Our Huynh Family
These words were presented on Shabbat Vayera (Fri, Oct 30, 2015) as part of “Throwback Shabbat: The 60s and 70s,” a 50th anniversary celebration of Woodlands Community Temple.
Beginning in December of 2010, the world watched with extravagant hope as the Arab Spring protests brought with them the possibility for democracy taking root across the Middle East. While Tunisia has succeeded in adopting a new constitution and electing a parliament, by the spring of 2011 Syria had plummeted into civil war. In the north, the Free Syrian Army receives support from the U.S., to the east ISIS continues its fanatical drive, elsewhere other armies have sprung up, while the Syrian army itself, backed by Russia, Iran and Iraq, attempts to battle them all.
As of September, the civil war has created more than four million refugees seeking safety and asylum elsewhere. Most are in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq while thousands have fled to more-distant countries. Turkey has the greatest number of refugees – 2.1 million. The European Union has approved a plan to take in 120,000 refugees. Israel, always in a tenuous and even precarious relationship with Syria, has chosen to send humanitarian aid by way of Jordan. And the United States has pledged billions in humanitarian aid and 100,000 entrance visas.
I’ll come back to this, but first I want to take a look backward with you, to the year 1979. Still a young congregation, in 1979 Woodlands had some 300 families, 30 families on the waiting list, 400 kids in the religious school, a six-year-old sanctuary (the one we knocked down thirteen years ago), and a plan to renovate the old building by bringing all offices downstairs from the second floor, creating seven classrooms upstairs, expanding the Sanctuary to provide an office for the Cantor and, underneath the Sanctuary, a Youth Lounge. Things don’t always work out as planned.
Notable events from around the world in 1979 include: the U.S. resumed full diplomatic relations with China, Ohio agreed to compensate the families of those who were injured and died in the Kent State shootings, the Shah fled and the Ayatollah rose to power in Iran, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin shook hands and signed a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal.
A few years earlier, in 1975, President Gerald Ford had declared the end of the Vietnam War as Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese and Communist rule. From then until 1995, nearly 800,000 South Vietnamese refugees fled by boat, seeking political asylum throughout Southeast Asia. By 1978 and 1979, their numbers had grown so large that nearby borders were closed and an international humanitarian crisis began. Western nations cracked open their doors and over time 200,000 of these “boat people” came to the United States.
In 1979, one of those families – Kim Ly Huynh and three of her children – came to us. Here’s how it happened.
Then rabbi of Woodlands, Peter Rubinstein, had reached out to HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society). HIAS had originally assisted Jewish families fleeing 19th century persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe, working out of Ellis Island and the Lower East Side to resettle newly-arrived Jewish immigrants. Toward the end of the 20th century, HIAS was expanding their efforts to include assistance for non-Jewish refugees in the aftermath of conflicts in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Czechoslovakia, Haiti, Iran, Morocco, Tunisia and many more. Vietnam was on their list.
Peter signed us up to assist with the boat people and work was to begin a month or two down the road. But a call came in that very same day announcing that a family was in the air and was soon to arrive at JFK airport. Details are murky, but corroborating reports place Gerry Weingast at the airport to pick them up. Gerry drove Kim Ly, the mom, along with three of her children – Nganh (her daughter), Tich-Ha and Tich-Boi (the two boys) – to the home of Amy and Morry Stein, who ran Camp Echo Lake and therefore (or so Amy tells me) Peter felt they were uniquely qualified to bring a family into their home. It was supposed to just be for a weekend while housing was secured for them elsewhere. But Amy felt a powerful surge of duty and mitzvah, and persuaded her family to keep the Huynhs with them for six months. Amy’s thinking was that Kim Ly and her children had much to learn and it would be easier with the stability of one place to stay and an American family to guide them along the way.
Of course, the Steins were in no way alone in this monumental project. The entire congregation got involved, donating time, goods and services to assist the Huynhs. Morry made passionate appeals to the congregation. Irwin Miller, Mel Oppenheim, Don Moskovitz and Stephen Stein all provided much-needed dental services, as well as heroic efforts to keep these otherwise incredibly well-behaved children from screaming their heads off. Ron Reiss helped them find an apartment. Joel Walker served as project leader, providing legal services as well as a steady, patient and unflappable presence in their lives. In many respects, Joel became a surrogate father. Iris and Nat Adler arranged for a different temple family to host the Huynhs each night for dinner, and for weekend activities to keep them busy and to help acclimate them to American life. Nat helped with taxes. Eileen Stein became Kim Ly’s friend and confidant, and her entire family became the Huynh’s extended family.
Of course, once an apartment was secured, Woodlands fell all over itself contributing furnishings and supplies so that the Huynhs could begin their new life in earnest.
The kids were enrolled in area schools, including Rye Country Day and the White Plains school. They were sent to summer camp: Tich-ha and Tick-boi to Echo Lake, others went elsewhere. Nganh loved walking Amy and Morry’s dog Max who, in return, came to love Nganh. And Kim Ly went to night school, learning English and earning a license in cosmetology.
Thus, the early years of their new lives moved forward.
