Draw Back the Curtain is a project that has taken a journey of its own, in preserving the history of the brave Jewish families who emigrated from the Former Soviet Union to Richmond in the 1990’s. Jewish Family Services can think of no better way to celebrate Jewish-American Heritage month than with a screening of the film on May 21st at the Weinstein JCC, accompanied by a special exhibit presented with the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond.
The film was a collaborative effort between University of Richmond Hillel students and JFS. Telling this story was important, given the significance the Resettlement had on the Richmond community. Beth Ahabah Museum Archives Researcher Bonnie Eisenman said, “The Russian Resettlement program of 1989-2001 gave the Jewish community of Richmond a unity of purpose that I’m not sure they had experienced before.” She added, “It was exciting, energizing and fulfilling to be actively involved in helping people create new lives for themselves.”
For Ira Korshin and Rina Manelis, sharing their stories in the film has been a moving and meaningful experience. The two met at Camp Hilbert, bonding over their shared language and experiences as young émigrés. Their friendship blossomed at RTA and is still strong today. Korshin remembers those early days as one big adventure-even with the language barrier.
The friends both remember challenges of their move, as their parents worked hard to learn a new language, find jobs and acclimatize to American culture. While the women remember enjoying their early days in Richmond, for teens and adults, it was a much more stressful experience. For Rina, fitting in with her new American classmates could be stressful. “I remember my sister Tatyana had gotten a t-shirt at a yard sale with puffer paint spelling out “Stacy” on the front and suddenly I desperately wanted to be ‘Stacy’ with this bright, shiny American identity instead having a faltering grasp of English and American culture and a name other people often couldn’t pronounce.” Manelis said. But as she became more acclimatized to their new home, she learned to balance their individuality with a new culture, embracing her Jewish identity. “Instead of Stacy, I decided to lop off the first “I” of my actual name (Irina) and gave myself the Hebrew name Rina.” Manelis added.
Resettlement volunteers helped families find housing, furniture and schooling for their children, and provided emotional support, as they navigated a completely new world. Overwhelmingly, Korshin and Manelis have positive memories of their first years in Richmond, beginning a life-long journey of learning about their Jewish heritage. Resettlement volunteers connected families with the Weinstein JCC, synagogues, JFS, RTA and many other Jewish community organizations.
Many émigré families were unused to the freedom to explore the cultural and religious aspects of their Jewish identity, given the prejudice and isolation they had experienced in the FSU. Eisenman said, “It was also a learning experience for the Richmond Jewish community. I believe that we assumed that once out of the Soviet Union, the Jewish people would want to embrace their Judaism and participate in congregational life.” But added “Most had been unable to practice any sort of religious observance or receive any kind of Jewish education.” The Resettlement program helped families and children experience all that the Jewish community in Richmond had to offer.
As Manelis noted, “having the opportunity to immigrate to the United States changed my life completely. Being a U.S. citizen and all the freedom, opportunity, and good fortune that accords, is not my birthright; I am very grateful for the activists, volunteers and supporters who made our immigration possible for us.”
Draw Back the Curtain captures one of the most challenging and exciting moments in Jewish-American history, and is a testament to the struggles and successes of the families who emigrated. Korshin said, “I want my kids to know that they are members of this great race. With that comes responsibility, the freedom to be unafraid, and act courageously when faced with a challenge, much like our grandparents and parents did.”
Korshin and Manelis appreciate the opportunity they had to share their stories in Draw Back the Curtain, rekindling old friendships and building new ones. They hope that other Jewish families will be inspired by the film to continue strengthening the vibrant Richmond Jewish community. “I was able learn more about my identity and began to feel a sense of belonging.” Manelis said of her experience.
Sharing these stories is a vital part of celebrating a collective heritage. As Eisenman said, “We would do a disservice to all the people who worked so hard to create good lives for themselves, their families and their communities if we were to forget all the good that they accomplished.”
Tickets to the May screening are free, but RSVPs are required. Interested? Check out https://www.jfsrichmond.org/draw-back-the-curtain/or www.drawbackthecurtain.com for your free ticket, and more information on the project. The film has also been chosen as a participant in the “Flickers: Rhode Island International Festival” and will be shown on WCVE PBS June 25th at 9 p.m..