Volunteer Profile: Ken Obel

Volunteer Profile: Ken Obel

HIAS (founded as Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) Immigration & Citizenship volunteer Ken Obel’s reason for honoring the Jewish value of ‘helping the stranger’ began long before he was born.

“Like most people’s in this country, my family story involves immigrants, and for Jewish people, it’s often not that long ago,” said Ken.

Ken explained that his maternal grandfather, Saul Bly, his older sister, and his older brother were sent from an orphanage in a contested area of Ukraine to live with relatives in the United States in 1921. Their parents died during the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1919, and HIAS helped them resettle in New York.

The first time Ken helped an immigrant stranger was also in New York. It was just after his college graduation when there was an influx of Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union. He mentored a family and taught them life skills such as taking public transportation, where to shop for groceries, how to pay bills, etc.

Ken explained, “You have the satisfaction of knowing that pretty much every single thing you do to help – especially at the early stages – is enormously important.”

Now, 30 years later and living in greater Chicago, Ken is helping again in a similar role – this time alongside his wife, Jennifer, and their 17-year-old daughter, Hannah. They are currently mentoring two refugee households – a man from Senegal and a family from Afghanistan who are being sponsored by Temple Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette. The Afghan family includes a married couple and three girls under the age of four who love hanging out with Hannah during visits.

“I look at them, and I think, these girls are really lucky compared to the future that they would face in Afghanistan right now,” Ken said. “Now, they’ll grow up to be American girls just like mine.”

The Obels have been instrumental in helping the men find employment in their prior career fields. The Senegalese man, a chef, now works at a downtown Chicago French restaurant. The Afghan father is an autobody technician who is employed at a Highland Park collision center.

It’s particularly rewarding when you can help people find work. I think that’s important to a newcomer’s sense self-reliance and belonging,” he added.

Finally, a sense of belonging in their new country, their new city, and their new home thanks to those willing to help a stranger – like Ken Obel.