I always knew I was Jewish, but before I came to Israel with Masa Israel Teaching Fellows (MITF), my Jewish identity meant almost nothing to me.

My parents fled anti-Semitism in Belarus in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. My family is active in the Russian Los Angeles community and we’ve always kept a lot of Russian traditions. We speak Russian at home, eat Russian foods, and celebrate the New Year in true Russian style–complete with a New Year’s tree, a large family party and presents at midnight.

Judaism, on the other hand, wasn’t really part of my upbringing. We did our best to celebrate some of the major Jewish holidays in our own little ways, but I never attended synagogue or Hebrew school. Jewish holidays would mainly consist of a family dinner with traditional foods, but always lacked a deeper meaning. Ordering Chinese food and going to the movie theater on Christmas was the extent of our Jewish traditions. It wasn’t that my parents rejected Judaism; acting Jewish in the Soviet Union would have meant certain death, so the culture and the tradition got lost over the generations.

I think my experience is fairly typical among Russian Jews. Growing up in L.A., the Jews around my Russian classmates and me seemed more Jewish than we were, culturally and religiously. And then two things happened.

First, my sister took a DNA test and it came back 96% Ashkenazi Jewish. This concrete affirmation of my Jewishness launched me on a journey to explore my identity and discover a different perspective than the one my parents lived with for so long. A journey that ultimately led me to MITF.

Second, I went on a 10-day organized trip to Israel. Suddenly, I was experiencing a whole new world. I tanned on Netanya’s dazzling beaches and enjoyed the thrumming bustle of Tel Aviv. I met women my age who were fighting to protect our homeland. And I met and connected with a whole new set of relatives.

Observing the locals of Israel made me feel like part of something bigger. Those 10 days felt like a teaser, and they whetted my appetite for more. I felt Israel pulling me back, but not as an American tourist. I wanted to stroll through Machane Yehuda and haggle over pomegranates. I wanted to get to know the regulars at every café in Tel Aviv. I wanted to dance at my “new” cousin’s wedding. That’s why I signed up for MITF.

Now, as an MITF English teacher in Netanya, I have a chance to immerse myself in the land and its people. In Israel, I feel completely safe being Jewish. Even though L.A. and San Diego are full of Jews, they still harbor so much anti-Semitism. But Israel is our safe place, the land of our people. It represents both a history we remember and a place we can go and be at home.

Children have no pretenses and are part of the heartbeat of a nation. Through teaching English to Israeli children, I’m forging a deeper connection with the people of Israel–my people.

While I’m here, I also hope to learn more about my Jewish identity. After I returned from my first trip, I shared what I learned about Jewish history and culture with my younger siblings and with others. But there is only so much I could learn in 10 days. Now, I have a full 10 months. After spending the better part of this year in Israel with MITF, I want to go back to America equipped to take my place in the Jewish community. I want to keep teaching people who were deprived of the opportunity to learn about their Jewish heritage.

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