March 12, 2007 / 22 Adar 5767
"My path to Judaism began at the tender age of ten, when my parents told me and my sister that we were both Jewish. By the time I was fifteen, I decided to come to Israel on my own with the Jewish Agency's Na'aleh program. In the eleven years I have been in Israel, I have never looked back."
Irina Kopytova, 26, was born in Gomel, Belarus. At the tender age of 10, her parents told her and her sister that they were Jewish. The catalyst for this was the opening of the Jewish Agency's Sunday School in their city.
"I was very curious about being Jewish," recalls Irina. "My grandparents always spoke Yiddish, but my sister and I thought it was just a different language. No one at school ever suspected that we were Jewish."
After attending Sunday school, Irina became friends with other Jewish kids, and was active in the Jewish Agency's Youth Club and Summer Camps. "It was an unbelievable time of learning and growth for me," says Irina. "The Israeli counselors at the camp really made an impact on my life."
At the age of 15, Irina decided to come to Israel with the Jewish Agency's Na'aleh program for high school students from the former Soviet Union who come to Israel before their parents. A year later her sister came on the same program, and in 1997 her maternal grandparents and parents also made aliyah. Irina and her sister rented an apartment for them in Ashkelon and guided them through their initial absorption.
"Na'aleh is the most amazing program," says Irina enthusiastically. "We felt the tremendous investment the Jewish Agency made in us, and we were then able to help our parents. The program also motivated me to give to other new immigrants during my army service."
Irina was an aliyah counselor in the army, working with new immigrants from the FSU, Ethiopia, France and Argentina. "One of the soldiers told me that she stayed in Israel because of me. It was during my army service that I really began to feel Israeli."
Irina received her BA in social work from Bar Ilan University, with the assistance of a Jewish Agency supported Student Authority Scholarship. She worked as a counselor for birthright israel groups and the Jewish Agency's Selah program, and she plans on studying for her MA in social work.
"I feel that I epitomize the wandering Jew," says Irina. "And now, I finally feel at home."