“We’re not alone, you know?” Gennady Khaskelis says thoughtfully over FaceTime on a recent, dreary February morning. The conversation, however, is the opposite of dreary—he and his wife Inna are a charming, welcoming and fascinating couple. While very much their own, their story is also the story of immigrant Jews coming to Cincinnati as they have for two centuries, and also an American success story. But theirs is not the mythical Horatio Alger, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps story. It is a story of hard work, yes, but one supported every step of the way by their partners: Cincinnati’s Jewish Family Service. They are indeed not alone.
A Desire to Give Back
At the moment, however, Gennady is disappointed. He is lamenting the fact that he is unable to give back to the local Jewish community he loves, in the way he loves. And he loves to give back by delivering free Passover dinners to those in need through the Dr. Samuel S. Rockwern Passover Delivery Project of Jewish Family Service.
A Holocaust survivor and immigrant from Ukraine, Gennady has delivered JFS’s Passover meals the week before Passover for the last six years. This year, because of Covid, he can't. He is eighty years old and needs to remain safe. But he and his wife, Inna, will be grateful for the meal delivered to their house: “Kosher meals are expensive,” says Gennady. “Each day, I don’t have kosher meals. We live on social security. But when we get this kosher [Passover] meal each year, it is so nice. Chicken, vegetables—everything kosher. It helps me observe Passover in a meaningful way.”
From Engineers in Ukraine to Unable to Drive in the US
A network of Jewish organizations brought Gennady, his wife Inna, and their two children to Blue Ash from Kiev, Ukraine, in May 1994. They decided to emigrate because life in Kiev was hard, especially for Jewish people. They emigrated “for our future and for our children.”
The Khaskelises had both been engineers—suddenly they were older immigrants, aged 54 and 50, who didn’t speak English. It was very difficult, he says, adding, “We even couldn’t drive, but we had to take care of our family.”
Another factor was Inna’s mother, who immigrated with them. Inna said, “We came with my mom. She was very, very sick, and she lived with us all this time. They [JFS] give us advice, direction, and we are still very close with these people, very close.” Gennady added, “They’re very sensitive, kind people. People who have heart.”
“We are very happy with America”
Jewish Family Service taught them English and helped them find education and work. Now, JFS builds community and support for them through the Russian Jewish Cultural Center, located in the Mayerson JCC. Gennady said, “From the first moment, they told us: you have this opportunity, this opportunity, this opportunity.” He continued, “They help us get new profession in America. We went to two-year college in Cincinnati. I got to be a professional accountant, and my wife a medical assistant.”
“We are very happy with America. It gave us a big opportunity, said Gennady. And, also, “JFS was behind us—always, always, always.”
Their son, Anthony, was educated in Ukraine and finished here at the University of Cincinnati with a Ph.D. in chemistry. Their daughter, Allison, went to Cincinnati Hebrew Day School, Seven Hills, then Harvard, and then Columbia Law School, and now has a “big family with three children,” said Gennady.
Alone for Covid, But JFS is Here
Currently, however, Gennady and Inna are alone in Cincinnati. Their daughter and her family are in Israel, and their son is working abroad. Gennady shared how Ludmila (Mila) Goitman, Care Manager at JFS’s Center for Holocaust Survivors, is helping them through the Covid pandemic. “Mila always, always calls us during this hard time—gives us small but helpful things like masks, and hand sanitizer,” said Gennady. “All the time, they call us. What do you need?”
JFS’s Russian Jewish Cultural Center has been crucial connection and support for both of them before Covid and even during Covid. “When I retired, it was my first project to go to JFS every Friday and have the Jewish Russian club,” said Inna. The Covid lockdown “was difficult for us, because before March, we were every day there—connecting with people, getting Russian library books.”
But “JFS organized themselves so fast during Covid,” said Inna. She is speaking of the multiple opportunities the Russian Jewish Cultural Center began offering for online connection and learning. She goes to the Russian Club online and English classes online, so she doesn’t lose the language. “For everything we need,” concludes Gennady, “we go to JFS.”
Gennady will remember his family when the Passover celebration arrives: “I remember my daughter in Israel when I eat this meal. My daughter celebrates Jewish holidays in Israel, too. We celebrate Passover, and eat a kosher meal, at the same time. My heart is