Lia Dolinsky was born in 1987 in Kiev, Ukraine. At the age of two, her family, like other Soviets, left their home in hopes of a better life. En route, however, the collapse of the Soviet Union began and suddenly their documents were no longer valid. They could not return to the Soviet Union and the United States wasn't an option. Luckily, they were able to go to Israel. They received Israeli citizenship, began learning Hebrew, found jobs and sent Lia to ballet school. Their hopes of reuniting with the rest of their family were answered when the Dolinsky family won the Green Card lottery. After living in Israel for six years, they moved to Chicago.
Alexey Abramovich was born in Angarsk, Russia. He didn't know anything about being Jewish growing up. When he was 15, his family saw an article in a local newspaper about a program for teens, sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel, to study in Israel. Alexey applied and was accepted. He immediately fell in love with this country. It opened a whole new world for him where he discovered his Jewish identity. Two years later, his entire family made Aliyah and Alexey went on to serve in an elite Special Forces unit of the IDF called Duvdevan.
Back in Chicago, Lia continued taking ballet classes. After high school, she attended DePaul University and learned about Birthright, an all-expense paid Israel experience for Jewish young adults. At the same time, Lia also got involved in Russian Hillel. She was able to travel to Israel with her new friends on a Russian-speaking Birthright bus with the Jewish United Fund-funded community Birthright trip provider, Shorashim. Alexey heard about an opportunity for Israeli soldiers to join Shorashim's Birthright buses to enhance the Israeli experience. As fate would have it, Lia Dolinsky was in the same group with Alexey.
"When we lived in Israel", Lia reminisced, "my father learned how to make Turkish coffee and it became his 'thing'. We even brought the turka (a device for brewing Turkish coffee) to the United States with us." When the Birthright group was by Lake Kineret, Alexey took out his turka and offered to make real Turkish coffee for participants. "I thought [my dad] was the only person I knew who could make Turkish coffee", exclaimed Lia. While Alexey remembers thinking, "Lia was the first girl I knew who liked Turkish coffee!"
When the group arrived in Tel Aviv, Lia became nostalgic. She saw the beach promenade and it was exactly as she remembered it as a child living in Israel. But on this trip, she discovered a new Israel, one where she met her soul mate.
"After the trip we were talking online every day," Lia explained.
Lia went to Israel again a few months later to see Alexey. They returned to Chicago as a couple not knowing what the future would hold for them. Alexey had just finished his stint with the Army and was excited to go to the US and plan on having a life with Lia in Chicago. Alexey had to adjust to the American life style, culture-and Chicago weather. To ease his way, Lia brought Alexey into Russian Hillel where Alexey made many new friends who helped him feel at home. But Russian Hillel wasn't just a place to meet new friends for Alexey and Lia.
During her sophomore year at DePaul, Lia applied to be a Russian Hillel Israel Intern through JUF's Israel Education Center program. Birthright inspired Lia to create many programs for Russian Hillel promoting Israel in a positive way. As an Israel Intern, Lia strengthened her Jewish identity and passion for Israel, and remains a very active community member. Alexey, who was now studying at the College of Lake County, also wanted to share his passion for Israel with other students. Learning from Lia's experience, he applied to be a Russian Hillel Israel Intern. Alexey and Lia got engaged this summer in Israel. To no one's surprise, Alexey and Lia are having their ceremony in Israel!
"We didn't experience Judaism growing up in our families and now, when we are creating our new family, it is very important for us to have a traditional Jewish wedding and build a Jewish life together," said the couple.
Alexey and Lia remain friends with everyone from their Birthright trip which was a turning point in their lives. It not only inspired them to take leadership roles in Russian Hillel, but also helped these two hearts from different continents find each other and build a new life-and a Jewish community-together.
If you have your own Russian Hillel story, email Genia Kovelman at EvgeniaKovelman@juf.org, and it may be published.
Russian Hillel and the Israel Education Center are part of JUF's Department of Campus Affairs and Student Engagement.
Genia Kovelman is the program director for Russian Hillel.