by Vivian Henoch

When we talk about “journeys of a lifetime,” generally we bring up sunny adventures, travelling far and wide with friends and family. Rarely do we connect those “life-changing” experiences with people who have been driven from the discomfort of their homes, displaced to destinations unknown and often unfriendly. In Detroit, where the Jewish community has deep roots, it’s easy to forget that we’ve all come from somewhere else, thanks to past generations in search of a better life. . . thanks to the courage, hard work, determination and positive energy of people like Yuliya Gaydayenko.

Imagine coming to America from Moscow 20 years ago. Arriving with your family, with little more than the clothing on your back, a two-year-old son in your arms and a second child on the way, due to be born any day. This is Yuliya Gaydayenko’s story – best told in her own words:

On coming to America

“In 1995, anti-Semitic outbursts were on the rise in the streets of Moscow. I was a young mom, concerned about my growing family and, after many months of discussion, finally convinced my mother, my sister and husband to leave Russia. We had to bribe the Soviet officials to get our passports, and by the time we finally got them, I was eight months pregnant with my second child. We ended up flying Finnair, because no other airline would put me on a plane. It seems funny to me now, but at the time I was terrified I’d have the baby in the air — a Finnish citizen — who wouldn’t be allowed to enter anywhere!

Yuliya Gaydayenko
“As a third generation Muscovite, I had no religion in my life to speak of, and suddenly there we were, totally dependent on the kindness of people at the Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Services.”

“We were what they call a ‘free case.’

“Though my uncle lived in New York, we could stay and live with him only if my family paid $500 per person. There were five of us and we didn’t have that kind of money. So we said, “Okay, we’ll go wherever the community takes free cases, which meant we would not have a local host family. So they sent us to Flint, Michigan, one of the few communities that took free cases at the time.”

On Jewish life in the heart of Michigan

“Of course we didn’t know the first thing about Flint, or that much at all about Judaism, for that matter. As a third generation Muscovite, I had no religion in my life to speak of, and suddenly there we were, totally dependent on the kindness of people at the Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Services – the only two Jewish agencies in town. They put us in a furnished apartment, stocked with groceries for a few days; everything was different, there was so much to learn. In Flint, there were three synagogues serving a shrinking Jewish population of about 2,000. But it was amazing. Suddenly we had all these wonderful friends and families willing to help us out.

“I’ll never forget the invitation to our first Shabbat dinner with the family assigned to be our anchor in the community. I had to call and cancel — and tell them that I was in the hospital having a baby! Our hosts were from the Orthodox community and so gracious. Of course, we didn’t have a car, and immediately discovered you couldn’t go anywhere in Flint without a car.  Our hosts offered to drive to the hospital on Shabbat to pick us up — they insisted that they be there for us, because they considered us a part of their family!

“So, when I’m asked what’s moved me to become an active part of the Jewish community, I always think back to our first experience in the Flint Jewish community. It’s played a huge part. In Russian culture, volunteerism doesn’t really exist. I was truly moved by people opening their homes and hearts to us, devoting their time to helping us. They didn’t know us — our English was not so good, but they were really warm and welcoming.” 

On culture shock and working through it

Remarkably, within a decade of resettling her young family, Yuliya earned her B.A., then a Masters in Social Work, all the while working for the Jewish agencies that initially welcomed her to Flint. Ultimately, she became Executive Director of Jewish Community Services, a position she held for five years before moving to Jewish Family Service of Metropolitan Detroit (JFS) in 2008. Looking back on those first years in Michigan, she reflects:

“I believe that matching us with our anchor family – people who really wanted to help us become part of the community – was vitally important to helping us discover our Jewish identity. People were so giving of their time and resources; it didn’t take us long to feel at home and truly part of a new family. I learned firsthand what the Jewish community is, working at its best.”

On the flip side, there was still so much to learn about living in the U.S.  Even a simple trip to the grocery store posed a challenge. Fortunately there was a gentleman volunteer who took us shopping on the weekend and helped to translate the packaged food for us. Take sour cream: I could translate the words on the carton, but had no idea what “sour” cream was. And Wonder Bread? Was this really what Americans eat? Fortunately we had a little coaching to help us find good bread at a Jewish bakery.

Beyond all the assistance we were getting from the community, we still had to make a living. I had no idea what I was going to do with my Russian education, but I knew that my degree in Russian literature was not going to be really helpful here and that I needed to go back to school.

At the time, I felt I didn’t have enough English to start a graduate degree. So, I worked through my Associates and Bachelors degrees first in Linguistics. Ironically, once I got into graduate school, I noticed how many foreign students were getting by with barely any English. But in many ways, all that schooling has paid off, because it offered me a good way to understand the community. And it gave me time to make the connections I needed in work-study programs.

On Jewish Family Service

From Flint to metro Detroit, Yuliya made another successful leap. When asked what motivated her to make the move to JFS and what keeps her growing in her career, she answered unequivocally . . .

