Building Communities from Jerusalem to Brooklyn: Naomi Frumin’s Story
Growing up in Jerusalem is a straight path towards learning that life is complicated. When I take the light rail through downtown Jerusalem, I sit next to people from all kinds of backgrounds and all walks of life. When your small bubble is filled with different languages, cultures, and religions, you learn how to connect with people on a deeper level. Those early experiences, combined with my family’s history, gave me a fundamental sense of love and commitment to Israel and its diverse communities.
My parents came to Jerusalem from Russia and Ukraine. They wanted their children to be able to live freely and have access to opportunities that were closed to them. What they didn’t know at the time is that, due to a genetic condition, both my sister and I would experience hearing loss to different degrees. I continue to be grateful that in Israel, living with a hearing impairment hasn’t changed my ability to be a leader and serve my country in the ways that are most important to me.
Being able to serve my country has been a high priority for me since I was young. I’ve often asked myself, “What part of my identity is more important to me, being Israeli or being Jewish?” The balance that I have come to is that I identify as a Jew who lives in Israel because without my parents’ Jewish identity, they would have never moved to Israel and I would not be able to live the life I’m loving today. As a way to express gratitude for all that Israel has provided for me and with the intention of strengthening my leadership skills, I decided to do a service-based gap year before my army service.
I ended up working in Brooklyn as part of ShinShinim (a year-long service abroad program offered to Israeli high school graduates through the Jewish Agency). In New York, I encountered Judaism in a way that felt so meaningful to me. My host family, and especially my host mom, who is an amazing woman, mother, and reform Rabbi, introduced me to an important part of Reform Judaism—thinking about Jewish practice in terms of the values that were already important to me. For example, the holiday of Sukkot can be about making sure that every person has shelter and a safe place to sleep. I was so inspired by the community and the people I met in Brooklyn that I was determined to spend more time with Jewish communities outside of Israel after my army service.
When I was still in high school, I started the process of negotiating with the Israeli army to let me serve as a volunteer, despite my hearing loss. It was a complex three year process, but in the end, I enlisted in the army as a commander in Garin Tzabar – a program that provides housing and support for lone soldiers in Israel (soldiers from the Jewish Diaspora who choose to make aliyah and serve in the Israeli army). With my fluency in Russian and English, I was able to provide a safe space and family environment for young people who had left their home countries, driven by a sense of duty, and who were searching for a home in Israel.
After I completed my army service, I spent two years working with a non-profit organization called Kadimah where I worked with Israeli young adults who chose to do a gap year before their army service. The organization provided a safe place, emotional, social, and educational support for children who need additional support.
My work with the incredible soldiers in Garin Tzabar and with Kadimah further inspired me to return to Brooklyn College as a Jewish Agency Israel Fellow. When I applied to the Jewish Agency Israel Fellow program, it was very important to me that my application be considered on its own merit without factoring in the fact that I have hearing loss. At the time, I was studying Human Resources and Management at Bar Ilan University, but when I was offered the opportunity to complete my degree in New York, I immediately said yes.
Moving back to New York let me reconnect with my host family and work closely with students as they grow into and explore their Jewish identities. Supporting our students as they encounter antisemitism and a difficult climate on campus, I can say that my dream to serve my community and my country is fulfilled.