Through decades of Soviet rule, countless Eastern Bloc Jews lost their connection to their people. Many young immigrants from the former Soviet Union (FSU) come to Israel with weak backgrounds in Jewish culture which makes it hard for them to fully understand, or participate in, Israeli culture. Immigrants bravely serving in the Israel Defense Forces are often confused about what it is they are responsible for protecting.
Violetta K. was born in Kazakhstan into a family of Jewish origin. Although disconnected from the community and practices, she always felt affection for the Jewish world. Her great-grandfather had survived the Holocaust, and lived with Violetta and her family.
In 1996, he immigrated to Israel, and two years later, when Violetta was seven, she and her mother followed. Her positive feelings about Judaism grew when her mother decided to convert to Judaism, when Violetta was 16.
Violetta did not convert, but nevertheless joined the IDF along with her Israeli friends, and served as a combat Hummer operator. Her knowledge of Jewish and Israeli history was scant. She says that it sometimes felt strange to protect a Jewish state when her relationship with Judaism was undefined and confusing.
Early in her service, however, Violetta, found answers when she joined the Nativ program.
Established in 2002, The Jewish Agency Nativ program offers new Israelis like Violetta a way to connect to their Jewish roots and heritage. As a recognized segment of their IDF service, some 15, 000 Nativ participants have already studied, traveled through Israel, and shared in observance of Shabbat and Jewish holidays within a welcoming, open-minded, pluralistic environment. Nativ provides the first step for those soldiers who wish to begin a conversion to Judaism.
Violetta says of the program: “I learned a lot I hadn’t known. I learned about Jewish history and how Jews lived before we had the State of Israel. I learned about the sources of Jewish traditions and more about my roots. Now I understood what it means for me to live here in Israel, and why it was so important for me to serve in the army.”
Nativ’s transformative experiences inspired Violetta to further her immersion in and love of Judaism in Nativ’s extended course, and to follow in her mother’s footsteps to convert.
Now 22, she is studying Economics and Management at the Open University, and continues her growth as she finds meaning and joy in Jewish rituals such as attending synagogue and reciting Kiddush on Shabbat.
“I wish every Jew could go on Nativ,” says Violetta. "You learn about Judaism, and about Israel, and about what it means to be part of a collective people. I feel close to the Jewish nation now. Before, I didn’t really understand what it was about. Now, I feel part of it."