For two weeks, I’ve struggled to find the right words, to put on paper all that I was feeling and thinking. I’ve started and stopped. I’ve read. I’ve watched. I’ve shared. I’ve admired the eloquence of many. I’ve reposted. I’ve donated. I’ve rallied. I’ve been notified of every rocket launch into Israel. I’ve put on a brave face for others. I’ve had many conversations. I’ve tried to work. I’ve done a lot, but really I’ve done nothing. My words may not be right, but neither is saying nothing.
I was born in the Soviet Union and by the time I was eight years old, it had collapsed. In 1993, my parents left their whole life behind for a better one – for me and for my sister. Immigration is never easy and it was especially hard for my family. My parents, both highly educated, went from white collar jobs to cleaning someone else’s toilets, delivering flyers, trying to learn English, earning additional (and unrelated) degrees and licenses all while paying rent and putting food on the table. The promise of the “American Dream” wasn’t for them, it was for their children. They knew that as Jews the opportunities were extremely limited. Their Judaism was inherent, but carried as a burden. They knew nothing of Jewish tradition or Halaka. They didn’t celebrate any holidays although matzah did find its way to us around Passover, much like it does for every Jewish holiday on American supermarket shelves.
In the USSR, politics and religion weren’t openly discussed, yet everyone knew what your politics and your “ethnicity” were. As a child, I didn’t quite understand this. I didn’t understand that the only reason the principal didn’t want to accept me to a specialized school was because I was Jewish, making up an excuse that “your child will never learn English.” I didn’t understand that my parents couldn’t get promoted because they were Jews. All I understood was that all of our family and friends were leaving for Israel and America. I didn’t understand the nuances of the immigration process. Then, we too left.
As a teenager in NYC public school I had all kinds of friends, but sometime in high school, I started gravitating to others like me – former Soviet Jews. Much like our parents, our Judaism was innate, but we knew nothing of our history or tradition. We read the classics. We learned about antisemitism, but we really didn’t feel it, not in America, not in NYC in the 1990s. It was cool to be a “New York Jew” and we embraced it. In 2004, while in college, I went to Israel for the first time. I met some of my extended family. I saw relatives and friends. I visited Jerusalem and Yad Vashem for the first time. From that point on, my husband and I visited Israel almost annually while our grandfathers were alive.
In 2006, my husband’s grandfather passed away while we were visiting and we ended up staying in Israel longer than anticipated. As my aunt and I were driving to help with funeral arrangements from the northern city of Nahariya, where she lives, to Krayot, a piercing sound broke our conversation. Without hesitation, Libi, an IDF veteran, abruptly stopped the car in the middle of the street and ran to the nearest house instructing me to run with her. We entered a stranger’s home and stayed in their meclad (bomb shelter) for the next 25 or so minutes, while their daughter of about 12 was hysterically crying. For Israelis this is normal, but for me, a proud Jewish New Yorker it was both shocking and confusing. That siren and subsequently intercepted rocket was just a warning for the barrage of rockets that Hezbollah launched into Israel later that July.
Looking back, that was probably the first defining moment of my Judaism. I didn’t have Facebook until 2007, but thanks to “FB Memories,” I know that I’ve been sharing posts in support of Israel since. Anytime something happened in Israel, I felt deeply affected and I wanted my friends to know so I shared with the hashtag #WakeUpWorld. In 2019, I joined Jewish Parent Academy (JPA), a grassroots non-profit organization founded by Russian-speaking Jewish parents with the mission of strengthening the Russian-speaking Jewish community and promoting Jewish identity through high-level education. My kids were 8 and 5 at the time and were beginning to ask questions. Questions that neither I nor my husband, with his yeshiva education, didn’t always have answers to. After my first JPA class, I was hooked and it became the catalyst for both my Jewish learning and my activism. I was and still am privileged to learn from some of the leading Jewish thinkers, scholars and professors today. A year after my first class, I was invited to join the JPA board, which later inspired me to help start the Jewish ERG at the company where I work.
As antisemitism continued to rise in America and around the world, I became more vocal. I now had the tools necessary to intelligently discuss current events, because I had a much deeper understanding of the history – of my history, of Jewish history and of Jewish text & tradition. This coincided with us going more regularly to shul and my children attending Sunday school and Jewish Camp. It became increasingly more important to give my children context and a deeper understanding. Today, my 12 year old is not only preparing for his bar mitzvah, but also learning with Millstone Scholars program history that I didn’t learn until I was in my 30s.
For the last eight years or so, I’ve noticed a significant shift – the antisemitic rhetoric has started to become more prominent as the undercurrents of propaganda began to rise. Now, I know what it is – I grew up with it, I’ve learned the intricacies and as an adult, I am able to “smell” it from a mile away. It reminded me of my childhood and not in a good way. I started to call it out and not just on social media. My Israeli relatives feared I’m becoming “too Jewish” and teased me for my activism.
On October 7, we all woke up with the horrific news of an infiltration, of brutal, savage rape, indiscriminate murder of children, women and men. As the news started to unfold, we were glued to our phones for the latest updates, reaching out to family and friends to ensure their “safety” as a vile war was being waged a war against humanity. This has been the largest mass slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust and there’s not a single Jew around the world that is not personally affected. It is proportionately equivalent to over 50,000 Americans. As soon as Monday, however, here in America and around the world, the rhetoric started shifting from unequivocally condemning these barbaric acts to demonstrations supporting them. We witnessed posters of babies, children, elderly being ripped down; we saw swastikas in Times Square as antisemitic rhetoric quickly gained speed, while Americans and other foreign nationals are still being held hostage.
The usually quiet antisemitism is no longer dormant, it has been woken up and suddenly many started to feel empowered to spew hatred not based on fact or historical knowledge. From homes of Jews being marked in Berlin, chants of “gas the jews” in Australia, hate speech on US campuses, my friend’s office and Jewish business worldwide being desecrated, to a false narrative being perpetuated by “woke” celebrities and “social justice warriors,” I no longer feel safe.
Last Friday, I was afraid to bring my kids to their school in Manhattan as those wanting the annihilation, not only of Israel, but of all Jews, called for a “global day of Jihad.” This Shabbat, my friends and I discussed where to go if things get worse. Some laughed, others suggested Israel, but we all wondered if this is how our grandparents’ generation discussed leaving Europe just a century ago at a dinner table much like ours. None of our respective grandparents left and were fortunate to survive, most the only of their entire families as six million Jews were brutally and systematically murdered by the Nazis. To quote my newest FB friend, Professor Shai Davidai, “I have to speak because I’m afraid”. I’m afraid for the safety of my family and friends in Israel who are spending their days and nights in bomb shelters. I’m afraid for my cousins and all of the IDF soldiers fighting a war against those that don’t value life. I’m afraid for the safety of my children and all Jewish children worldwide as chants for our extermination are getting louder. I’m afraid that we are on the precipice of something bigger and the senseless loss of innocent lives at the hands of those that only want death and destruction.
But, while I can still say it in America, as the results of my hacked 23andMe proved beyond a doubt, my name is Alla. My mother was Jewish. My father is Jewish. I’m a Jew and wherever I stand, I will always stand with Israel.
*All views are my own.