Born in Kiev, Ukraine in 1985, I immigrated to Brooklyn, NY in 1991 and grew up in a typical Russian Jewish home with close family relationships, a great emphasis on education and hard work, and minimal discussion about Judaism and Israel. I always knew that my family was Jewish and that was enough as my parents worked tirelessly towards achieving the American Dream.
I was the first person in my family to go to Israel when I went on Birthright as a sophomore in Baruch College. After 10 days, I returned with a special connection that seemed inexplicable except that I knew I felt “better” in Israel than I did in New York.
Senior year was a very difficult time of my life as I took classes and planned for my future. Even without a moment of peace, I could not stop thinking about my Birthright trip and it suddenly hit me that I needed to return to Israel. I missed being in the land of our people, a place where everything felt natural. After graduating from Baruch College with a degree in Metropolitan Real Estate Development in 2008, I took part in a trip to Israel with RAJE (Russian American Jewish Experience). After an amazing month of traveling, studying in the Old City of Jerusalem, and connecting to my Jewish roots, I promised myself I would soon return for a much longer period of time so that I could really live and experience all of Israel.
I had no idea how this could happen until I discovered Masa Israel’s Career Israel while managing an architecture office in Brooklyn. The program enabled me to have my most unique experience yet with people I would otherwise never have met in the place I love most in the world. Our group consisted of 140 people from 15 different countries, providing a great way to learn how to say Happy Birthday in several languages, though we all preferred Yom Huledet Sameach.
There was no better way to start Career Israel than living in the heart of Tel Aviv in walking distance from the beach, great shopping, and the always-energetic nightlife. My internship at Tel Aviv University’s Hillel teamed me with a diverse and passionate staff, which included individuals dedicated to improving the Jewish State, although only one was born in Israel. We instantly became family; in our weekly staff meetings, we openly discussed the personal stories and family histories that brought us to Israel and we inspired each other to grow and become more active in pursuing Tikkun Olam, making the world a better place. It was amazing to be able to use my love of Judaism and Israel to create social and educational programs for overseas students in order to increase their passion and connection to Israel.
As though the internships weren’t enough, my peers and I also took part in a Hebrew ulpan, educational seminars, tours, and monthly group trips to some of the most majestic places around the country. We met soldiers, settlers, and modern day heroes who inspired us with their tremendous devotion and love of the country even while acknowledging its faults.
At first it was shocking to live in an environment of such warm and affectionate people, where strangers constantly invite you for Shabbat, welcome you into their lives, and allow you to really know them and see the truth through their eyes. Israelis live by the phrase “make yourself at home” and they practically get offended if you don’t open their refrigerator and take something to eat.
The experience connected me much more with Israelis and olim (immigrants) who have made aliya from countries around the world, allowing me to understand the difficulties and sacrifices in living in Israel.
Now back in New York, I am working in a real estate company. My experience has made me become more active in the Jewish community. I have chosen to take responsibility for what happens to us as a people. Now I also understand why I feel so at ease in Israel. It is the result of an energy that comes from Jewish minds, bodies, and souls coming together from around the world to create and build a country for our people’s future. As a people we thrive when we are together and this could not be more evident than in seeing what Israel has accomplished in all its years of existence.
Both personally and professionally, I have been able to grow and mature in ways I could never have imagined and I feel very fortunate to have taken part in the Masa Israel experience.