When I heard this year’s theme, “Where Am I and How Did I Get Here” I was moved to take part with my own story. Many of you know that I moved here from California in March, that could be a whole article in and of itself. But you may not know that my family and I faced a much larger move in 1989, from St. Petersburg, Russia to America- by way of Austria and a small resort town HIAS took over in Italy called Ladispil. I was part of the “Let My People Go” Russian Jewry movement. My mom knew from an early age that she did not want to raise a family, a Jewish family, in Russia. They actually applied to emigrate to America long before I was around. But with the Russian (at the time Soviet Union) government slamming the “gates” shut between 1979 and 1989 we were all stuck.
In Russia being Jewish is an identity that is stamped in your library card, written in large letters next to your name in the school classroom roster, a sort of Scarlett Letter we wore from birth. Though our treatment was relatively civilized I definitely have memories of teachers scolding me with anti-Semitic language (“this Jewish girl needs to learn to finish her borscht”), and kids whose parents didn’t want them playing with me. Thanks in large part to the American Jewish community organizing on our behalf, the Soviet Union finally allowed members of the Jewish community to leave. This is part of a much longer story (giving up Russian citizenship, being fired, having to sneak to the airport in the middle of the night and so much more. Maybe I will tell it at a later time.) but the Cliff Notes version is that we were finally able to leave. After spending months in Refugee Camps, waiting to hear our faith, we were finally able to fly to San Jose, California where we had family that had emigrated over a decade earlier. Thanks to HIAS, JCFS, the Jewish Federations, JCCs and caring members of the Jewish community- we were well taken care of.
In June of 1989 I attended a JCC Day Camp and for the first time in my life felt proud to be Jewish. I remember feeling momentarily scared when we all started signing Jewish songs outside, in public, but as I worriedly looked around and realized that no one was looking for us, I smiled. I loved going to Jewish camp. I went every summer, became a CIT, Counselor, and Unit Head, with a few Jewish overnight camp experiences sprinkled in. I joined BBYO and was elected president of my chapter after being encouraged by the chapter advisor to run. I was active in Hillel and AEPhi at UC Santa Barbara. I worked part time for the Santa Barbara JCC, creating their first day camp. After graduation I took positions with Hillel, the Jewish Federation in San Francisco, and the JCC in Palo Alto. I was active as a lay leader, even when my time was precious. And now, as I sit behind my desk at Temple Jeremiah, I smile as I think about my journey. The Russian regime couldn’t attack my Jewish identity, it is a part of my soul; a part that only fights harder when faced with discrimination and bullies. I’m lucky that my parents wanted more for me, that the JCC provided a scholarship for immigrants like me to attend camp, that my BBYO advisor saw leadership potential in me, that my Hillel rabbi created a Jewish environment college students LOVED being a part of, and that I have found a home in my new strange land (the North Shore) with wonderful colleagues and all of you congregants. Thank you!
Dina Jacobs Bauwens
Membership & Communications Coordinator
PS, Dina is already involved as a lay leader in Chicago. She is on the JUF’s Russian Jewish Division’s Advisory Board and on the Host Committee for their first ever Gala, celebrating the 30th anniversary of “Freedom Sunday,” the historic march on Washington, D.C., which helped free millions of Jews from the then-Soviet Union. RJD is hosting a Gala event on November 30th to remember “Freedom Sunday; to celebrate the success of the Soviet Jewish immigrant community in Chicago; and to recognize outstanding leaders in our community. Let Dina know if you would like more information. It is meant to honor anyone who may have played a role in helping the “Let My People Go” campaign in the 70s and 80s.
- Rabbi Rachel Heaps’ Installation - March 14, 2018
- Singing Our Sacred Roots: The American Journey of Our Reform Musical Inheritance - February 22, 2018
- An Update on the Refugee Sisters You Helped Sponsor - December 21, 2017
- Adult Hebrew Class - December 5, 2017
- Say Yes to Supporting Temple Jeremiah - November 28, 2017
- Moving from Divisions to Dialogue- A Conversation with Laurie Grauer - November 8, 2017
- Announcement from Adam Kahan - November 7, 2017
- Annual Noni Dodge Blood Drive - October 13, 2017
- Will You Say Yes? - September 27, 2017
- Jeremiah Gems- Rabbi Rick Jacobs - September 19, 2017