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HIAS Luncheon Stresses Work of Collaboration

September 28, 2006 By:
Ryan Teitman
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Varsovia Fernandez
When Varsovia Fernandez came to Philadelphia from the Dominican Republic to attend Rosemont College, a neighboring interfaith Jewish-Catholic couple became her surrogate family. She had fled political turmoil, and her new friends helped her perfect her English skills, and taught her about such things as the Passover seder and the concept of mitzvot. They showed her, she said, a "sense of community that expanded beyond the home."

Fernandez, the newly elected executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, spoke about her past while keynote speaker at the 124th annual luncheon for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and Council Migration of Philadelphia on Sept. 20.

She noted that Jews and Latinos "have much to share for the benefit of all families." Her particular strength, she noted, is in collaboration: bringing groups together for the good of all.

"I think that the Latino and Jewish communities need to do more educational awareness," she said, because she often discovers that her people are finding the help they need through Jewish organizations.

"I truly believe that there is a natural synergy between Jews and Latinos," she added.

"Part of me is Jewish by association," she explained.

In 1938, the Dominican Republic was one of the few countries to accept Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. Many of these 645 immigrants settled in the town of Sosua, about an hour from Fernandez's home.

Her father gave her a Star of David to guide her path when she was a child, complete with a Hebrew inscription. In Catholic tradition, the Star of David was what guided the three wise men to find the baby Jesus, and her father's gift showed her how the two cultures worked together.

HIAS executive director Judith Bernstein-Baker presented Fernandez with a tapestry, made by Ten Thousand Villages, depicting children holding hands across the world.

"The best way to understand our work," she said, "is through the way we interact."

HIAS also gave out a number of scholarships to immigrant students as part of the luncheon. "If anyone asks me what immigrants and refugees bring to our country, I tell them to look at these scholarship winners," said Bernstein-Baker.

Viktoriya Genzel, Natasha Gitman and Yevgeniya Ratnovsky all received Renee and Harold Berger Book Scholarship Awards.

Genzel is a sophomore biochemistry major at Temple University; Gitman is a sophomore international business major at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.; and Ratnovsky is a fourth-year graduate student in clinical developmental psychology at Bryn Mawr College.


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