Welcoming the Stranger

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Below is a piece that originally appeared in a weekly letter written by The Forward Editor in Chief Jodi Rudoren.

It was not until the morning after the family of Ukrainian refugees staying in his south Florida home arrived that Rabbi Adam Watstein learned they were not Jewish.

Anastasia and Sergey Sibiriakova and their three children, who had landed at the Miami airport with a single carry-on bag, slept in, exhausted not just from the flight but from weeks of running from Russian bombs and huddling in basement shelters. Rabbi Watstein's wife, Angelina, had meanwhile made a huge pot of chicken soup with her signature matzah balls. As she put the steaming bowls on the table, Watstein recalled, the Ukrainians looked down and said, "This is amazing.... what is this?"

"At which point we got our answer," he said, since he figured Jews everywhere would recognize matzah balls. "And that's a very important part of the story: We didn't care."

The biblical commandment to welcome the stranger does not apply exclusively to Jews, of course. So this revelation just added one more layer of adjustment as this middle-class household of five instantly became a household of 10, with the Watstein children showing the Sibiriakova children the ins and outs of a kosher kitchen between bonding over YouTube videos.

"Seamless" is how Rabbi Watstein described the transition in our conversation yesterday. By the first night, they could see the kids were getting along, and that Google translate worked "and was funny," he said. It's been comfortable -- if a little crowded -- ever since.

"There's going to be hiccups, there's going to be conflict, and there's going to be times where we throw our hands up because we don't know what we're doing," he said. "But we'll always know that this particular family is under a roof."

I'd been thinking a lot about this kind of intimate, one-to-one response to the fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II after my trip to Poland last week with the Jewish Federations of North America. Unlike when I covered the Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan in 2013 and 2015, we did not find masses of Ukrainians packed into squalid tent cities; in fact, the hotels-turned-shelters we visited in Warsaw and Lublin had plenty of vacant rooms.  

Many if not most of the 2 million Ukrainians who have flooded into Poland, it seems, have quickly scattered throughout the country and further into Europe, staying with relatives, friends, or, as in this Florida situation, total strangers. Our Polish guide told us her best friend had turned over her son's empty apartment to a television journalist from Kyiv and the journalist's friend and child. The bicyclist who nearly hit Eric Robbins, CEO of the Jewish Federation in Atlanta, on his first day in Warsaw, turned out to also be housing refugees. "The Daily" podcast on Monday profiled a Ukrainian woman and her 11-year-old son who had been welcomed into the Krakow apartment of a German-Polish couple they'd never met. 

I'd been wondering whether and how this trend would take hold in the U.S., which has announced it will accept 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, asking myself if my own family had the wherewithal -- emotional more than economic -- to be part of it. Then, at the Jewish Funders Network conference in Florida this week, I happened to sit next to Sasha Chanoff, who runs a nonprofit called RefugePoint that has helped resettle thousands of migrants from Africa and the Middle East, and Chanoff connected me with Rabbi Watstein. 

Ordained in 2008 at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Watstein, 43, has spent the past 10 years as rabbi of B'nai Aviv, a congregation of about 550 families in Weston, Florida, which is about 20 minutes from West Palm Beach and 35 from Miami. His wife is a Ukrainian refugee herself, having come to New York as a toddler with a wave of Soviet refuseniks fleeing antisemitism in 1981. So from the moment the war began, they were intensely engaged, watching eyewitness videos posted on WhatsApp and Telegram, organizing donations from their community, working with the head of the Jewish community in Moldova, who happened to be in South Florida. It felt personal to them, and they wanted to do more.

At 9:30 p.m. on March 14, they filled out a form on a website set up by two Jewish Harvard students that matches Ukrainian refugees with people willing to house them. The Watsteins woke up the next morning to an email from the Sibiriakovas, who had fled their home in Bucha, near Kyiv, and were staying in Rovno. They had three kids, practically the same ages as the Watsteins' three, and a valid tourist visa to the United States from a vacation a few years back. "Can you help us?" the email asked. Angelina, who speaks Russian, connected with Anastasia by phone.

"My wife says, 'I don't know exactly where you will stay, but I promise that I will pick you up from the airport,'" Watstein recalled. "And I promise you that you will have a place to go when you land."

The Watsteins moved their 6-year-old daughter, Kayla, in to share the bedroom of her 11-year-old sister, Naomi, and put a triple-bunk bed into Kayla's room for Alice, Mila and Olivia Sibiriakova, who are 11, 8 and 4.  ("It was for sale, and when I told the woman what it was for, she donated it instantly.") The Ukrainians arrived March 21. 

"They walked in the house, we gave him the keys," Watstein told me. "And we said, 'Our house is your house. You don't have to run anymore. You don't have to worry.'"

The past 11 days have been a whirlwind of logistics and laughter. The older Ukrainian girls ride the Watstein kids' bikes to the local public school, while the little one attends preschool at B'nai Aviv. Anastasia, a photographer, has set up a new website offering family portraits and art classes. Sergey, a former professional soccer player who runs an Etsy store selling Ukrainian wood crafts, has been playing a lot of XBox/FIFA with the Watsteins' sports-obsessed son, Roee, who is 9, and obsessively scrolling Zillow for apartments. 

Adam and Angelina Watstein, meanwhile, have started their own matching website, with 30 local families signed up to host refugees and many more offering legal, medical, educational and other support services. The synagogue has filled up with donations of mattresses and furniture. 

But since the U.S. has not yet established its program for resettling Ukrainians, the Watstein-Sibiriakova household is the only one up-and-running in the community so far. They are waiting for government institutions to catch up to the crisis and provide them with official status that would enable them to stay longer than the 90 days allowed on their tourist visa, get jobs and a place of their own.

Meanwhile, the two families are blending. The Watstein kids don't speak Russian and the Sibiriakovas don't speak English, but they are all fluent in the language of devices and Instagram. Ten people cannot fit around the kitchen table in their Florida ranch house, so the adults usually eat at the island. And when the kids are finally tucked in each night, the two couples find themselves sharing a common parental sigh and glass of wine despite their vastly different backgrounds.

"My wife's whole family is from not far from where they're from," Watstein said. "My wife's  whole family was massacred in the Shoah. So you have to ask yourself the question: Did your grandparents kill my wife's grandparents?" And: does it matter?

"These individuals that we're with are loving, wonderful human beings and they are not their grandparents," he continued. "Is there antisemitism in Ukraine? Yeah. There's antisemitism in America. 

"Do I blame this generation of refugees for the Chmielnicki massacres?" he added, referring to the 17th century leader of Ukrainian pogroms. "At one time in my life I probably did. In the last 10 days, I've had to rethink a lot about the generational transition of blame."

With Passover coming, the Watsteins have begun to prepare their guests for eight days without bread and other foods. They normally host Seders for 35, and congregants have already signed up to cater since Angelina, who usually cooks, is a bit too busy. The rabbi, of course, has been thinking about how what is happening in the world, what is happening in his own house, relates to the Haggadah's story of, as he put it, "going from servitude to salvation."

"Every person has to sit at the table and see themselves as if they left Egypt," he noted. "What's Egypt, what's mitzrayim -- the narrow constraining place, that's what it means. I just have to look across the table."


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