Shpigel spent the next several years
working in a railyard.
Then in 1987, the family got a call
from Soviet officials. "We were told
we must go," Michael says.
But Nellie's mother was sick, and
for two years the family delayed the
trip until the government said they
had to go.
"We decided it would be better if
we left. They pushed us away.
Though we wanted to leave, we left
reluctantly," Michael says.
Like so many Soviet refugees,
their first stop was Vienna.
"It was like a fresh breeze," says
Michael, recalling when he got off
the plane. "People were smiling."
For the next 10 days, the Shpigels
lived in a hotel and filled out the
necessary paperwork with the help
of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Socie-
ty. Gene Smolyansky, a friend who
left the Soviet Union and settled in
Detroit a decade ago, agreed to spon-
sor the family's entry into the
The Shpigels' next stop was
Ladispoli, Italy, near Rome, where
they shared a flat with three other
Soviet families. For two months,
they wondered if they would be
allowed to go to America.
"We were never sure if we would
be accepted," Michael says. "Every
day we heard of people who had not
been accepted for no reason. We did
not want to leave Russia and not be
accepted by America."
Finally, their 10-year wait was
over — the Shpigels were on their
way to Detroit.
"For the first time in our lives we
could say we are Jewish," Michael
Denied a Jewish education, the
family had few religious experi-
ences. Michael smiles, remembering
how the rabbi of a Moscow syn-
agogue once put tefillin on his arm
and head. It was the only service he
ever attended in the Soviet Union.
Their hometown of Zaporojie had no
"All our life we wanted to be Jew-
ish," Michael says. "In Russia it's
The family got a taste of Judaism
while in Ladispoli. Every Shabbat,
Nellie Shpigel talking about her struggles to learn English.
they prayed in the synagogue. The
first service made them cry with joy.
Today, the family belongs to Con-
gregation Beth Shalom where Alex-
ander, a Berkley High School stu-
dent, studies for his bar mitzvah
with the help of an Israeli boy.
In the Soviet Union, Alexander
was hesitant to speak about his re-
ligion. "If someone approached me
and asked me if I am Jewish, I didn't
know what to say," he says.
A Jewish background would
sometimes mean a fist fight with
classmates, he says. "The teachers
did nothing to protect you."
In America, he is proud of his Jew-
ish heritage. "The Jewish people
mean so much to me," Alexander
While they are pleased with their
new religious freedom, the Shpigels
worry about the increase of anti-
Semitism in the Soviet Union.
In January, Nellie received a
letter from her sister, who said she
wanted to leave the country but
wasn't in a hurry. In another letter
last month, Nellie's sister, who has a
husband and two sons, wrote she can
no longer wait to come to Detroit.
"It's awful back home," Nellie
says. "Every day they are afraid for
Nellie hopes her sister can come
before violence breaks out. But she
worries her mother, who recently
broke her hip, can't make the trip.
Michael worries about his sister
who lives in Moscow with her fami-
ly. She isn't ready to leave yet, he
As the family speaks, they often
search for the correct English words,
sometimes speaking in Russian to
each other before finding the phrase
Of the three, Alexander had the
least problems learning English,
thanks to classes in the Soviet
Union. Michael and Nellie began
learning English in Italy. They wat-
ch television regularly, trying to
pick up the language. While Michael
is more comfortable with English,
Nellie struggles with hers.
Although her English has improv-
ed in the past few months, Nellie is
self-conscious about it. She says it
serves her right. In the Soviet Union
she would laugh at people who had
poor Russian grammar. Now she
thinks Americans must laugh at her
when they hear her speak.
Michael assures Nellie that isn't
true. Since coming to America they
have made some good friends in-
cluding Larry and Shelley Jackier.
The Shpigels met the Jackiers
through the Family to Family pro-
gram which matches American
families with Soviet refugees.
Friends have helped the Shpigels
furnish the two-bedroom apartment
off of Lincoln Road in Oak Park.
The apartment is, by American
standards, simply furnished. There
is a small entryway and closet, a
large living room filled with two
sofas, a cabinet and a television set.
There is enough space near the kit-
chen for a dining room table. In the
rear of the apartment are the two
bedrooms and bathroom.
Yet this apartment is spacious
compared to the two-room apart-
ment the Shpigels owned in the
While Michael's dream to give his
family a better life has begun to
come true, he knows he will only
succeed if he's willing to work hard.
"We know the streets aren't paved
with gold," Michael says. "You have
to do something for a good life. In the
United States you have to work
For Michael, that means long days
at Wisne Technology as an electri-
cian. It's a little different from being
an electrical engineer, but it doesn't
"It's not a problem because it's a
good start," said Michael, who land-
ed the job three months after the
family arrived in Detroit. He admits
he was worried that he couldn't find
a job, worried the allowance given to
refugee families for the first few
months by the Jewish Resettlement
Service would run out and he could
not support his family.
"It was a hard time," he says.
Michael still worries about losing
the job if things slow down and he is
laid off. He recently finished a com-
puter class in the hopes of getting a
better position. Michael's dreams of
becoming an electrical engineer
again have not died.
Nellie also had to learn a different
trade. In the Soviet Union she work-
ed in a candy factory. Today, she has
a part-time job preparing food at a
local, fast-food restaurant. Recently,
she earned the employee of the mon-
Nellie took a second job last mon-
THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS