When incoming Soviet refugee women were first invited to join the San Francisco chapter of Hadassah back in the late 1970’s, they were convinced the offer was really a plot engineered by the KGB or the US government.
Today, the all-Russian group — the only group of its kind anywhere in the world — is over 300 strong, says its founder, Elaine Henderson.
“The group has absolutely transformed its members’.’ she says. Most of the women felt utterly lost and frightened, when they first arrived in the US. “Besides being suspicious, they had no understanding of our language and customs, and no knowledge of Judaism. The Russian women desperately needed a bridge between the two cultures. They needed a role model, someone they could identify with, a Russian woman who had been successful in adapting to American life!’
That’s where Eve Naftaly came in.
Naftaly, who is 94 years old, was born in Czarist Russia and fled with her family to Manchuria following the Russian revolution and, later, to the Philippines during World War II. After her husband and son were killed by the Japanese, she survived internment in a concentration camp and was brought to the United States.
Arriving in San Francisco with only the clothes on her back, Naftaly — who speaks seven languages — soon began teaching at Berlitz and later administered a hospital outpatient clinic. She joined Hadassah in 1960, and eventually became president of her group.
“It was absorbing and rewarding to be able to help these women learn the language and overcome their fears!’ recalls Naftaly. “For the first time in their lives, their individual voices count. They see that they can make a difference. “When they first arrived here, most of these women didn’t believe that they could get the food they needed to put dinner on the table, let alone help others!’