Shelley S. Hebert
Shelley S. Hebert

Life-Changing News

In the era of instantaneous email, texts and tweets, it is hard to remember a time when a letter with life-changing news could take months or longer to reach its intended destination. Last week a digital image of just such a letter written nearly a century ago arrived in my inbox. It is a heart-rending personal connection with what is at stake for so many families affected by our current immigration nightmare.

The faded, typewritten letter was sent to my great-grandmother in August 1921 at her home in Russia from the American Consular Service at the request of a U.S. Congressman. One of her sons, a great-uncle who I did not even know existed, had been brutally murdered by rampaging Cossacks during a pogrom. The letter advised that another son living in Mobile, Alabama “wishes that you and the children of his deceased brother join him in the United States. I beg to advise you that if you succeed in reaching Riga, the Consulate will forward to the United States Government your applications for visa.”

The life-saving letter to my great-grandmother found its way to me as a result of 23andMe, where I had submitted a sample for DNA testing a few years ago following a remarkable class on Jewish genetics at Stanford. I had added surnames and place names to my account, on what I thought was the exceedingly remote chance that it might connect me with relatives also searching for family. Although my list of possible relatives on 23andMe was long, I had not contacted anyone on it. Thankfully, someone who I did not know found the surnames and reached out to me with startling news—her late father was a child of my great-uncle who was murdered during the pogrom.

Each day over the past two weeks has brought me new discoveries, original documents, images, photos and even a copy of the Yiddish newspaper article that lists all the names of those killed in the pogrom.  The same technology that threatens our rights to privacy and the integrity of our election process is helping to restore precious family ties. The month of Elul has begun with a remarkable gift and reminder of how much I owe to the courage of my great-grandmother. She was an elderly widow when these events occurred. Her name in the letter is spelled “Shemo Chafetz,” which in the U.S. became “Heifetz” and for some family members (thanks to random name changes in the immigration process),“Brook.”

She fled the pogroms of Russia with the children of her murdered son to seek safety with family members already in the United States. I was named in her memory, but until this week, I knew almost nothing about her. Now I know that she and the children were forced to wait several years in Poland after escaping from Russia before coming to the U.S. I have also been told that an organization known as HIAS founded in 1881 was involved in reuniting the family and continues to fulfill that vital mission.

How many mothers and grandmothers today are waiting for their life-changing letters? How many immigrant children are without fathers or mothers? When will the millions of us who owe our fortunate status as U.S. citizens to the bravery of past generations find the moral courage to demand that people fleeing oppression or life-threatening violence not be characterized as criminals?

Do you have a personal immigration story to share? I welcome your comments and feedback by email or on Facebook.

About the Author
Shelley has held numerous executive and board leadership roles in the San Francisco Bay Area/Silicon Valley Jewish community. She led development of the Palo Alto Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life as Executive Director, was board president of Hillel at Stanford, and has served on the advisory boards of the Jewish Chaplaincy at Stanford Medical Center, the Taube Center for Jewish Studies and the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture. At Stanford University, she was Director of Business Development and Executive Director for Public Affairs at Stanford Health Care. She began her career as a journalist. Email: