The coincidences of life and the journey for freedom came full circle at the 11th annual Hanukkah menorah lighting ceremony in Downtown Coral Gables.
There, Igor Gridenko, a young man about to graduate law school, shared the honor of lighting a candle with Assistant Miami-Dade County Attorney Jeffrey Poppel.
The two found out only recently they had something in common other than a love of law.
Poppel was a young law clerk in 1989, working voluntarily in Italy for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, when the then-10-year-old Gridenko and his family managed to escape the Soviet Union.
Poppel’s job was to write appeals for Soviet Jews who had been denied permission to enter the United States as refugees.
“He helped hundreds of Soviet Jews escape to freedom,” said attorney Spencer Aronfeld, Poppel’s friend from their days at the University of Miami School of Law.
Each year, Aronfeld helps bring the Festival of Lights event to Coral Gables. He co-hosts with Rabbi Avrohom Stolik, and his wife Chany, of Chabad of Downtown Coral Gables.
How the adult Gridenko managed to meet and thank one of the people who helped Soviet Jews leave Soviet Russia is one of those twists of fate.
Gridenko, who will graduate this month from Florida International University College of Law, became interested in helping the homeless through Lawyers to the Rescue. There he met Aronfeld, a trial lawyer and founder of the free legal clinic.
Gridenko started working as an intern with Aronfeld and told his story of escape. For Aronfeld the idea of a meeting, between his law school friend Poppel and his young intern Gridenko, was born.
Aronfeld didn’t tell either man until the night before the event that they would be lighting the candle together. And when they did Aronfeld said he could barely stay composed.
“Igor can now enjoy the freedoms here. When they lit the candle together, I was moved to tears,” he said.
Gridenko said it was very exciting to meet one of the lawyers who helped. “We left with two suitcases and a duffle bag. Now I can appreciate my parents’ sacrifices.”
He said he and his mother, father and older sister traveled from their home in Kiev, Ukraine, to Vienna to spend three weeks before heading to Rome for three months of waiting for visas to enter the United States.
Gridenko said he plans to take the bar exam in February.
“Igor is to be commended for adjusting successfully to a new country, to the point where he'll graduate from law school and then, as an attorney, uphold the rule of law — precisely what was absent in so many ways in the former Soviet Union,” Poppel said.
“It was a privilege and honor to be a participant in this important chapter of Jewish history, the rescue of Soviet Jewry,” he said.
Holiday family fun had a classic flair at the recent Pinecrest Gardens’ Holiday Wonderland. Dancers with Maria Verdeja School of the Arts performed excerpts from The Nutcracker and musicians with the Greater Miami Youth Symphony and Jazz Band played for event visitors. The Banyan Bowl’s geodesic dome also rang with applause for the South Florida Boys Choir and the Miami Children’s Theatre.
Ani Mestre and Douglas Garcia visited with their toddler and infant for holiday family time.
“There is something here for everyone in our family. We are enjoying high-caliber performing arts and seeing a beautiful lights display. Our 6-year-old daughter also gets to enjoy herself in the bounce houses and playing with friends,” said Mestre, who lives in Coral Gables.
The many children’s activities included writing letters to Santa. Little ones also dunked holiday cookies in milk, played on a giant trampoline, took pony rides and practiced rock climbing.
The fun continues on select nights through Jan. 6 from 6 to 9 p.m. The schedule for Live Like Bella Nights of Lights, where Pinecrest Gardens is illuminated with thousands of lights and animated characters and animals, can be found at www.pinecrestgardens.org. Pinecrest Gardens is at 11000 Red Rd.
Congratulations to the young artists awarded for their work at the ninth annual Quest for Peace Juried Art Exhibition held at Miami Dade College Kendall Campus Main Gallery.
The campus’ Department of Art and the Rotary Club of Miami Dadeland Pinecrest hosted the event. It is supported by donations and sales of ceramics by Ilajean Horwitz and is held each year in memory of her late husband philosopher, artist and Rotarian Robert Horwitz.
The mission of the exhibition is “to promote awareness for peace across the globe.”
First prize, for the installation Pillars of Peace went to Julio Cabanelas and Eric Oyanadel. First prize for ceramics was for Dinnerware Set by Karim Gabriela Cuevas. Exposed Writer #5 by Daniel Maya won first prize for drawing.
Enlighten Up! by Marilyn Montoto won first prize for painting.
At the awards reception, John Adkins, chairperson of the Arts and Philosophy Department, thanked all those involved. Joe Stephen, president of the hosting Rotary Club, said that its members are involved in giving back to the community and encouraged the students to do that, too. One of the judges, William Tuttle, commented on the high quality of the work.
Ilajean Horwitz said her husband would have been pleased that the students gained inspiration from his painting Quest for Peace. She and artist Patricia Tuttle also served as judges.
The exhibition will continue through Dec. 18 at the campus gallery at SW 113th Place and SW 104th Street. For more information, call the Department of Art at 305-237-2281. Admission is free.