TORONTO — Alina Gerlovin Spaulding, keynote speaker at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s annual Lion of Judah luncheon last week, put a very human, dynamic and sometimes humorous face on the more often anonymous recipients of Jewish communal donations.
“Everything I have in this life, everything I will ever achieve, everything I will ever contribute to another human being is because of you and people like you doing something transformational for someone like me at a critical moment in time,” she told some 250 women at Toronto’s Four Seasons Hotel.
Almost 800 women in Toronto’s Jewish community have a gold Lion of Judah pin, signifying a contribution of at least $5,000 to the annual UJA Federation campaign. There are more than 16,000 Lions of Judah worldwide, said Cathy Belzberg, luncheon co-chair with Susan Maldoff.
Gerlovin Spaulding – the 34-year-old director of communication and admission counsellor for the American Hebrew Academy, a Jewish boarding school in Greensboro, NC – was rescued along with her parents from the former Soviet Union in 1979.
Her father, an Olympic hopeful in skiing in the early 1970s, lost any advantages he had as an athlete following a serious 1974 skiing accident, in which he broke his leg. His family was immediately evicted from its apartment, and necessary surgery was delayed for a year, Gerlovin Spaulding said.
“We lived with my grandparents in a one-room flat with no running water and no heat.”
Her father suffered medical complications including hepatitis, and he was not expected to live more than another five years after the surgery.
But within a year or two, Gerlovin Spaulding’s mother, then still in her early 20s, heard about an organization “that comes to Russia and rescues Jews.”
Although she didn’t believe it at first, her mother made contact through “a friend of a friend of a friend” with an American woman “who came to Kharkov in the Ukraine to live in someone’s closet and to rescue people like my parents.”
The woman told her mother, “I know you’re terrified. I need you to know that from here on out, you and I are family.
“In 1979 nearly 50,000 Jews were rescued from the former Soviet Union, among them my mother, my father and myself,” said Gerlovin Spaulding.
The Gerlovin family spent time in Austria and then Italy before settling in Passaic, N.J. In all three locations they were supported by UJA dollars.
On arriving in the United States, they were taken to a fully furnished apartment – a gift from the Jewish community for as long as they needed it – by a woman who had “adopted” them.
Among the unfamiliar items in their new kitchen were broccoli, kiwi, grapefruit and breakfast cereal, Gerlovin Spaulding recalls. It was as if her parents – “two engineers figuring out how to make cereal” – had come from another planet, she said.
Her father, at the time, was suffering from a heart condition that had been left untreated so long that no doctor they consulted was willing to operate.
With help from an anonymous donor, he underwent experimental surgery in 1980. The following year, Gerlovin Spaulding’s brother was born, and in 1994 he had his bar mitzvah at the Kotel, with both parents in attendance, she said.
More recently, following her move to Greensboro, Gerlovin Spaulding went to Moldova to run a Jewish summer family camp sponsored by the Greensboro Jewish community.
After the trip, she and her husband took in two teenage sisters from the Moldovan Jewish community and enrolled them at her school, at the request of their parents, to give them a better future.
Lisa Draper, women’s campaign and advocacy chair, noted that the cost to rescue a family from the former Soviet Union and bring them to Israel was $5,000 36 years ago. Today, it costs $25,000 to bring a family from war-torn Georgia, she said.
Two weeks after this year’s campaign launch, Women’s Campaign and Advocacy had already raised more than $2.5 million, Draper said. She asked those present to consider increasing their gifts by 10 per cent.
Henry Wolfond, co-chair with Fran Sonshine of the federation’s 2009 campaign, spoke of the influence of his mother and his wife, both Lions of Judah, in their support of worthy causes.
“We must understand that it’s not just what we learn from our parents, it’s what we teach our children and grandchildren,” he said.