By Cindy Mindell ~
FAIRFIELD – Ellin Yassky understands the true meaning of “bashert.” Just a few months ago, the longtime Fairfield resident realized that she needed to make a big change.
“All aspects of my life were showing me that it was time,” she says. “I didn’t know where, but I was open to all different kinds of possibilities.”
For the last year, she has worked as East Coast liaison of the Emunah Sarah Herzog Children’s Center, a residential and after-school therapeutic center for at-risk youth in Afula, Israel. For nearly a decade, the center has developed significant relationships with several Jewish Federations and synagogues in Connecticut. A few months ago, she was offered a job at the Center in Afula. She accepted and next month she will leave Connecticut on a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight and make aliyah.
A native of Fair Lawn, N.J., Yassky moved to Fairfield from New York City in 1989, relocating with the illustrated-book publisher she had worked with as an editor since 1985. She raised two children, Max and Zoe; taught at Fairfield University; and eventually launched her own publishing and writing consultancy, Medici Editorial Services, LLC.
Her most recent book project was as co-editor of the forthcoming “Thin Threads: Real Stories of Hadassah Life-Changing Moments,” published in celebration of Hadassah’s centennial.
Yassky has also been an active member of the local Jewish community. She was a consultant and lecturer for the Fairfield Museum and History Center’s 2008 exhibition, “Celebrating Our Jewish Community.” She taught at Merkaz, the community high school for Judaic studies in Bridgeport, and served for several years on the Town of Fairfield Holocaust Commemoration Committee. She is a founding board member of the Jewish High School of Connecticut and a member the Eastern Fairfield County Thriving Jewish Community Initiative.
Yassky served as board secretary, both of the Seymour Hollander House in Bridgeport for low-income Jewish seniors, and of Congregation Beth El in Fairfield, where she created the Kladno Torah Research and Restoration Project, a Czech-U.S. collaboration.
Recently, the Ledger spoke with Yassky about the Children’s Center and this new phase of her life.
Q: How did you first become involved with the children’s center?
A: Three years ago, I first heard Shlomo Kessel speak at Beth El. Shlomo is the director of the center. Beth El was already a robust and dedicated supporter of the center, sending money, necessary items, and emergency funds over the last several years.
I have always been a supporter of children’s causes, and I was inspired after his talk to co-sponsor a child at the center, with my brother, for a bar-mitzvah gift.
Last summer, while visiting friends in Fairfield, Kessel mentioned that he wanted to hire a local liaison to help coordinate his visits and fundraising efforts. They said, “You must call Ellin Yassky.”
The Jewish communities that constitute the Southern New England Consortium [SNEC] of Jewish federations are paired with the Afula-Gilboa region through Partnership2Gether, a joint program with the Jewish Agency For Israel. The Sarah Herzog Children’s Center is one of several organizations in the area that enjoy relationships and exchanges with SNEC member Federations. The Israeli Young Emissary program is another program that creates a living bridge between the two regions, placing recent Israel high-school graduates from Afula-Gilboa in SNEC communities to serve as cultural and educational “ambassadors.”
With that program, we get Israel’s best, from Afula-Gilboa, but many of us don’t realize that in the same community, there are kids beset with issues they’re not responsible for. They have the same potential as all other kids, but their serendipity was to be born in a house that wouldn’t nurture them. When Shlomo asked me to consider the liaison position, I thought, isn’t it our responsibility, if we’re going to take advantage of something so positive as the Young Emissaries, that we complete the circle and give something back?
Q: How did you become an accidental immigrant?
A: Over the last year, Shlomo and I have developed a deep mutual respect and strong working relationship.
On one of his visits to Fairfield a few months ago, I told him that I was at a turning point in my life. He said, “I’m just going to throw this out: If you’re interested in coming to work at the center, I’ll create a job for you.”
The idea was so huge: a job opportunity and a potential to make a difference. I had wanted to move into the non-profit world and didn’t know how, and Shlomo added the other part – aliya – which hadn’t been obvious to me. I said, “Why not?”
I’ve been to Israel several times, my kids have been; Zoe went to high school in Israel for a semester. We have a lot of friends there. I find it to be a place of endless beauty and wonder and history and potential. I went home to do the “Column A and Column B” exercise people tell you you have to do. When I looked at my CV, I realized that all my volunteer work has been in the Jewish community, and most of the books I’ve edited are on Judaica. I thought, if I never had to worry about making a living, what would I really like to do? And the answer was: something where I can make a difference, to not only fill my pockets but to also fill my soul.
I will continue on as U.S. liaison for the center and serve as the director of development, a newly created position.
Q: What is the aliya process like?
A: I went to the Nefesh B’Nefesh website and it’s like Legos; you just follow the instructions. The website is a remarkable resource, even if people are just thinking about aliya, there are webinars that go through everything – finding an apartment, finding a school, retiring, finances – it’s so organized and to the point. Nobody is trying to sell you anything, because you’re already sold.
You fill in your checkmarks and submit your online application, then go for your first interview at Nefesh B’Nefesh and get your immigrant card and a “sal klita,” a financial grant from the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption. I’m part of the Nefesh B’Nefesh “Go North” program, which provides some extra attention and care in terms of helping with settling in, and they give you a little more financial assistance. From there, you have the final interview at the Jewish Agency. One of the scariest things was when they take your passport, which they need to do in order to get you your visa. That was a weird feeling, a moment when my decision felt real.
I leave on July 2 and a representative from Nefesh B’Nefesh will accompany me. When we land, she will take me right to the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption office at the airport, where I will choose my medical insurance program and my bank, and receive a taxi voucher. I don’t know any other country in the world where, when you come in, they get all excited and go all out and throw a party – it’s a real event.
Q: You’re at a point in your life where many people would be tentative about making such a big change. What makes you so adventurous?
A: How many people, at this point in their lives, get to just start over? I know it will be difficult, and there will be days where I think, “What the heck did I do?” But I so admire the Sarah Herzog staff, especially after the recent fire in one of the residence halls [on June 10]. I understand their dedication and bravery, and I can’t imagine the amount of guts it took to run into a building and grab the kids. Why wouldn’t I want to work in an environment like that, one of absolute, clear dedication and purpose?
Finally, having a doctorate and having English-language skills and communications skills
will work for me rather than against me, rather than “You’re overqualified and there are a lot of people looking for work, honey.”
There’s so much potential for me to learn, and to acquire and hone the talents and skills I’ll need to make the difference. I feel like I’m 20, about to go into college and start a new life.
Recently, a woman asked me whether I’d been looking for this kind of work. I told her that I was looking and this fell into my arms. She said, “Then this is bashert, and this is the work for you.” I believe I will see that everything that has happened up until now has been a precursor, setting the stage, getting me ready to do something wonderful, and I’m so grateful that this work is what that something is.”