Featured Story

Shelter Island profile: Speaking with her hands from her heart

Julia Weisenberg taking a break in the middle of her workday. She no longer wears business suits or reports to a Manhattan office.
CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Julia Weisenberg taking a break in the middle of her workday. She no longer wears business suits or reports to a Manhattan office.

When Julia Weisenberg was an elementary school student on Shelter Island in the mid-1980s, her father, Bill Romanchuk, was an effective voice in the local movement that helped shut down operations at the newly constructed Shoreham nuclear power plant.

LILCO, a precursor of LIPA and PSEG, had built the facility on Long Island Sound near Riverhead. Many feared if it malfunctioned — as other nuclear power plants had — it would be impossible to evacuate the East End. Julia remembers being proud to stand next to her father at a rally.

“I thought, O.K., now my dad is going to give them hell,” she said. “He did not back down. He was a leader.”

Julia’s parents, Bill and Regina Romanchuk are gone now, but Julia said their example guides her every day and was an important factor in her 2015 decision to leave corporate life as an executive with Sorenson Communications and support her young family as a fitness coach, and most importantly, move back to the Island and live in the house where she grew up.

Born in Bellerose, Queens, Julia and her parents moved to Silver Beach when she was an infant. She remembers a rich and adventurous childhood, with daily, year-round visits to the beach near her home, exploring the airfield at Westmoreland Farm, making impressions of animal footprints, dissecting owl pellets and playing house in an area near Klenawicus Field that used to be strewn with discarded dishwashers and kitchen cabinets.

Julia has two sisters from her father’s first marriage; Lynn, who lives in South Carolina and Lori, who lives in Manhattan. Her youngest sister died as an infant of sudden infant death syndrome and her older sister Corinne, who lived on the Island, died at 29. Julia graduated in 1992 from Shelter Island High School.

In elementary school, she had a stutter that made it difficult to use the telephone, order in a restaurant, or participate in classroom discussions. Speech therapy helped her with her disability, but she kept the feeling of being vulnerable. The determination to have alternate ways of communicating motivated her to learn American Sign Language (ASL) in her teens.

At first, she said, she used ASL to communicate with the deaf parents of a high school boyfriend, but eventually her interest led her to become an interpreter, a skill she used to put herself through college.

In 1997, Julia was 24, studying at Stony Brook University and working as an interpreter, when she was called in to help with a special situation. Sixty-two deaf and mute Mexican immigrants had been discovered living in slavery in Queens and investigators needed sign language interpreters who could also understand Spanish to communicate with the victims.

The experiences related by the victims were horrific, and Julia’s work helped get them back to their lives and families.

From 1994 until 2011, she was at Stony Brook, where she finished her B.A., got an M.A. in teaching English as a Second Language, conducted research in sign language and was awarded a Ph.D. in Linguistics. She was then hired as a professor and taught ASL until moving to Manhattan to take a job at Sorenson Communications, a telecommunications company that provides telephone services for the deaf using interpreters. Julia became the manager of the company’s largest call center in Manhattan.

In 2008 she was in Moscow working as an interpreter for a group of deaf visitors, when she met Dmitri Kolmogorov, the liaison for the Russian side who was also deaf. Julia remembered it was raining. “He put up the umbrella and gave me his arm. I thought this is the kind of thing my father would do, this old world gentlemanliness,” she said. “I thought ‘I’m going to marry this man.’”

During their courtship, she flew to Russia and Dmitri flew to see her in the U.S. until they decided they were a couple and he moved to New York. Today he works as a life coach for deaf clients, helping them get interviews and practice job skills. Julia’s oldest daughter Anne, 14, by a previous marriage, goes to school on Long Island, and her daughters, Daria, 12 and Regina, 5 attend the Shelter Island School.

When Hurricane Sandy flooded lower Manhattan in 2012, the offices of Sorenson Communications at 99 Wall Street were destroyed. With call volume spiking, and the equipment destroyed, Julia had to send local employees — some of whom had lost their homes in the storm — to other Sorenson call centers across the country. Meanwhile, she had evacuated her ailing mother from Shelter Island to her New York apartment to ride out the storm in safety, and her kids were out of school.

“I had to remain calm,” she said. It took eight months to find a new office and reestablish the call center in Manhattan. In the interim, Julia had to run the center from her laptop with interpreters at remote locations.

She now teaches “PiYo,” a kind of high-intensity, low-impact workout. She runs virtual groups and provides support to individual clients using Facetime, Zoom and a PiYo app. She also teaches group PiYo classes in person on Shelter Island, in Greenport and to local private clients. She welcomes deaf students in her live and virtual classes. She said. “I tend to have clients who are parents and work full time, and I have to be available to them all the time.”

Julia’s local PiYo classes are partially funded by the town and offered twice a week, on Tuesday and Thursday from 6 to 7 p.m. throughout the winter for $5 per person, per class.

Like most Islanders, Julia has noticed the increase in summertime tourism here over the years. “I know sometimes people say tourists don’t care for it the way we do,” she said. “But the people I meet seem grateful to visit here. If my father had not felt comfortable when he came here on vacation, he might not have bought the property.”

Julia’s closet is a reminder of the change she made in her life a couple of years back, with neatly hanging business suits now unused taking up half the space, and the other half stuffed with workout clothes.

“My childhood was so wonderful, that I felt it calling me back here. I step out in my back lawn on Silver Beach and I feel so peaceful,” she said. “I can feel my parents everywhere. They instilled in me good values and I’m trying to grow those bigger and better.”