“I am a Jew” were the first words of the speech I gave at my graduation from Ida Crown Jewish Academy 20 years ago. Today, it is my great honor to stand here in front of you representing Chicago Jewish Day School, both as the Director of Digital Learning and Technology and as a parent of three students.
Twenty five years ago my family landed in Chicago from the Former Soviet Union. A special JUF campaign, Operation Exodus welcomed us together with over 35,000 Russian Jews to Chicago in the early 90s.
I know some of you sitting in this room (or maybe your parents) attended demonstrations, wrote letters to your congressmen, and contributed to JUF’s campaign to bring the Jewish people out of the USSR. On behalf of my former countrymen, thank you.
Upon arrival we were introduced to the JCC for social programming and early childhood education, to Jewish Family Services and Jewish Vocational Services for job and school placement, to Mt. Sinai Hospital and clinics for our health needs, to HIAS for continued support with citizenship and to so many other organizations that are supported by JUF.
Within days of our arrival, I was enrolled in one of the two transitional schools created by JUF to accommodate the large number of Russian Jewish children. These schools helped us transition into a new life as American Jews, learn English and basic Hebrew.
This was my first encounter with daily prayer, kashrut and Jewish values. This was also my first realization of the concept of Jewish history, and that now I was a part of it.
It was at this point, in seventh grade that I was given my Hebrew name. Having a Hebrew name is part of everyday Jewish life, but in the Soviet Russia it meant harassment and persecution. But now, when my son Benji and my daughter Talia are called up to the Torah at school, I hear my Hebrew name, which was given to me by my first Judaic teacher.
My time at the transitional school was followed by the most transformative educational experience of my life – Ida Crown Jewish Academy.
As it often happens with Jewish day schools, the demand of absorbing Russian students was greater than the facilities or budgets allowed. But the community came together and created another classroom, provided support staff and a interpreter for our class.
Rabbi Fliegelman taught us Birkat Hamazon. I often think of him, when I lead my students in the after meal prayer. Mrs. Jaffe inspired us to see ourselves as leaders of the Jewish world. Ms. Goldstein was able to see past the grammatical errors and challenged us to think big. Mr. Newman figured out how to teach biology to students who barely understood the terminology. Every single teacher made a lasting impact that remains with us to this day. Every single one of us had those teachers. For all of that I have a deep Hakarat Hatov. Thank you.
Those Russian kids are all grown up now. They have jobs, homes and children. They volunteer, serve on the boards and head Jewish organizations. They celebrate Jewish holidays, put on Tefillin and travel to Israel. Their bookshelves contain the living Torah, they know who Rambam is, they can confidently walk into a synagogue and feel part of the community. They are passing on Jewish values and traditions to their children. They give their children Jewish names.
A generation of persecuted Jews in Russia have become the Jewish American leaders of tomorrow.
In 1990, JUF Chairman John Colman said, “Not only is this a humanitarian undertaking, but the populations that receive these emigrants will also be enriched for generations hence.” I hope we didn’t disappoint you.
If you extended an outstretched arm and with the help of HIAS and other organizations took us out of the FSU, that would have been enough. Dayenu.
If you just reunited us with our long lost families, and helped us navigate in the new country and helped our parents find jobs, that would have been enough.
But you knew that wasn’t enough. You provided us with a Jewish Day School education that transformed a simple child, who didn’t know what to ask and created a wise one who keeps asking questions.
You did all that. You did that with your contributions, your support and your time.
To those people who made a contribution to JUF 25 years ago and continue to do so, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for altering my life in a way I could have never imagined.
Thank you to my friends and colleagues from whom I learn from daily.
Thank you to my parents for making that difficult decision to pack their life in a few suitcases for a better future. Thank you to my husband, (Ilan Hoffenberg ’95) whom I met at Ida Crown And who has continued to inspire me for the last 23 years and to his parents who raised him with Jewish values.
And thank you to my children, who on a daily basis remind me of the hopes and dreams of my parents, and all the generations that came before them.
Every day I have the honor to do what you did for me. When I walk into Chicago Jewish Day School, I realize the incredible responsibility and privilege I have to impact the future of the Jewish community.
Every single one of us sitting in this room, whether as a parent, board member, administrator, donor or a teacher contributes towards the fostering of the next generation.
As I look around the room, I recognize many faces. We have met during school visits, at professional development conferences or at this incredible event where we can all come together to recognize the amazing work being done in the world of Jewish education. There are children waiting be be given their Hebrew names and for you to change their life. We are not just individual tables of teachers – we are a room of inspiration, education and common history. Together we hold the key that opens the door to the Jewish world of tomorrow.