March 29, 2007
By LYN STEGEMILLER
Tribune Staff Writer
Ina Rosenberg, left, and Irina Kopytova share a laugh after discovering that Rosenberg's mother was from the same city, Gomel, in Belarus, that Kopytova is from, during a gathering at Barbara and David Lerman's home in South Bend on March 14. Kopytova and Elisheva Solomon joined a stream of immigrants as part of a modern-day exodus of Jews to Israel. Their new lives were made possible by the Jewish Agency of Israel -- which donations to the local Jewish Welfare Fund help fund. Passover begins at sundown on Monday.
Growing up in the Soviet Union, Irina Kopytova was 10 before her protective parents told her she was Jewish. A continent away, little Elisheva Solomon of Ethiopia felt different and alone as the only Jew at her school.
But, as in the Passover story of old, these children left their troubled homelands for greater freedom in a new land.
Immigrating to Israel, called "making aliyah," the girls and their families experienced open pride in their faith and a sense of belonging they had not felt before.
During a recent visit to South Bend, Kopytova and Solomon, both 26, shared their stories and told how their new lives were made possible through the backing of the Jewish Agency of Israel. The agency is funded, in part, by donations to the local Jewish Welfare Fund.
"Today I'm here to tell about my life story just because people like you helped me to be here,"
Solomon says to about two dozen people gathered for lunch at the Jewish Federation of St. Joseph Valley in South Bend. "People like you, who support the Jewish Agency, helped me to achieve my goals."
"It doesn't matter where you live, Jews are one big family," Kopytova says. "I wanted to thank you for being a part of my family."
Kopytova explains how, in the face of the Communist Party's repression and the country's anti-Semitism, her family found it safer to just not tell their daughters about their Jewish heritage.
"I'm sure they were afraid," she says.
Though her grandparents spoke Yiddish to one another, Kopytova knew only that it was a foreign language. Though she ate matso at the time of Passover, she did not know why.
Life as a Jew meant painful and difficult times. Her mother missed out on promotions because of her faith. A Jewish friend was beaten.
But the breakup of the former Soviet Union in 1991 brought big changes.
"Suddenly Jews could feel different," she says. "I wouldn't say they weren't afraid anymore, but they felt better."
The varied strands of Kopytova's life came together. She and her sister began attending a Jewish Sunday school opened up by the Jewish Agency in their hometown of Gomel, Belarus. She made Jewish friends, learned Jewish history, heard stories about Israel, sang in Hebrew and danced Israeli folk dances.
"All these things were absolutely new for me, and it was incredibly interesting," she says. "It was like, suddenly, I received another part of my life that I didn't have before. It was very exciting."
As a teen, Kopytova took part in the Jewish Agency's Na'aleh program, finishing the last three years of high school in Israel. Her younger sister began the program a year later. Eventually, the girls' parents and maternal grandparents came to live in Israel as well.
"I think every immigrant will stay with two countries in him," Kopytova says. "He will never forget what was there, and he'll accept everything in the new country."
Kopytova served as an aliyah counselor during her army service in Israel, working with new immigrants and teaching them Hebrew.
"In the army I actually felt part of society," she says, "because I saw Israel is not someone and the others must look like him. Israel is a multicultural country. Everyone can find his place in Israel."
With the help of a Jewish Agency-supported scholarship, Kopytova earned a degree in social work from Bar Ilan University. She now works with Birthright groups that visit Israel. The Birthright organization provides free 10-day trips for people ages 18 to 26 to experience Israel and "see that they always have a place there," she says.Though she loves to travel, Kopytova believes she'll always end up in Israel.
"I love it. When I go away, I miss it."
In sharing her story, Solomon tells how being the only Jew at a mostly Christian school and in her neighborhood in Ethiopia left her without a friend.
There were the holidays she didn't celebrate, the classmates' homes she didn't visit, and the lunches she didn't trade, the snacks she couldn't share because of keeping kosher.
Besides the isolation, there were the overt acts of people saying that "to be Jewish is bad," Solomon says. She recalls how one boy thought Jews were cannibals.
"It was a very, very beautiful day when (my mother) decided to 'make aliyah,' " Solomon says. She arrived in Israel at age 9 with her mother, who was divorced from her father, and two brothers.
"I remember the minute the pilot said 'After two minutes, we are going to land in Israel.' People started singing, hugging and kissing."
This was the first time she had seen a lot of white people, Solomon notes. Her mother assured her that Israel was indeed their home and their country. It was her first-ever feeling of belonging.
The Solomons went to an "absorption center" in Acre where immigrants can stay and get help learning Hebrew, finding jobs or locating places to live. Solomon threw herself into learning the language.
"I said to myself, 'I don't want to be again not belonging. I want to be a part of my family, a part of the society. This is my home, and I want to be belonging.' " Making friends, sharing kosher food and visiting friends' homes followed.
After two years at the center, the Solomons moved to a nice neighborhood, Solomon says. She attended a boarding school where she met Jews from all around the world.
"That was the first time that I felt we have Jewish people who make like a necklace," she says. "I felt not just belonging but a part of the world."
She served in the Israeli army and now is a third-year law student at the University of Haifa. She, too, received a scholarship through the Jewish Agency.
Last year, in honor of the Passover holiday, Solomon organized a group of friends and students to help lower-income families paint their homes. She plans to organize another painting blitz this year, this time with only female volunteers, Solomon says.
"I want to show women what they can do."