MARBLEHEAD – Café Hakalah, which for the last decade has organized monthly gatherings of food, entertainment, and camaraderie for survivors of Soviet and Nazi persecution, derives its name from the Hebrew word for “safety.”
“It’s the one place for many of the people where they feel safe being Jewish,” said Sue Spielman, who manages the Café Hakalah gathering in Brookline. “My very favorite story is when one of the guests came to the Seder and he said, ‘I needed to learn these words to say to you to properly in English: that I feel Jewish here, and I feel safe.’”
Passover is an especially resonant holiday for a community that once escaped persecution. On April 10, Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JF&CS) staff and volunteers put together a Seder in both Russian and English that celebrated both Exodus stories. While the group of roughly 40 enjoyed matzah, Manischewitz grape juice, and matzah ball soup, Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez of Temple Sinai in Marblehead led the group in a rendition of “Let My People Go” that included the refrain, “When Israel was in Soviet Russia, let my people go!”
Based on the descriptions of the Jews who lived there, Soviet Russia has a lot in common with the Egypt of Exodus. “We weren’t supposed to speak about [being Jewish],” said Vera Levina, now of Lynn, who grew up in Minsk, Belarus. “If we told somebody about it, my father would be in the gulag.”
Because of the severe restrictions on Jewish life, some at Café Hakalah weren’t even entirely sure that they were Jewish. “I believed that my mother was not religious – only my grandmother was religious,” said Gelina Steinberg, who grew up in Moscow and now lives in Lynn. “We were very afraid.” According to Spielman, most attendees don’t belong to synagogues, so Café Hakalah serves as their principal source of Jewish life.
“Café Hakalah is an opportunity for people for people to learn about traditions of Judaism that they may be too embarrassed to say in another setting that they do,” said Spielman.
According to Lora Tarlin, director of Schechter Holocaust Service, survivors don’t often talk about the traumatic experiences of their childhoods, and prefer to focus the conversation on their current lives. None of the programming, which has included Jewish music, dancing, talks by rabbis, arts and crafts projects, and more, focuses on the persecution they endured. “We want them to come and enjoy and feel safe, and talking about their trauma is not necessarily something that’s safe for them,” said Tarlin.
Café Hakalah is just one of a few programs that JF&CS’s Schechter Holocaust Service runs for survivors, one-third of whom live at or under the poverty level. Relying largely on funds from the Claims Conference, a New York-based organization that distributes funds from the German government to victims of Nazi persecution, JF&CS helps survivors with obtaining financial assistance, government benefits, and home health services.
“It helps me feel younger,” said Yakov Glauberman, who grew up in Ukraine. “It helps me feel connected.”