Greetings from St. Petersburg. Think of this as my postcard to you. I have been in my new role with the Jewish Agency for Israel for only a couple of weeks and have traveled throughout Israel and Eastern Europe with federationmissions on a whirlwind of Jewish identity. Now I am on a White Nights Mission with a wonderful group of New York and Washington, D.C. leaders who are learning about Jewish life behind what was once the Iron Curtain.
Something remarkable always happens on these trips and my little miracle happened yesterday. We were sitting in the Jewish Community Center -- Yesod -- of St. Petersburg having lunch with a group of special young people. We were going around the tables, asking them some very basic questions about their lives, much as any of us do when we meet new people.
Meet Natasha. She went to a JAFI summer camp where she first learned about Jewish life. She went to Israel onBirthright and then did a long-term program in Israel through Masa, an Agency funded opportunity to spend a semester in Israel. She then went on a leadership development program and, paying it forward, served as a youth leader in the city of Novgorod. As it happened, she just moved to St. Petersburg for a new job she was starting the next day and came to lunch to meet new people.
But I’m not telling you about Natasha because she is an emerging leader in Russia or because she is a poster child for the Jewish Agency’s work. I’m telling you about Natasha because when I asked her where she is from, she named the little shtetle where my father grew up and where as a six year old he watched his father, the town rabbi and the rest of his family get murdered as a young boy sitting in the branches of a mulberry tree. Natasha’s family got out just in time and escaped the fate of my grandparents.
Realizing this, we both searched excitedly for some way in which to connect through this shared past. It didn’t take long until we discovered that we are actually related. She mentioned a relative who was my father’s first cousin and responsible for his very survival, a man who traveled to America to raise funds for the war effort. The two of us are magically linked by virtue of a hero to us both.
Natasha is the reason that I do the work that I do. When you believe in Jewish peoplehood you believe that we are all part of an extended family with a mission. Every once in a while, you realize that this description isn’t only symbolic or emotional. Sometimes it’s very real. Natasha, welcome to my family. It’s not only about our newly found connection as relatives, however distant. It is about being part of the remarkable family called the Jewish people. Welcome to our family.
See you back in America.