, but they had to move quickly. JF&CS had found them a rental home and was providing funding for the family to live there, but the house still needed furniture.

“It all happened really fast. On Tuesday we got on a call with Zane. He said we have a family moving in - on Thursday.” said Videlefsky.

Videlefsky bought some necessities from Costco. Lotner set up an Amazon Wishlist, and it was filled within a day by her friends, family, and fellow congregants. Lotner’s family secured furniture and seven extra beds for the large family. She rented a U-Haul truck, and her family brought the furniture to the home.

B'nai Mitzvah and Volunteers Bella and Jacob helping to set up the new home.

“JF&CS did an amazing job providing them with this place to live. When they arrived at their new home, the whole porch was covered with Amazon boxes. It was the first company they learned about,” said Lotner.

While the Lotner family took the family to the grocery store to pick out the food they liked, Videlefsky organized the home and bedrooms. She learned that the family included a young baby that was born as they were entering Germany and leaving Ukraine. During their journey, they also spent three days at the Mexican US border, sleeping on the ground.

“They have been through so much. And they do not speak English, but JF&CS had an interpreter there to help. When the family found out that our synagogue had been the one help with their needs, they burst out singing “Hatikvah.” They were so appreciative and lovely,” she said.

According to Lotner, the family was from Kharkiv.

“One of the mothers was pregnant and her due date was the day before the Russians started bombing. They went from hospital to hospital. At one of the hospitals, there was an American lady who was there getting cancer treatments. She was the wife of a pastor in Atlanta. When they fled Kharkiv, they offered to help her get out too. As a thank you for getting his wife out of Ukraine, the Atlanta pastor generously sponsored the family to come to the US.”

“When I first met them, they were in shock, really all in a bad state. Their experience at Tijuana was horrible. We put their beds together and got the house in order.”

Later that evening, when everything was calmer, they started singing Oseh Shalom in 12-part harmony. And that is when we saw huge smiles on their faces."

Lotner has continued to visit the family and brought them to her home for lunch this week.

“I am really invested in this family. They are friends now. I feel blessed to know them,” she said.

How You Can Help

Several synagogues, temples and groups are working with JF&CS to “adopt” families. For more information on how your synagogue, Temple or group can “adopt a family,” please contact Zblechner@jfcsatl.org

JF&CS intends to utilize individual volunteers who have expressed interest and may not be affiliated with a partnering group by connecting them to special assignments or one-time projects as needs arise. Individual volunteers must complete volunteer registration before they can participate, including creating a volunteer profile, providing requested documents, and passing a basic criminal background check.

Please donate to the AURA fund to support Ukrainian Evacuees.