After Murder, Yemeni Jews Arrive in N.Y. Enclave

By Michael Casper

Published July 15, 2009, issue of July 24, 2009.
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Seven Yemeni Jews, refugees from the heightened tensions in their homeland, have arrived in New York and begun settling into new lives amid the Orthodox community in Monsey. They are the first wave of what could be as many as 113 Yemeni Jews who are expected to immigrate to the United States, some as early as August 3.

The refugees, a couple with their infant daughter and a woman with three children, were met July 6 at JFK International Airport in Queens by relatives and representatives from Jewish organizations that have spearheaded their move, including the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg (in Brooklyn), the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and FEGS Health and Human Services System.

The recent concern for the safety of the tiny number of Jews remaining in Yemen stems from the December 2008 murder of a respected Jewish community leader. Moshe Yaish Nahari was slain in Raidah, Yemen, and a Yemeni Muslim man was sentenced to death in the high-profile case.

In June, the Jewish Agency for Israel coordinated the immigration of 16 Jews to Israel. Though a political tug-of-war ensued earlier this year between Jewish groups over whether Yemeni Jews should be moved to Israel or to the United States, many Jews in Yemen have relatives abroad, and some say they will choose their destination based on where their families live.

Although Yemen was once home to about 60,000 Jews, the vast majority of them were evacuated to the State of Israel in 1949 and 1950. By the late 1980s, only 1,500 Jews were left in Yemen, and more than 1,000 of those, too, moved to Israel or the United States. Most of those who remain — estimates range from 250 to 400 — have resisted repeated entreaties to leave Yemen, despite periodic threats from neighboring Muslims over the years.

The refugees who arrived in Monsey, a section of the town of Ramapo that is about an hour’s drive north of New York City, are living in apartments provided by their beneficiary organizations. Monsey, a hilly suburb with many Orthodox Jews, has an established Yemenite community of about a dozen large families. While many speak Arabic and Hebrew at home, they also know Yiddish, the Orthodox lingua franca and the language of instruction at Monsey’s private Jewish schools, as well as English. Yemenite families are spread out throughout the town, and some walk for up to an hour on the Sabbath to attend their community’s house of prayer, Midrash Teman, in the book-lined basement of the Yemenite rabbi’s home.

A representative of the Yemenite community of Monsey who would not give his name said that he did not want the latest refugees talking to the media while they are still undergoing the immigration process.

Moshe Jaradi, who was friends with Nahari and whose first cousin was one of the refugees who arrived July 6, said that it is becoming increasingly difficult to live a fully realized Jewish life in Yemen. “You can’t live over there,” said the 23-year-old father of three in an interview in the living room of his apartment in Monsey. Jaradi, who sought asylum in the United States eight years ago, cited in particular the lack of respect that some Muslims have for Jews.

Jaradi spoke highly of Monsey, citing its safety and the availability of kosher food. But unlike his home country, the United States has taxes, insurance and high rent. Even after eight years, he said, “it’s still hard to live.” For the Jews coming from Yemen, including, he hopes, his own father, the path ahead is “going to be very hard.”

Contact Michael Casper at casper@forward.com


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