The SS Zeeland and the State Budget

This Friday, a message from Director of Government Affairs Aaron Agulnek. 

I recently received an old government document with notations written in cursive that I could not quite decipher, along with a yellowed photograph depicting a ship, reminiscent of the Titanic, but nowhere near as grand. Entitled, “List or Manifest of Alien Passengers for the United States,” the document included the names of passengers sailing from Antwerp and arriving in New York City on December 6th, 1911. On line 21 was an entry I made out to be “Zunke Goldberg,” age three, who apparently traveled with a four-year-old sibling and her mother. Zunke, or Celia as I knew her, was my late grandmother, and the photo was the ship that brought her and her family to America: the SS Zeeland.

I remember asking her as a little kid to share the experience with me. She seemed like a superhero to me, but I could not really comprehend the details: she fled her homeland; traveled in steerage; met a “stranger” who took her away on the crowded hectic docks (her father who she hadn’t seen in a year and could not remember); and began life in a new land. She talked about the struggles of poverty, antisemitism, and nationalism; some of the very same challenges facing today’s freedom-seekers from different lands.

But it was not just the challenges that she shared. She also spoke about the role of community, about the social service networks who supported her and her family: the community activists from all walks of life, the politicians and public servants who cared deeply for her family and their neighbors while they struggled to get a toehold. It was those stories that brought me to JCRC, where I could play a role to develop a robust social service network that buoys the immigrant, the unemployed, the senior, and the impoverished.  

A few weeks ago, Governor Charlie Baker signed the Massachusetts State Budget, with JCRC’s imprint and values firmly affixed. This was a historic budget for our community, one that increased the public investment in our priorities to $8 million, while recognizing the value of partnership, community, and shared humanity.

Here are some of the quick highlights:

Job Training & Education

  • $1,250,000 for the Employment Service Program for Immigrants and Refugees, which provides English-based job training and placement services for recent immigrants and refugees.
  • $250,000 for Transitions to Work, an innovative job training model for young adults with disabilities.
  • $500,000 for Bridges to College, which provides college prep to individuals seeking careers with opportunities for advancement. The budget also included a $250,000 earmark for Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) to expand its innovative programming.
  • Continuity funding for the MA Pathways to Economic Advancement Initiative, which will increase employment opportunities for limited English speakers and help them progress up the economic ladder by providing workforce development services.

Seniors

  • $856,000 for Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs), to bring wellness programs and socialization services directly to seniors, allowing them to remain in their homes and communities.

Combatting Hatred

  • $500,000 for the Non-Profit Security Grants, a pilot which provides vital security enhancements to Jewish communal infrastructure at increased risk of threat.

Anti-Poverty

  • $2,000,000 for the Secure Jobs Initiative, for homeless families to increase their level of economic self-sufficiency.

These programs and initiatives are, in part, the manifestations of our traditions and values operating in a pluralistic society. We never forget that we were once strangers in a strange land, and we know that we all thrive when today’s strangers are provided the same opportunities that helped us integrate and succeed in this country. It is vitally important for us to remember our past, while pushing for a better future for all.

Seeing the photo of the very ship which carried my grandmother to safety in America provided me with a newfound perspective about why people sacrifice everything they know for freedom. My family crossed a vast ocean, with their most precious cargo, their 3-year-old daughter, packed into the overcrowded, dark, and damp steerage, to escape to a foreign land. They took this unfathomable risk, believing in their family’s future in their adopted land—a dream now realized through me and my own children. We will honor their sacrifice, and those who are like them today, by fighting for justice and opportunity.

Shabbat Shalom,

Aaron