Before Facebook created the “Memories” feature, I used to do it myself. I would think about the plans, dreams, and goals I had a few years earlier, many of them so different from what I have currently. Sometimes, I think about how different my life would be if I’d never become part of the Jewish community.
It’s been five years now since I began to take an active role in my Jewish community. I decided to learn Hebrew — for some unknown reason I couldn’t quite put my finger on — and Googled the classes available in my hometown, Kiev. I was surprised to find results for Hillel, and I remember thinking, “Wait, what? There are people open about their Jewish identity getting together in one room to talk about Jewish things?”
I knew my family was different — we used strange (Yiddish) words, ate strange (Ashkenazi) food, had strange (Jewish) names, and had strange (Israeli) relatives — but I didn’t always know what it all meant.
When I came back home and told my grandmother, she asked me: “Are you sure that it’s safe?” This is the point in my story where it’s important to mention that my grandmother always told me to hide that we were Jewish. We had family members who died during the Holocaust, at Babi Yar, and others who faced anti-Semitism during the Soviet era. Our Jewishness was somehow both strong and hidden. I knew my family was different — we used strange (Yiddish) words, ate strange (Ashkenazi) food, had strange (Jewish) names, and had strange (Israeli) relatives — but I didn’t always know what it all meant.
My main source of learning about Judaism was the packages that came from JDC on Jewish holidays. I remember seeing the recipes on matzah boxes and reading the pamphlets inside. Even the description of what JDC was — a global Jewish humanitarian organization — represented an opportunity for me to see there was a wider Jewish world beyond the four walls of our apartment.
Though my Hebrew education never got off the ground, I attended Shabbat for the first time in my life, went on a Birthright trip to Israel, and started to become more and more involved in Jewish communal life. I met new and interesting people, made new friends, and began visiting Moishe House Kiev. Soon, I became a resident, living there for a year. I continued volunteering and traveling, and I even got a job in a Jewish organization. In just a few years, my life was totally inside the Jewish community, and my identity became stronger and stronger — not hidden anymore. And all that time, we continued receiving our boxes of matzah, using our strange words at home, and enjoying our strange food.
My next JDC experience came when I participated in Metsuda, the year-long young leadership training course. After a year spent developing myself and my feelings of communal responsibility, and even creating a workbook for Hebrew learners, I became a madricha (counselor) and then the regional coordinator of Kiev’s post-Metsuda alumni community. Four years have now gone by since my first Metsuda experience, and I’m only just beginning to understand how impactful it’s been for me. I met my future colleagues and my closest friends there.
One day, someone suggested something that sounded crazy to me — a trip to Nepal with JDC Entwine (JDC’s young adult initiative), together with other young leaders from across the Jewish world. Still, I applied and was fortunately accepted. That was a wild season in my life: Two months before the trip, I made the decision to move to Israel, so I went to Nepal for a week and five days later, I was at Ben Gurion Airport with two suitcases containing everything I owned.
My first Entwine experience happened at the very right moment. Nepal showed me the value of simple things – the things I wasn’t doing a good enough job appreciating. The trip was memorable, full of shared experiences, amazing people, and important conversations that centered on our unique responsibility as Jewish people. I brought that Nepal experience with me to Israel. As I was changing every aspect of my life, it was easier to manage that transition with the wisdom I gained on that trip.
In January 2019, I began my Masa program in Jerusalem, making aliyah in May and moving to Ramat Gan, close to Tel Aviv. I worked different jobs — as a waitress, in a hotel, freelancing — but after a few months, I started to look for a more stable job. It was harder than I thought, and it took me three months to find “the one.”
At the end of October, I went on my second Entwine trip — this time to Argentina — which would never have happened if I hadn’t been so open and present in Nepal. The thing is that I was gay but living in the closet. It was only in Nepal that I felt like I was in a safe enough space to share my identity. That’s how Entwine knew to invite me on a trip for the LGBTQ+ community.
Right before the trip, I got an acceptance letter from a big IT company. We agreed to sign a contract after I came back, but on the same day, my friend called to tell me about a vacancy at a Jewish organization based in Jerusalem. I said I’d be happy to apply, but only after Argentina.
I don’t know what choice I would have made if I didn’t go on the trip, but those seven days in Argentina had a huge impact on me. I realized that I needed to come back to the Jewish community. I missed Shabbat and lectures and projects that furthered Jewish life. I missed the feeling that I was a part of something bigger than myself. To be Israeli and to be Jewish are two different things. The first one is defined by laws, but the second one is a personal choice.
I missed the feeling that I was a part of something bigger than myself. To be Israeli and to be Jewish are two different things. The first one is defined by laws, but the second one is a personal choice.
Argentina was one of the most emotional experiences of my life, seven days that opened a whole new chapter of my Israeli story.
When I came back, I declined the IT company’s offer and instead interviewed with the Jewish organization. I got offered the job the same day, and I signed the contract without hesitating. That same day, I applied for the JDC Entwine Community Representatives Program because it seemed like exactly what I needed — another potential opportunity to lead and create change in my Jewish community.
It worked. I was chosen as a Community Representative and started to see everything fall into place. Someone from Entwine told me about a Reform synagogue in Tel Aviv. I told some friends and invited them to Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday night. It’s been four months now, and ten of us go regularly. Not everyone can make it every week, but we know at least some of us will be there each Friday. When you’re in a new country, like I am in Israel, it’s important to have something stable that you can hold on to. Synagogue has become that for me. My friends and I go there, participate in the service, and then walk and talk together, supporting each other as we process our weeks.
Looking back on everything that’s happened, I’ve come to believe that, for me, Jewish opportunity operates around the principle of “giving back.” When you get something, give back — in the right moment, to the right person, for the right reason. For a long time when I was little, my family received parcels of food from JDC on Jewish holidays when we couldn’t afford to buy as many groceries as everyone else. Now, I feel that working in the Jewish community, volunteering, and leading with JDC Entwine is my way to give back.
Ana Omelchuk, 23, is a JDC Entwine Community Representative and a donor relations manager at the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Former Soviet Union (FJC-FSU).