“I love my job!

“I’ve been here seven years. I love working in the community that’s helped us. I love helping the Russian Jewish community, making a difference in lives. I love that working as a community we provide so many services to ensure that people have what they need. That’s my passion.

“For me, it’s all a part of giving back. I’m here to stay. Metro Detroit is home.”

 On biggest surprises

“So many! But in particular, I was just amazed when I got here, to see how well American society treats people with disabilities. In Russia, you do not see people with disabilities on the street. There’s no access for people to utilize transit and no ramps to get in and out of buildings, apartments and schools. What we have here is what society should look like. Everybody should be able to get out of the house and be engaged with community.”

On greatest challenges since moving to Detroit

“Besides driving in Detroit traffic? I think the greatest challenge for me was to learn the sheer number of social service agencies and resources available here in the metro Detroit area. It took a while to become conversant in what JFS does – and how this one agency can do so much to support the community. It was just amazing for me to see how organized this Jewish community is.”

On proudest moments

“I would say one of the proudest moments in my career was the first time I got a $1.5 million grant at JFS to support the transportation program. When I started working there, JFS was considering a significant cut to the program, because they didn’t have the resources to keep up with the needs. With that first grant, we were able not only to save the program, but to grow it. From nine drivers to the 12 drivers (and 15 vehicles) we have now.

“I believe specialized transportation for the frail and elderly is and will continue to be a huge need in our community. Today we work within the Jewish community as well as the general community — and our program is exceptional because we provide door through door service across county lines, more than 30,000 rides a year. Most agencies in the area aren’t able to accommodate that range of service.

Yuliya Gaydayenko
“I love my job! I’ve been here seven years. I love working in the community that’s helped us.”

“I’m also proud of the geriatric program here at JFS. When I started, there were seven geriatric care managers. Today we have 13. The community is aging and we need more support services in place, and professionals who can assess those needs and really understand resources out there for people to use.

“And in terms of planning for the future of geriatric programs and services for the community, the Jewish Federation continues to be our number one supporter – through its Annual Campaign allocation.”

On the Berman Award

“It was an honor to be recognized this year, but I feel that I share this award with many others at JFS who have done so much for the agency and the community.  I must mention Norm Keane (former JFS Executive Director) who hired me and JFS Executive Director, Perry Ohren; both have been mentors to me. Additionally, there have been three other Berman awardees before me: Ellen Yashinsky Chute, Senior Director of Behavioral Health Services who received the award in 2010; two other recipients were JFS Executive Director Samuel Lerner (z”l) and JFS Associate Executive Director Margaret Weiner(z”l).

“On the occasion of receiving the Berman I was most gratified to have the opportunity to speak to some of the leaders in the community about our services – home-based geriatric care, transportation, care management – these are our greatest needs and they never go away. We’re doing all we can, but we know it’s never enough.”

Next big thing?

“Mind Aerobics classes! It’s something we’ve been thinking about for a long time at Jewish Family Service and, now in partnership with JVS, we are launching Mind Aerobics as part of a larger Cognitive Wellness initiative: Mind University.  The concept is modeled on an innovative science-based program developed by the New England Cognitive Center to help older adults maintain brain health or even sharpen cognitive function.

We’ve invested about three years of our own research in designing the program, investigating best practices in geriatric cognitive training and brain health. With a grant from The Jewish Fund, we currently are the only certified trainers in the country.

What we envision for this program will have a huge impact in providing the community resources, strategies and programs for pro-active, healthy aging.”

Q&A Snapshot

An outgoing and outspoken advocate for the community, hitting her stride at JFS, Yuliya Gaydayenko strikes one as the consummate Jewish professional, caring deeply for the well-being of her clients.  Beyond her career caring for her “family” of older adults, Yuliya has raised a beautiful family of her own. Ivan 23, and Elizabeth, 20, are both in college; Alex, 15, is a sophomore at Rochester High School.

Favorite season in Michigan: Summer!

Favorite places to take kids or visitors: Detroit Eastern Market, Cranbook house and gardens, DIA, Michigan Science Center

Favorite vacation place:  Up North, Traverse City

Favorite sport:  Hockey  (“I’ve spent nearly half my life – 17 years –  watching my sons on the ice.)

Favorite holiday: New Year’s. It’s a Russian thing, an all-night celebration, lots of singing and dancing!

Favorite Jewish Food: Traditional honey cake (I have my grandmother’s recipe.)

Never leave home without:  My phone

Guilty pleasure:  Reading! (Books that are not challenging and can be enjoyed with “fried brain” after a long day at work.)

Words to live by:  “Can’t Means Won’t. It’s a Marathon, not a Sprint.”

Reading now: Two Russian authors: Dina Ilyinichna Rubina (Russian-Israeli  prose writer) and Tatyana Tolstaya (TV host, publicist and novelist from the Tolstoy family)

Fun Fact:  I swear in Russian when I drive.