Reprinted from the Southern Jewish Heritage with permission from the Jewish Historical Society of Memphis and the Mid-South.

“You can’t be happy in an unhappy country,” said Alexander Ilyin, a retired electrical engineer who came to Memphis from the Former Soviet Union more than 20 years ago. “Anti Semitism permeated everything.”

“In Russia, no one smiles – in America, in Memphis – everyone smiles, “ said Vladimir Voin, owner of Cobblestone Shoe Repair in Sanderlin Center.

Yet, for Mila Savarnaskaya of Moscow, leaving also was a challenge. “You miss your friends, the smell of birch trees after the rain, she said.”

These people are part of the The Exodus Project, which is documenting the story of Jews who came to Memphis from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) during the latter part of the 20th and early 21st century. Volunteers are also recording the stories of the people who helped in their resettlement during and after the great Soviet Jewry Movement to free Soviet Jews.

On October 15, 2015, the Memphis Jewish Federation’s Fedovation Committee approved a generous grant to the Jewish Historical Society of Memphis and the Mid-South (JHS) for The Exodus Project to collect these stories. Seventh and eighth graders from Bornblum Jewish Community School, the Margolin Hebrew Academy (MHA) and throughout the Jewish community are playing a role in the project along with adult volunteers who are helping to interview participants, connect and listen to their stories and record their findings. Through this experience they are learning about this important era in Jewish history, understanding the impact of a communal effort, as well as the mitzvah of hospitality and welcoming newcomers and immigrants.

Jennifer Campbell and the staff at the Temple Israel Archives are downloading the iPad video recordings and having them transcribed.

During April 2017, The Exodus Project will culminate with a special Exhibition at the Memphis Jewish Community Center, Memphis Jews From the FSU- From the Iron Curtain to the Bible Belt. The exhibition will tell the story of multiple generations of diverse Jews who came to Memphis and were part of the mass Exodus from the FSU. Highlights of the exhibition will include family and community photographs, excerpts from interviews and stories, documents, personal objects and hands-on experiential learning.

The Exodus Project is a collaboration of the JHS of Memphis and the Mid-South, Bornblum Jewish Community School, Jewish Family Service at the MJCC, MHA, Memphis Jewish Community Center, Plough Towers and Temple Israel Archives.

If you know of someone who would like to be interviewed or if you would like to help in this project, please contact project coordinator Lynnie Mirvis at