Arriving in Israel to Find Home

By: IMPJ, a WRJ Grantee Organization
December 8, 2023

This is the story of one woman whose life was changed thanks to the support of Women of Reform Judaism. WRJ’s support of progressive Jewish communities around the world, including recently arrived Jews and refugees from the former Soviet Union, made this woman’s story a reality.

In partnership with WRJ, the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism raised funds so that Shirat HaYam and other Reform congregations could provide a warm embracing community, host Jewish holidays and Shabbatot together in a community setting, facilitate workshops and resources to teach skills and help integrate refugees into Israeli society, support legal aid and access to rights to those stopped from entering Israel – and a particularly important element: supply spiritual and holistic care for all.

 

My name is Natallya, and I am a Jewess.

The above sentence is a statement I never thought I'd declare so confidently, so publicly. I grew up with my Jewish roots subtly woven into the fabric of my life, a secret thread often overlooked in favor of less complicated narratives. My mother would tell stories of her own childhood, of how she was singled out for her "Jewish nose," and how our family members were belittled. Like her, I faced unkind remarks during my time at university, and like her, I attempted to detach myself from my heritage, burying my Jewish roots deep within me.

Life took me on a journey, a voyage to understand who I am, where I come from, and where I truly belong. For years, I viewed Israel as an outsider, as a tourist fascinated by the blend of the ancient and modern but scared by the language, culture, and perceived complexities.

In early 2022, I made a life-changing decision to relocate to Israel. Despite holding a prominent position in the central bank and enjoying a respectable social status in Belarus, I felt a sense of security that lacked in essential elements of self-identification and personal freedom. Working for the Belarusian Government confined me to a role as just another civil servant, with no room for self-expression or the open sharing of my thoughts, political beliefs, or religious identity. This pivotal moment marked a crossroads in my life, compelling me to introspect and reconnect with my Jewish heritage, true identity, and aspirations for the future.

So, I submitted my documents for repatriation to the Israeli embassy. However, due to the surge of people seeking repatriation because of the Russian war against Ukraine, it wasn't until the end of June 2023 that I set foot on Israeli soil. It was a long journey, fraught with logistical challenges and marked by a two-day layover in Georgia. As I journeyed, I reflected on the waves of Aliyah that had swept before me, the ones who had fled with a single suitcase, who had jumped on ferries seeking refuge from persecution, and mothers who had arrived alone with their children. I was not thinking of Zionism or religion then; I was simply hoping for a better life, much like my predecessors.

Stepping foot in Israel, I embarked on a journey of self-discovery. I decided to convert (according to Halakha my mother is not a Jew as my Jewish grandfather married my Russian grandmother) - not just as a citizen of Israel, but to become a true part of the Jewish people. To me, faith and traditions were more meaningful than the literal performance of rituals, so I gravitated toward Reform Judaism. I wanted to learn about my new country, my ancestors, and my family's history – a history stained by the scars of the Holocaust. I learned of my great-grandmother's loss of three children and her quest to find them and of my great-grandfather's death from war-contracted tuberculosis without ever finding his son.

My search led me to Shirat HaGan, a Reform Jewish congregation in Ramat Gan, a place that soon became my second home. Despite the hour-long commute, it was worth it. The community was a tapestry of different people, bound by faith and spiritual affinity. Each festival, each gathering, became a source of joy, learning, and unity. In this diverse community, I found my second family, my sanctuary, amid uncertainty.

In Shirat HaGan, I met women like me, who had been living in the country I came from or nearby and felt the lack of identity that I had so strongly felt, that something from my life was missing. Some had left because of the war in Ukraine and others had left a comfortable life in Russia or Belarus and were seeking religion or Zionism. Some, like me, were not yet married or with children, others had to leave their husbands and came alone with their children to a new land. Together, we participate in a circle of women where we share, support each other, and learn skills to help us acclimatize and cope.

The echoes of the war in Ukraine have resulted in an influx of people seeking refuge in our community, seeking comfort, stability, and a spiritual haven. With this growth, we are confronted with the challenge of our physical space, which has become inadequate for our needs.

In the face of this adversity, my purpose became clear. My lifelong drive to be an active societal contributor found a new direction – to support the community that embraced me, that is now a home for so many others. Now, my role extends beyond sharing my story. It is to thank you, our partners, for providing us with the funds and support to continue Shirat HaGan and Shirat HaYam

My name is Natallya, and I am a Jewess. I am a part of a vibrant, growing community that benefits greatly from your support. I invite you to be a part of our journey, to make a difference in our lives, to help us continue to provide a home for those seeking spiritual refuge. Let us, together, provide hope, unity, and growth for our community.”

Natallya’s journey was made possible by the generous support of Women of Reform Judaism, whose outstanding partnership has changed many lives in IMPJ’s programming for Olim and refugees from the FSU. This blog post was adapted from a grant submission from IMPJ to showcase WRJ’s impact on Progressive Judaism worldwide.

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