Two years after the world witnessed the dissolution of a global power, the collapse of the Soviet Union, my parents made a decision that would change the course of our lives forever. Leaving the Ukraine as Jewish refugees with a three year old, three hundred dollars, and a desire for a better life required willpower, self-discipline and immense courage.
Growing up as a first generation immigrant inspired me to capitalize on the opportunity I was given, a chance at success living in the world’s super power.
Raised in New York, I was taught by the city to embrace my uniqueness and to exemplify my individualism, ideals that have played a pivotal role in my life. Additionally, my growth has been incubated by the warmth of a group of people who share my values and appreciate my vision. I am speaking, of course, about the Jewish people.
Before I go on, a little background is in order.
Ever since my early childhood, I dreamed of greatness. I wanted to be a powerful, successful individual, and I had no intention of settling for anything less. But my father set me straight, reordering my priorities. I will never forget the words he chose to drive home his point: “Above all, no matter how successful you are, you must always remember to be a good person first and successful later.”
At the time, I wasn’t quite sure what he meant. Being a “good person” seemed quite vague. Later, when I was diagnosed with bone cancer, it all came into focus.
Throughout the ordeal, my parents taught me the importance of fortitude and devotion. Friends, family and organizations like Chai Lifeline showed me the importance of compassion and unconditional love. The care and attention I received molded me into the person I am today and helped me appreciate Jewish values, which, I learned, are rooted in being a good person.
I have learned that everybody has a story and is struggling with something. A good person is one who cares enough to listen and never passes up an opportunity to help. A good person is one who has empathy, a quality that is difficult to obtain yet impossible to lose.
This brings us back to today.
The Jewish values that motivate me are a desire to live life to its fullest and a penchant for giving back. Ever since junior high school, I have been devoting my time to local fundraisers, walkathons, and volunteering opportunities. Now, I run my own NYC-based pediatric cancer fundraising and awareness campaign called Checkmate, Cancer! (checkmatecancer.org). For me, giving has become more of a personal obligation than an act of self-fulfillment. For me, giving is a way of life and the only way to live.
I put being a good person ahead of success just as my father suggested – the best advice I have ever received. But now it’s time to plan my future, and I believe that entails taking Jewish values to the next level.
In the newest chapter of my life, I am doing just that as a participant in the BUILD Fellowship, a joint program of Yeshiva University and the UJA-Federation of New York. This incredible program has helped me explore Jewish values as I never have before.
I am surrounded by people my own age who share the same Jewish values but utilize them in different ways. Despite our differences and varied backgrounds, one thing is quite evident: we are all Jewish, and we are all exceedingly proud.
With every BUILD Fellowship session (especially the eye-opening discussion about charity with The Beanstalk Group cofounder Seth Siegel) it becomes clearer that the scope of Jewish values is endless, and that I will likely never fully grasp it. But I enjoy the process of having my eyes opened to Jewish values and figuring out how I will incorporate these into everything I do.
Jewish values have been my greatest strength and guiding star thus far. I trust that they will help me achieve the success I have always wanted in my life and career.