Cultural connector



April 29, 2019

I grew up Jew-ish. Emphasis on the ish.

What represented my Jewish identity? The menorahs scattered around my Southern California home, my biblical name and the stories of my ancestors fleeing the Nazis during the Holocaust.  

That’s all there was to it.

But when I enrolled at California State University, Northridge and met Keren, my connection with Judaism began to change.

She was a Russian-speaking Jewish student just like me. I was deeply in touch with my Russian identity, bolstered by years of speaking Russian with my Ukrainian parents and cooking Russian comfort food.

Keren told me that she was a Russian-speaking engagement intern at Hillel 818. Her friendliness gave me a glimpse of what Hillel was — a welcoming and supportive community for Jewish students.

But I was hesitant. This wasn’t my scene.

The idea of becoming involved in Jewish life at the ripe age of 17 scared me. I mustered some courage and decided to give it a try in support of my new friend.  

Over a cup of coffee, Keren and I reminisced about watching “NuPogodi,” a popular Russian cartoon from our childhood, and spoke about the Russian-speaking Jewish community on campus.

That same week, I entered Hillel 818 for the very first time. The smell of fresh pierogi, a Russian pastry stuffed with fillings such as potatoes or meat, wafted through the building. It reminded me of home.

Moments later, Keren introduced me to her friends, who were members of the Russian-Speaking Jewish Club at Hillel 818. We bonded over funny-looking Russian food like holodetz, chicken soup set into gelatin, nonsensical Russian superstitions, like having to sit for a moment of silence before a trip, and cracked jokes that only other Russian-speaking Jewish people would understand.

I had found my people.

Fast forward. I received an email from David Katz, executive director of Hillel 818, one year later. Because Keren was graduating soon, Hillel would need a new Russian-speaking engagement intern at Hillel 818. Keren recommended me.

I had big shoes to fill, but I had no hesitations this time. It was my turn to give back to Hillel 818. So, I became a Russian-speaking engagement intern in fall 2018.

Over the past few months, I’ve used my new role to help organize Russian-style events, sharing our culture with others and bringing our community closer together.

With the help of my peers, I transformed the Hillel 818 building into a ballroom with long dining tables decorated with floral centerpieces for Russian Restaurant — our annual celebration of Russian culture. The guests danced the night away after eating delicious Russian food like borscht, a beet soup, and olivie, a traditional Russian salad, cooked by our very own Hillel staff members.

We showed our artistic side at a paint event, where students designed their own Russian Nesting Dolls, called mathreshki. The colorful dolls, adorned with flowers, jewels and other crafty materials, were just as diverse as the students who created them.

During the spring semester, we hosted students of all different backgrounds at Old Russian New Year, where we celebrated the New Year, the new semester and our strength and unity. We learned about Russian New Year traditions and exchanged gifts under the New Year’s tree, a custom in the former Soviet Union that’s still popular. Of course, there was an abundance of genuine Russian food.

With the support of Hillel 818, I’ve had the opportunity to build a community of Russian-speaking Jewish students who come from similar backgrounds and identify with one another.

Hillel helped me get in touch with my Jewish roots and strengthen my identity as a Russian-speaking student. My involvement has transformed me as a cultural connector and a leader.

Thanks to Hillel, I don’t consider myself Jew-ish, just Jewish.

The Jewish Identity Project at Hillel 818 is supported by a Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles.