Born and raised in Cherkassy, Ukraine, Alex did not grow up with a strong sense of Jewish identity, although he was aware that he came from a Jewish family. "My parents never told me about the traditions," he says. Rather, it was his grandparents who informed him that he was Jewish.
He also found out about the Jewish Agency through his grandparents, who now live in Haifa. "They helped my grandparents get to Israel," Alex explains. He began attending events at the Jewish youth center in his hometown, where he learned about customs and holidays. "Without the youth center, it would be tough for me to keep in touch with my peers, keep up with all the events in Israel, all the traditions and celebrations of Jewish holidays."
"Without the youth center, it would be tough for me to keep in touch with my peers, keep up with all the events in Israel, all the traditions and celebrations of Jewish holidays."
"I have come to love this life, these traditions," Alex says. "To feel this, you have to start taking part in all the activities and meetings, and when you get to talk to people, you start understanding all those feelings that y... You feel like you are brothers and sisters."
Thanks to support from Federation, Alex has been able to pursue his interest in learning about Judaism, and eventually to get to Israel and experience it for himself. "I went on a Birthright trip, which helped me realize the most that I belong there," he says. "In Israel, you can approach a stranger, ask them something, and they would help you. It's not a big deal. You feel that connection."
Having just graduated from university, Alex will soon travel to Israel again in order to spend five months learning Hebrew. "I feel like it's the country for me, and I'm going to do whatever it takes to go there and to help myself and help the country."
Although his parents don't have the same strong feelings about being Jewish as their son does, they support Alex's trips to Israel. He is not sure if he wants to make aliyah - he says that it depends on how good his Hebrew gets. But he is eager to visit his grandparents in Israel.
"I feel that I belong," Alex says. "Before I first came here, I knew I was Jewish, but the things I've learned and people I've met at the youth center really helped me realize it."
Devin is perched on a hilltop overlooking an organic farm outside of Mount Modi’in. Trim and fit, in shorts and work sneakers, he squints in the bright sunlight. The setting is idyllic: rolling hilltops covered in flowers and grazing animals, valleys interspersed with diverse crops and canvas yurts. Some of the residents here are young Israelis who have come to do a year of service before beginning their army duties; others, like Devin, are recent college graduates from North America, exploring their connection to the land of Israel.
The farm is an educational center where local school children come to learn about ecology and agriculture, and cutting-edge permaculture farming techniques are developed and tested. The residents here live “off the grid” in a model sustainable community, growing everything they eat and producing no waste.
“I’m already more excited about rainwater catchment and compost than I have been almost about any other subject,” Devin exclaims.
The son of two doctors, Devin describes his upbringing as areligious. “My family had been in the U.S. for six generations. I was about as American as I could really consider myself.” He did not explore his Jewish heritage until he left home for college, where he started meeting other Jews. After his junior year, he went on a Birthright trip with other students. “It was the first chance I’d really had to look at what Israel was, to look at what being Jewish was, and be ready and willing to say, I want to promise to be a child of the Commandments,” he recalls. He even got bar mitzvahed on the trip.
However, the experience left him unsure of where to head next. “It brought up the question, what does this mean? What is your relationship to Israel? And so I went home with this feeling of non-resolution. And I knew I had to come back.”
“It was the first chance I’d really had to look at what Israel was, to look at what being Jewish was, and be ready and willing to say, I want to promise to be a child of the Commandments,”
Devin first returned to Israel the following April, with an Alternative Spring Break program. He spent eight days volunteering in Be’er Sheva, and he felt that he fit in there. After graduating from university, he signed up for EcoIsrael, a program that brings young people to Israel for five months to work on a sustainable farm. His visit is funded by MASA, a Federation-supported program that enables Jewish young adults from all over the world to spend a semester or a year studying, working or volunteering in Israel.
Although his mother had not practiced Judaism for 30 years, she supported his decision to return to Israel and embrace his Jewish identity. “One of the things that she said after I came back from Birthright was, ‘Devin, I didn’t really notice it, but I miss feeling Jewish.’ I wanted to explore this both for myself and for my mother. When I go back, I’m going to try to help reconnect her with the community.”
Devin will begin medical school when he returns to the United States. In his professional life, he hopes to educate people who have not had the chance to visit Israel. “Birthright gave me a new perspective,” he says. “You hear all these negative things, and it’s really hard for people to come at it from the other perspective. Hopefully what I’m going to be able to do as a doctor, as a person in the community who can gain this kind of respect, is say, ‘You know, I’ve been there and I’ve seen it, and I’m an ambassador for this place that a lot of people don’t understand.’”
His work on the farm has clearly had a huge impact on the way he views his relationship to Israel. “We are physically putting of ourselves into the land, and we are taking from it what we grow, eating it and making it part of ourselves.” The work is part of a trade Devin makes with the land: he gives to Israel and Israel gives to him. “I want to give enough of myself that I feel I have permission to take some back with me.”