August 27, 2007 / 13 Elul 5767
Dina Zelbovich came to Israel without her parents on the Jewish Agency's Na'aleh program for high school students at the age of 15. She has never looked back.
Dina Zelbovich, 27, found out that she was Jewish at the age of five when her neighbor called her a "dirty Jew." Growing up in Vilna, Lithuania, Dina remembers Chanukah gelt and matzah for Passover, but no one in her family told her that this was connected to being Jewish. When she ran to tell her father what the neighbor said, he replied, "It's not so terrible being Jewish. Marx and Engels and Einstein were all Jewish." This made Dina feel infinitely better.
With the fall of the Iron Curtain, Dina went to the newly opened Jewish Agency activity center. This was followed by incredible experiences at Jewish Agency summer camps where she met a whole group of Jewish friends. "At the age of 15 we all decided to go to Israel on the Jewish Agency's Na'aleh program for high school students. We went without our parents, but they knew that we would be taken care of."
Dina lived at Kibbutz Gan Shmuel with a great group of friends from Na'aleh, all of whom graduated high school with highest honors and most of whom are now working in advanced high-tech companies or the business arena. "But the person who affected us the most was our counselor, Miriam. She gave us so much support and trust, it was unbelievable."
Dina, who is an only child (her brother drowned before she was born), went on to serve as a dental assistant in the Israeli Air Force. "It was fun, but difficult. When you're a lone soldier without your family there's no one to turn to when you're sick or tired or in love." When Dina left for Israel her parents were healthy, but now both are very sick, and her father is homebound. There is no chance of them joining her in Israel.
Upon her release from the army, Dina received a Jewish Agency supported Student Authority Scholarship to Haifa University, choosing Eastern Asian Studies as her major. "It is fascinating and so different from everything I know. The lecturers are really dedicated to the subject." She lived at the Aba Houshi Absorption Center with other immigrant students, and held down two and sometimes three different jobs to make ends meet.
During the summer of her junior year in college, Dina volunteered at a Jewish Agency supported abused women's shelter in Haifa. "I met women who lost their faith in everything," says Dina. "And I'll never forget one little girl who came up to me with a confused look and said, 'How come no one has hit me this week?'" Dina sat and spoke with the women and played with the children, and tried to bring a spirit of hope to the shelter "When you give of yourself to help others, it brings a great deal of satisfaction," says Dina. "My problems were nothing compared to theirs."
During the Second Lebanon War, many of Dina's friends from Na'aleh and college, including her ex-boyfriend, served in the army. Dina opened her apartment in Tel Aviv to friends who fled from the war torn region.
Today, Dina is completing her last few college courses and working as a dental assistant. "I feel so connected to Israel," says Dina. "When I was in the US speaking to Jewish communities on the Jewish Agency's Faces of Aliyah program I really missed Israel, my home. I want to be independent, raise my family and contribute in some way to the country."
Na’aleh, an acronym for ‘Youth before their Parents’, enables students from the Former Soviet Union to come to Israel to complete their secondary school education in Israel with an Israeli matriculation certificate. Participants in this 3 year program are housed in absorption centres and other residential facilities and their basic needs are provided for in addition to cultural enrichment. With your help, the Jewish Agency can continue to provide high school graduates from the former Soviet Union the opportunity to continue studies in Israel and to build a better life for themselves. To learn more about how you can help, click here.
To learn more about Naaleh, click here.