For most of my life, I have separated my two identities, telling some people that I am Jewish, and others that I am Russian. For laughs, I would tell people I was Polish because of my first name. Strangely enough, I never thought of calling myself a Russian Jew.
Before entering university, I was not very involved in the Jewish or Russian community or the Russian community. I never went to Hebrew day school or Sunday school, I wasn’t part of the Jewish club at my high school, and I never spoke Russian to anyone other than to my parents. So, I lived my life like any other Canadian but in my home, I was a true Russian Jew — I only spoke Russian, celebrated the Jewish holidays, and ate lots of blintzes.
I was always too afraid to tell people my identity, because I never felt safe telling anyone, so I told people I was Canadian. I was afraid of telling people I was Jewish because of anti-Semitism but also because I was not very involved in the Jewish community and felt that I would be judged as a result. I was afraid of telling people I was Russian because I never felt connected to Russia in any way, since my parents were not born in Russia, so I thought it was lying to tell people I was Russian. I did have some Russian and some Jewish friends growing up but I always felt like I was different because I could not fully relate to them, since we lived such different lives and grew up with different values. However, in university, I began to be exposed to a new world.
I entered university not knowing anyone and not having my regular friends around. I was able to be anyone I wanted to be and embrace my actual identity. I decided to explore my Russian identity by attending the York University Russian club’s kickoff event, where I got to meet other Russians. However, I did not feel like I really fit in.
I also tried going to the Hillel lounge and going to Jewish events on campus, and though I felt a bit more at ease, I still felt like my lack of knowledge of Judaism and Russian identity made me stand out. I quickly realized that I did not fit in with the Russian community or the Jewish community; my search for belonging seemed hopeless, until I learned about Jewski.
At one of the Russian club’s events, I met a Jewski student engagement intern that told me about a club that was aimed towards people like me. It had never occurred to me that I could explore both my Russian and Jewish heritage at the same time. I went on a coffee chat with an intern who told me more about Jewski and right from the beginning, I knew this was the place I belonged.
In fact, the intern and I are still friends to this day as we were able to connect so easily. I started to go to more Jewski events, and really began to embrace my identity. It has allowed me to expand my network and befriend people who have so much in common with me.
I no longer felt like an outsider in university. For the first time in my life, I felt like I fit in. I even decided to become a Jewski engagement intern the following year to help people like me connect with others, and create events that would bring us all together. Throughout my internship, I have met so many amazing people who had similar stories and feel lost in university due to their identity, but after introducing Jewski to them, they were able to feel a sense of comfort knowing there was a place where they belong.
However, beyond Jewski, many other organizations that are targeted towards Jewish youth have greatly benefitted me. I was able to learn more about Judaism by taking classes at Aish Hatorah in Thornhill, I visited Israel on the Birthright Israel program, and made new friends in my Jewski internship.
I also realized that the Jewish-Russian community is much bigger than I originally thought, after attending the Limmud FSU conference in November 2018. I saw hundreds of Jews from the Former Soviet Union, who came together to celebrate their culture and identity. I hope to continue to explore my Jewish-Russian identity and to always feel proud of where I came from and how I grew up.
I think that many people are confused about the meaning of their identity in some way, but learning more about your heritage and where your ancestors come from is so important because it is part of your story, as well. That is why I am proud to identify myself as a Russian Jew.