Bringing Stories and Traditions to Life: Yakov’s Story



July 26, 2023

My story begins with other people’s stories; namely, my grandmother’s. I was born in Rishon L’Tzion a few years after my family emigrated from Belarus to Israel, and I spent the first eight years of my life listening to my grandmother share her memories. Her stories from life in the Soviet Union were poignant and became part of my identity and sense of self. 

I am an only child and was the first in my family to go to the Israeli army where I served as an Intelligence Guide for pilots in the Air Force. A year after I finished my army service, a friend approached me about an opportunity to staff a Jewish Agency camp for children in Ukraine.

When I told my mom, she was so upset — she couldn’t understand why I would want to return to the former Soviet Union, a place that had been such a source of pain for my family. I felt that it was the most meaningful way for me to understand my grandmother’s memories and stories, and I felt compelled to go. 

Twice a year for the last six years, I travel to Ukraine and run programs for young Jews in underserved areas. These experiences in Ukraine not only touch me individually and help me understand my family’s story, but also help me connect with Jewish communities around the world through the Jewish Agency Israel Fellow program.

After I applied to the Israel Fellow program, I was assigned to Columbia/Barnard Hillel in New York City. It has been an honor to create communities with students on campus that are deepening the Jewish identities and strengthening their connections to Israel. 

When I reflect on my own life, my family’s lives, and the impact of my work as an Israel Fellow, I hope to inspire others to live  authentically. Living authentically requires vulnerability and courage and it makes us, our lives, and those in our lives better for it. 

For my family, living in Israel has offered us the gift of living authentically. If it weren’t for Israel, we may still be in Belarus where living authentically, as a gay, Jewish man, would have most likely resulted in my imprisonment. In this way, my story continues to be the story of many others — my grandmother’s, mine, and all the students I’ve met on campus along the way.