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My 30-year journey from fleeing refugee to returning philanthropist

A JUF board member returned to Russia on a recent Young Leadership Cabinet mission.

AlexTurik image
The author outside his childhood home in St. Petersburg, Russia.

In April, I came back to my hometown of St. Petersburg, Russia--a place my parents fled 30 years ago as Jewish refugees. A place I never imagined returning to, especially as part of a Jewish philanthropic organization like the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA).

My family left the Soviet Union as the communist leviathan was convulsing in its death throes. I was 11, and all I remembered were the long lines at stores, glum people, and never-ending greyness outside. 

My last memory was of a Soviet immigration officer at the airport who checked our belongings for illegal contraband, muttering through his teeth "get out, traitors!"

We moved to Israel, where the kids ironically referred to me and my brother, Nikita, as "the Russian kids." We became bronzed Sabras within a few years, and had nothing but vague memories about our Russian past. We graduated the tihon (high school) and served in the Israel Defense Forces. 

After that, we came to Chicago to complete our academic studies. I got married, founded a business, and started a family. As my kids grew and their friends started asking why their Dad didn't speak like an American, they told them that Papa was an immigrant from Israel. I didn't feel I had to correct them. After all, I never considered Russia to be anything more than the place of my birth. 

However, when the JFNA Young Leadership Cabinet announced that its 2019 Mission would be to St. Petersburg and Tbilisi, capital of the former Soviet state of Georgia, I had to go. I don't know why, I just had to. 

So right before Passover, we landed in St. Petersburg. As I passed through Pulkovo Airport, memories flashed before my eyes. Family of four, leaving all our relatives and familiar surroundings, all our possessions in four suitcases, hastily heading for a strange country we saw only on postcards. Our own personal Exodus. 

En route to our hotel, I recognized spots from my childhood--Nevskii Avenue, where we shopped for holiday presents; the Hermitage Museum, where I spent so many hours at my mom's insistence; and St. Isaac's Cathedral, where my brother, Nik, and I fed the pigeons. 

On our last day, I invited my Cabinet fellow, Sam Fisch, to accompany me to my childhood neighborhood. We got off the subway and made the short walk to the building where I grew up.  

I slowed down and looked around. Memories flooded me. Here was the ice cream shop, now a KFC. The library where I checked out my first book, now a supermarket. The park where I skated, now a parking lot. The bike shop, now a bank. 

I remembered the small boy, Sasha, who played on these streets 30 years ago. I looked at my hands to make sure these still were the hands of a grown-up. They were; they were just shaking a bit.

As I saw the doorway of my building, I felt a lump in my throat. I looked at Sam. He understood where I was emotionally and just nodded. 

Someone walked out and held the door for us to come in. I entered and saw the elevator. Without a second of hesitation, I hit the button for the 8th floor and took a deep breath as we slowly clattered upward. I walked right down the hallway that led to our apartment. Should I knock? Who lives there now? What does the apartment look like now? 

I looked at Sam, shrugging my shoulders for guidance. He nodded again. With sweaty palms and a lump in my throat, I knocked. No answer. I knocked again--harder this time. No answer. Harder. No answer. Harder again.

I finally stopped. I was panting hard as tears rolled down my cheeks. Maybe it's better that way. Some doors are better off never opened...  

On our way back to the hotel, I thought of this Russian Jewish boy's full circle. I left my hometown as a refugee. American Jewish organizations (HIAS, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and JFNA) helped settle us in Israel. Now, 30 years later, I was back with JFNA, checking on the well-being and Yiddishkeit of my Jewish brethren. 

It felt like a perfect fulfillment of Torah's principle that has guided Jews around the world to help other Jews-- Am Yisrael arevim ze la ze , all the people of Israel are responsible for one another.

Alex Turik is a JUF Board Member, founder of JUF's Russian Jewish Division, and member of the JFNA Young Leadership Cabinet.

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