In the fall of 1979, my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother began the journey from Kiev in the Former Soviet Union towards the great Canadian prairies.
While life in Kiev seemed to have had its ups and its downs, my mother recalls it to be a ‘pretty normal childhood’. I always listen intently as she tells me stories of her early days; spending quality time with her loving grandfather, running around her neighborhood, and playing hooky from school with her best friend so they could go to the farmer’s market (which explains my own obsession with fresh food and produce). She also fondly reminisces on some of the more ‘special’ experiences in which she took part; like family trips to the extravagant Soviet circus, magical New Years celebrations, and even gymnastics training from a young age with the dream of one day becoming an Olympic athlete. These memories, along with a few others, are always the standouts of her time in her first home.
Yet running parallel to this was a much more complex element to her and her family’s narrative, one that no one would talk about for some time: they were also Jews.
My mother learned of her identity from a young age, but was forced to keep it confidential and was told not to ask any questions. Digging too deeply into that part of her family’s history was off limits for the danger it bore, and on the one or two occasions that she did raise it, she was firmly instructed to make no further mention. It was not that her family did not feel connected to their roots — as a matter of fact, her grandfather’s family came from quite a religious community — but rather that it was far too treacherous to be openly Jewish in the Former Soviet Union.
My grandmother still speaks of a few deeply traumatizing moments that forever impacted her relationship with her Judaism. She shares painful stories of Jewish boys and girls she knew who were beaten on the streets, and moments of fear as her parents spoke Yiddish at home, worried they would be found out. She remembers attempts to have Passover Seders, and the risks associated with doing so, and even the anguish of trying to hold the traditional mourning practice of Shiva in secrecy when her father passed away.
But in that fateful 1979, my family set their sights on a brighter future ahead, and began to forge their way across land and sea to start life anew. While the last few months had been especially enduring, the light at the end of the tunnel was finally within reach; in the year that followed, they transited through Vienna and Rome, before finally ending up in chilly Winnipeg. The year itself was challenging and exhausting, but laid the foundations for their next chapter.
About a decade later, my parents met; my father’s family was also comprised of several immigrants, like my grandfather, who was a Holocaust survivor from Eastern Europe. My parents were married in 1991, had my brother and I a few years later, and from a young age instilled in us a connection to our Jewish identity and heritage.
In grade school, I had my first experience with antisemitism, and in university, I dealt with it as a constant. In all of this, there were many intense moments spent finding my voice and garnering the strength to stand up. But, these incidences only made me realize that a life of work dedicated to helping others own their narratives, and speak their truths, was the path I needed to pursue.
As such, I spent the next several years getting involved with varying social justice causes, especially working in the areas of Jewish non-profit and Israel education. In 2021, I was named the Ralph I. Goldman Fellow for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). The JDC is the leading Jewish humanitarian aid organization, working for over 100 years to protect, rescue, aid, and cultivate the Jewish people; and JDC Entwine, through which this fellowship comes to life, is the organization’s young professional department working to embody and impart a sense of global responsibility for the intertwined Jewish world. However, it was not until a month before I started my work with the JDC, that I would realize just how interconnected my own personal story was.
On a recent blustery December evening in London, as I walked home from my local coffee shop, I rang my grandmother — whom I lovingly call ‘Baba’ — to catch up on the week. We do not often speak about my work or involvement in the ‘Jewish world’. Even all of these years later, while it may not be the same for my mother, for Baba these topics are still extremely sensitive and have undoubtedly left their scars. Nonetheless, she asked me more about the work I would be doing in the coming year, and I excitedly shared about the Fellowship with her.
But something very fascinating and unusual happened as a result of this conversation. As we started to peel back the layers one at a time, we simultaneously realized that the new role I was about to embark on was with the very organization that was responsible for my family’s immigration. In fact, they would not have made their journey to Canada if it was not for the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and the JDC. These two organizations provided healthcare, funding, and living arrangements, ultimately paving the way for their new lives. My family was so incredibly thankful, that even my great uncle worked for the JDC to give back. I had absolutely no idea of this connection.
While I am a big believer in everything happening for a reason and am stunned by the way this story has come full circle, I simultaneously feel immense fortune, gratitude, and responsibility for the opportunity that has been bestowed on me. It is an absolute blessing and honor to not only learn from and commemorate Ralph I. Goldman’s legacy in this process, but in addition, be able to channel my own family’s story in it all. For me, this is exactly what being a part of an intertwined and interconnected Jewish world represents; that as a community, while we continuously face challenges and hardships in every generation, we will always rise again and continue to grow. This is the story of the Jewish people. Learning together, building from each other, and carrying from strength to strength in every generation.
With the year ahead, I am ecstatic to see where my time in this position will take me and what I will learn. I look forward to taking you all along on the journey with me.