Reconnecting to Roots, One Teen At a Time

Ira, a young Odessa girl, only discovered she was Jewish in February 2013 but has taken steps to cement her connection to her heritage.
Ira, a young Odessa girl, only discovered she was Jewish in February 2013 but has taken steps to cement her connection to her heritage. photo: Courtesy of Avrom Suslovich

I was privileged to spend time in Odessa with a leadership group from the ASSOCIATED: Baltimore Jewish Federation. We met Ira the second night of the mission, when we had dinner with young teens who participate in Beit Grand activities.  Ira studies at a local high school for gifted students. She was sweet and charming, and we made conversation by asking her about her studies. Then, one of the participants gently asked about her connection to the Jewish community. "Well," she said, "I've only known I was Jewish since February."

Our jaws dropped.  How does a 16-year old suddenly discover she is Jewish?

Attracted by the variety of extracurricular activities and celebrations, Ira wandered into Beit Grand to sign up for some of the programs for teens. At first, she participated in the sports and arts sessions, but she quickly found herself drawn to the Jewish cultural activities. Returning home, she told her father the Jewish content really spoke to her and she felt really connected to the material. "Could it be that I am Jewish?" she asked, incredulously. "I am not Jewish, he responded, "but perhaps your mother has Jewish roots?" Her mother was also doubtful, but agreed to help Ira research the family history, and they discovered, together, that Ira's maternal grandmother came from a Jewish family.

"Shavuot was my first Jewish holiday," explained Ira, lighting up as she speaks about how the holiday celebration at Beit Grand affected her. It was the first Jewish holiday she has ever celebrated; ever since, she's been looking for new ways to connect to the Jewish identity she is only beginning to discover. Something touched a nerve and drew her in, and now she is eagerly reaching out to learn and do as much as she can. Beit Grand makes that possible.

Thanks to Beit Grand and other JDC-supported JCCs throughout the former Soviet Union, today there is an address for young people like Ira to connect to Judaism and Jewish community, to discover and "own" their Jewish roots, and to assume responsibility for the future of the local Jewish community.  Having personally witnessed the commitment and passion of Ira and her friends, that future seems bright.

Avrom Suslovich, a senior associate in JDC’s International Relations department, visited Ukraine this month with the Baltimore-Odessa Partnership Mission. Once back in Jerusalem, he related this moment from his trip to JDC-FSU field staff member Flo Low.

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