Down the road something quite surprising happened. Because of the language barrier, no one originally knew that Kim Ly had a fourth child. Tich-duong, the eldest and the one in whom their original hopes for survival had been invested, was the first to leave Vietnam, sent by his parents with a gold bar and a close family friend to seek refuge in Hong Kong. Relieved of the gold, Tich-duong was abandoned in Hong Kong and forced to survive on his own. But survive he did. And when temple members learned of Tich-duong’s existence, they jumped into action, working with HIAS to try and rescue this child. Andy Block, who was working for Citibank, reached out to the affiliate there. Tich-duong was found, and brought to America for a reunion with his family. Amazingly, as he stepped off the plane to greet his family and soon-to-be new friends, he brought gifts with him. This one had the knack for survival.
In time, the children grew into adulthood and built lives of their own. Nganh attended college, earning a PhD in Biology & Biomedical Sciences from Virginia Commonwealth University. Tich-ha attended Pace University and completed his degree at Westchester Community College. Tich-duong attended Skidmore College. And Tich-boi went to Brandeis where he earned a BA in biochemistry and biology.
Today, Nganh works for the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, DC. Tich-ha is a realtor here in New York and has two kids of his own. Tich-boi and Tich-duong are both IT guys. Tich-boi lives in Boston and has a 5½-year-old child named Jacob who loves to read, especially “Magic School Bus,” and adores playing with the iPad. Tich-duong works for a mutual fund company in Connecticut.
Eventually, Tich-duong bought the White Plains apartment for his mom so she’ll never have to worry about a place to live ever again. Today, Kim Ly owns a nail salon in Elmsford and also works as a crossing guard in White Plains. All of them are United States citizens.
Kim Ly’s husband never made it out of Vietnam. He died there.
As the family became increasingly independent, the temple’s involvement in their lives lessened. The Chai Fund, which had been established to raise money to help the Huynhs, was repurposed a few years ago as the name for our General Fund. The Steins, the Adlers and Amy Stein became and remain the closest of friends, and they remain in touch with the Huynhs to this day.
Peter wrote me the following: “In many ways we got back from the family more than we could ever give. It was beyond saving life. It was saving a family. It was enacting the Jewish values about which we always talk but rarely engage so fully. It was watching heroic members of Woodlands putting themselves out beyond expectation or compare. It was about a synagogue realizing the fulfillment of a mission, the core of their identity, the blessing of our nation and our faith. The Hyunhs helped us become a greater, more loving and caring and noble family.”
In this 50th year of our temple’s life, it is with tremendous pride that we remember all that was done for the Huynh family. We have always strived to be a caring community. Frequently, we demonstrate that through social justice activities, community service projects, and inreach to offer compassion and love for our own. It’s a major part of why we love this place so deeply. And it continues to be a driving force behind temple involvement for so many.
Which brings me back to the Syrian refugee crisis. With 100,000 visas approved, a whole lot of Syrian families are on their way. Like Peter before me, I reached out to HIAS and asked if we can help. With one-room apartments in Manhattan renting at a minimum of $3000 a month and luxury apartments topping out at $80 million, it should come as no surprise to learn that New York isn’t really where HIAS or any other resettlement organization wants to spend their money. Most of the refugees are headed for Texas, Ohio and Michigan – places they can find homes and futures.
So what can we do? HIAS and others have set the following three goals for themselves. One, to address the needs of the most vulnerable by committing to welcoming 100,000 add’l Syrian refugees into our country. Two, address the needs of refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan by committing as much humanitarian aid as possible. And three, elevate the Syrian conflict so that it is viewed and responded to by our government as a critical foreign policy issue. This will include petitioning the President to take bold leadership, to engage our member of Congress who will be the ones to decide the funding for assistance.
HIAS and other organizations are asking three things of us. First, to get involved with advocacy efforts that aim to have our nation’s leaders commit resources and immigration visas to saving Syrian lives. Two, finding out if there are any resettling activities in our area and doing what we can – through donations and volunteering – to help. And lastly, signing onto websites like hias.org to donate our dollars in support of their efforts.
There are security issues to be managed in bringing Syrian refugees to the United States. No doubt, our government will be supervising that very closely. Interesting and, admittedly, somewhat off-putting is the notion of us – Jewish men, women and children – extending ourselves to help Syrians, people from a nation that has never brokered a peace with Israel and certainly has a history of treating its Jewish citizens miserably.
But what can we do? The rules of tzedakah and of gemilut hasadim don’t say, “Help someone only if they are your friend.” Judaism teaches us to help anyone in their moment of need.
And this is where I end. Once upon a time, Woodlands Community Temple did what it could to help strangers. In the time since, we have done similar things more times than any of us can count. The question is, this time, when it’s the Syrians, will we step forward to help?
In this week’s parasha, Abraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent when three strangers arrive. He runs to greet them, runs to prepare food for them, and runs to help them feel as comfortable as possible on whatever journey they are taking. Such a wonderful message for us this week. When strangers approach, our ancestors – Abraham and Sara from millennia ago, and the families of this temple from decades ago – opened the flaps of their tent. Opened them wide. And said, “Come in. Naturally, come in.”