Tu B’Av in Ukraine: Two Young Jewish Leaders Find Love and Strength

Long before they danced to Bon Jovi on their wedding day, Eli and Yana first met through JDC-supported programs.

By The JDC Team | July 24, 2023

When Eli Buzunov (right) first met his future wife Yana at a JDC-supported youth program, he didn't know they would eventually fall in love and get married.

Eli Buzunov, 25, discovered he was Jewish about nine years ago and quickly became an active member of his Jewish community in Kyiv, Ukraine. Now, he works for JDC as our missions and communications coordinator in the city.

He recently married his wife Yana, 26, who grew up in Dnipro and who he began to know through programs like Active Jewish Teens (AJT) and other JDC-supported initiatives across Ukraine.

This is their Tu B’Av love story.

Eli and Yana at the seminar where they first met.

Q: How did you two meet?

Eli: At first, we were thinking we met at this one AJT seminar, but as we reflected, we realized we’d met much earlier at an informal educational seminar that brought together people from all across Ukraine — Kyiv, Kharkiv, Dnipro. But back then, I had blonde hair and I wasn’t really her type.

Yana: And he was focused on another girl and I was focused on another boy. You know how these things go.

E: She didn’t like me, because in our team of madrichim (counselors), I was the guy who shot down this idea she had for doing this one video. We got off to a rocky start, but then we reconnected in fall 2021 at an AJT sports day, and I knew I wanted to make her feel special — bring her little candies, give her extra time for coffee breaks, etc.

Y: I had just had my wisdom teeth out, and I was like, “Are you trying to make fun of me? I can barely open my mouth, and you’re bringing me snacks?”

E: But then one night, we were walking up and down the halls, checking to make sure all our chanichim (campers) were sleeping, and at the end of the corridor, I did a little dance move and spun her around. She was stunned! And then not too long after, we really started texting more and more and getting closer.

Y: I told him, “You know we’re allowed to talk not just at the seminars.”

E: Before too long, we had made plans to celebrate New Year’s Eve together, and right at midnight, we decided this was something special and we had to see where it would take us.

Q: What do you each admire most about your partner?

Y: He’s helped me to become kinder, more patient and trusting, even with people I don’t immediately like. He’s like my guardian angel.

E: It’s funny because her family is always asking me, “Why do you love her so much? What’s that special thing for you?” And I really just think it’s just that she’s someone who motivates me to work on myself, to take the steps I need to for our family to grow and develop and have a better future. And it’s more than that, too — she can motivate me when I’m feeling out of sorts or unstable. These days, with the crisis in Ukraine, I have so many things on my mind, and she can just touch my shoulder and sort of wordlessly let me know, “I’m here,” and it helps me to feel more relaxed and more present. 

Eli and Yana

Q: What was your wedding like?

E: We had to delay our ceremony twice — once because of issues related to the conflict, and once because Yana was invited to work at Szarvas, the JDC-Lauder international Jewish summer camp — and when it did come time to put it together, we decided on something small and intimate. That’s why we didn’t have a formal chuppah, though we did sign a ketubah and break the glass. Our wedding day felt incredibly special, but I also believe we were already functionally living together as husband and wife from the moment I proposed, just a few days after the Ukraine crisis began on Feb. 24, 2022.

Y: It was so special that so many of our fellow madrichim and Jewish community friends came to the wedding — organizing the Jewish ritual aspects, lifting us up in the chairs, even traveling to Kyiv from Dnipro and other cities. We integrated Jewish wedding traditions, along with Ukrainian ones like guests screaming out “Gorka!” — which translates to “sour,” and which the bride and groom have to “sweeten” with a kiss.

E: The idea is, “Let it be sour now, so that you have only sweetness in your family life from this point on.”

Q: What about your first dance?
Y: All my life, I’ve dreamed about dancing with my husband to “Always” by Bon Jovi.

E: Some things … you just get out of the way and agree. I knew how important this was to her!

These days, with the Ukraine crisis, I have so many things on my mind; but when she touches my shoulder, I feel more relaxed and present.

Q: You’re only about a month into your marriage, but what’s your advice for other couples? What makes a strong partnership?

E: It’s important to really directly tell your partner what you’re feeling — not to imagine that they have some magic ability to read your mind. At the end of the day, you are two different people who were raised by two different families, not superheroes. You have to be open and honest with each other about what you really need.

Y: You need to have a sense of humor about everything — and you need to always keep growing and working on yourself, not only on the relationship. That way, you’ll both be able to be your best and develop and become stronger together.

Q: What’s the most important thing to remember about your love story?

Y: When I was a little girl, I used to write in my diary — little daydreams, hopes, wishes, etc. I recently found something from when I was a little kid that outlined all the qualities of my ideal husband. And wouldn’t you know, Eli has every one of them.

E: For me, it’s simple: She’s the best person in my life. That’s it, really — from the moment I proposed until now, each day only confirms for me that I’ve made the right choice and that I’m with the right person.

Y: We keep each other happy and we keep each other strong.

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