A spur of the moment decision to take the qualifying exams for the Jewish Agency's Selah program unequivocally changed the lives of Elena Maiorenko and her family.
The year after high school is a time for young adults to choose a path towards higher education, to define their life goals, and to experience the world. For participants in the Jewish Agency’s Selah program, however, this year is also about strengthening their connection to Judaism and forging a relationship with the land and people of Israel. With the help of donors throughout the world, the Jewish Agency makes it possible for hundreds of young adults from the former Soviet Union to build their futures in Israel. Elena Maiorenko, a remarkable young woman from St. Petersburg, is just an example of Selah’s success.
Elena grew up traveling all over Russia. Though she knew she was Jewish, her family was completely assimilated and Elena never thought about even visiting Israel.
While living in St. Petersburg during her senior year of high school, Elena's mother came home and told her that the Jewish Agency was giving exams for something called the Selah program. "My mother knew that I was set on studying medicine in Russian, but she encouraged me to take the test anyway," remembers Elena.
A few days later Elena got a call from the Jewish Agency emissary telling her that her test scores were fantastic, and that she should come to Israel to study. "My parents encouraged me to go. They knew that I would receive a high level of education in Israel."
In what was a completely spontaneous decision, Elena decided to go to Israel. "I was 17 years old. I didn't really think about what I was doing until I was on the plane," laughs Elena. "I didn't know a single person on the Selah program or in Israel."
Selah, an acronym for the Hebrew words meaning Students Before their Parents, is a pre-academic preparatory program that prepares high school graduates from the former Soviet Union for academic studies in Israel. During the first year of the program, students live at absorption centers, kibbutzim or student villages, where they learn Hebrew in an intensive ulpan, participate in cultural programs and activities and take a special course of studies to prepare for college. The costs are covered by the Jewish Agency.
Elena lived at the Beit Canada Absorption Center in Jerusalem with 40 other students. During her first year in Israel, Elena found an inner strength she didn't know she had. "My whole personality changed. I became so much more independent. The Selah counselors were fantastic, helping us when we needed it but giving us the room to find our place in our new country."
A year after her arrival, Elena's parents and younger brother made aliyah to the Jerusalem suburb of Pisgat Zeev. Her father is now studying for his medical exams and her mother is working for an adoption agency. Her brother Alex is serving in an army intelligence unit.
Upon completing the Selah program, Elena began studying computers, but she was not happy with this choice. She applied and was accepted to the prestigious medical school at the Hebrew University and will begin an internship at Sha'are Zedek Hospital in another month.
At the same time, Elena volunteers for the Jewish Agency's Babait Beyahad / At Home-Together program, which matches new immigrants with veteran Israeli families to ease their transition into Israeli society. Elena, with her usual determination, has enlisted various businesses to take groups of new immigrants under their wings and help them find their way in Israeli society.
"I received so much support here," says Elena, now 26. "I want to do what I can to give back to society."
For Elena and for so many other participants of the Selah program, the ability to study in Israel after high school provides opportunities that may not have been possible otherwise. With your help, the Jewish Agency can continue to provide high school graduates from the former Soviet Union the opportunity to bolster their Jewish identities, to continue studies in Israel and to build a better life for themselves. To find out more about how you can help, click here.