by Avi Richman
When Tanya Gutsol becomes a JCSC fellow this year, she, along with around 70 other recent college graduates, will move to a faraway college campus. But unlike her counterparts, Gutsol, currently the program director at Hillel Kiev, will need a visa and a passport. Born and raised in Kiev, Ukraine, she will face the exciting opportunity of engaging Jewish college students at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County -- students whose backgrounds distinctly differ from hers.
Growing up with a Jewish mother and a Christian father, Gutsol knew very little about her Jewish heritage, other than the fact that she was Jewish. During the communist regime of the former Soviet Union (FSU), being Jewish was not easy and practicing Judaism was even harder. Gutsol grew up in a household without any Jewish tradition or religious items. Her only Jewish education came from her grandmother’s pre-Communist memories of the Holocaust, Jewish holidays and when to light candles.
But life changed in Ukraine with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. When Ukraine achieved independence in 1991, not only was it the rebirth of a nation, but also of Jewish life. In 1995, Hillel Kiev was started. A few years later, Gutsol’s mother found a new job at the Center for the Jewish Elderly. It was here that her mother learned about Hillel and she urged Gutsol to check it out.
At first Gutsol was apprehensive. “Even though I knew I was Jewish, it was only in the context of the Holocaust and other scary things,” she recalls. “My grandmother and I would look through old pictures of those not part of our family anymore and those who left the FSU as soon as possible. She would tell me that it was important to know our history, but also to keep quiet about being Jewish. I understood that to be Jewish was very scary.”
But Gutsol also remembers hearing Israel described as a place where “even the stones are covered with roses.” She was curious to learn more. When Gutsol was 17 years old, she finally gave way to her mother’s wishes and visited the Hillel. She liked the friendly people and they insisted she come again. They also told her about the possibility of a free trip to Israel. “I thought that a free trip to Israel was amazing since I never thought I would be able to get a visa or ever have enough money,” says Gutsol.
She went back to Hillel and slowly learned more about her Jewish identity. During the summer between high school and university, Gutsol attended a Jewish camp in Hungary with Jewish young adults from across Europe. “I could not completely understand the meaning of such words as ‘Shabbat,’ ‘Tfilah’ and ‘BirKat Hamazon,’” she says. “I did not understand many things relating to the synagogue and the Torah portions either. But the fact that Judaism united each of us, representatives from different countries and communities, seemed to me like some mystical power, which had infected everything around me. At that point I understood that I knew only one part of my history and decided I needed to discover more.”
At last in 2001, Gutsol went to Israel for the first time on a Taglit-birthright israel trip. The experience was “amazing” and led her to go to Hillel more frequently to learn about her Jewish history. For the next four years, she studied computer science at Kiev’s National University of Building and Architecture, but spent all her free time at Hillel. She participated in various seminars and congresses for young people, staffed spring and winter break trips for international students and became the Hillel Kiev program director.
Now Gutsol will move across the world to continue working with Jewish students. She hopes she can help Hillel have the same impact on others like it had on her.
“Thanks to Hillel I have realized that ‘being Jewish’ is not scary,” she says. “Rather it is the exact opposite. It makes you more responsible, presents new opportunities, makes you look at the world differently, and opens the unusual abilities and talents within yourself. Judaism will stay with me forever and I want to share my passion with others. I want to show how colorful life can become when you bring in a little bit of Judaism.”
Avi Richman is the Bronfman fellow at Hillel's Schusterman International Center.