Tanya's parents were assimilated Russians and impressed upon Tanya the importance of not talking about or showing anything that might lead people to think she was Jewish. However, Tanya's maternal grandfather served as her link to her Jewish heritage.
"My mother grew up in a time when it was forbidden to claim Jewish ancestry in the USSR. But my grandfather, a high officer in the Red army during WWII, never forgot his Jewish roots, even after they burned all of the family documentation. I learned from him and became deeply involved in bringing a sense of Jewish identity and knowledge of Israel to the Jews in my community."
Tanya lived half of each week with her parents, and the other half with her grandfather. She bridged two worlds – the model Russian child with her parents, and an eager student in the secret world of Judaism her grandfather taught her. Tanya's mother constantly warned her not to show her Jewishness, and was afraid that Tanya's learning would lead to trouble.
Headstrong and determined, Tanya yearned to learn more about her Jewish identity. When the Jewish Agency opened an office in their community, Tanya's grandfather took her there, where she was exposed to her first "Jewish" activity. This led her to a Jewish Agency summer camp experience that changed her life.
Summer camps are the flagship of the Jewish Agency's informal Jewish education activities in the FSU. The educational staff at the camps consists of bright, educated, and creative young people with deeply-rooted Jewish identities and strong backgrounds in Jewish history, tradition and life in Israel. The integrated teams of local and Israeli counselors are a winning combination; the local counselors are likely to remain involved with the campers once camp ends, while the Israeli educators bring a very strong connection to Israel and Israeli culture.
"The summer camp opened a whole new world for me," recalls Tanya. "I met other Jewish kids with whom I was able to share my Judaism. It was an incredibly empowering experience."
Tanya returned to her hometown and opened a youth club with the help of the Jewish Agency. "I wanted to help other Jewish kids understand their Jewish identity and not to be afraid. Together, we learned about and experienced the beauty of our heritage."
In 1999, Tanya's mother and grandfather visited Israel, and were victims of a terrorist attack in Netanya. Her mother vowed that Tanya would never go to Israel. But at the age of 18, the Jewish Agency paid for Tanya to participate in a birthright Israel trip. "Israel was a dream come true. It was everything my grandfather told me about."
In August 2005, Tanya made aliyah through the Jewish Agency Selah program. Selah, a Hebrew acronym for “Students Before Their Parents,” is a 12 –14 month academic preparatory course for recent high school graduates from the former Soviet Union (FSU) to continue their higher education in Israel. Selah helps to facilitate aliyah and absorption for these young adults, many of whom will be followed by their parents and other family members.
Tanya is living at the Calanit Absorption Center in Ashkelon with other Selah students from the FSU. She is engaged in intensive Hebrew-language studies (ulpan), cultural programs and activities, and upon completing her ulpan, she will begin a pre-academic preparatory program.
All of Selah's young participants arrive in Israel as tourists. Within three months, their status is changed to that of new immigrants. In this way, they become eligible for the government’s "absorption basket" of financial assistance. During their first three-months in Israel, Selah students live at a Jewish Agency Absorption Center and receive free room and board. During the second stage, they receive half-board and pay a subsidized rental fee, similar to other absorption center residents.
"I want to lead a rich Jewish life, something I could not do in Russia. I feel wonderfully alive and full of hope in Israel. I am absolutely certain that I will succeed here."
Written by Lisa Samin