By Jane Yamaykin
AVODAH Alumna (DC 2008-2009)
Lech Lecha – in almost every generation throughout the Jewish people’s history we have been commanded to GO! It seems woven into the Jewish identity to go, to wander, and to ultimately find yourself anew. Today, my family celebrates our 24th Americaversary! When I was almost 8, my parents took me, my 2 year old brother, and four suitcases, and we left what was then the Soviet Union. It was the only home I’d ever known.
It wasn’t until we were safely in Italy that I learned I was Jewish. Having no context for religion, I was still furious! How could my parents keep what seemed such a critical piece of my identity from me?! Although this information was withheld from me for my own protection, I immediately embraced it as who I am. More than 24 years later, I’m still learning what that truly means and at times defining it for myself.
Wandering is definitely part of it. We moved around a lot in those first few years in the US. I swore as a child I would never move once I had any say over it, but then life or genetics took over and off I went! First to university in New Jersey, then back to North Carolina for a while, then up to Pennsylvania, then off to Israel for a year, and finally to DC for my AVODAH year starting in 2008.
My journey and therefore my professional career have never seemingly had a clear path or reason. Looking back, I have a better vantage point. I HAD to go, and each step of the way, two things stayed constant: my Judaism and my commitment to social justice. Perhaps it’s not the least bit surprising then that after a layoff due to restructuring at my job of the last four years, I find myself back at AVODAH. It was time to go, and so I went and have returned once more to what I know best: Judaism and social justice.
My life has been unquestionably altered by those fighting for social justice, policy change, and through community organizing. My family was able to leave Belarus because of political pressure placed on the Soviet Union and immigration reform in the US. We were able to start over in our new homeland by relying on welfare and food stamps.
Each year on this day, I reflect on how we became the American Dream through the labor of countless others who I will likely never know. And although I may never know the people who directly helped my family, I am privileged to know incredible AVODAH alumni like Emily Saltzman, and Myla Green, and Rachel Lee, as well as many others. These friends made during my AVODAH year are among the hundreds of Jewish social justice leaders in our extensive alumni network who strive tirelessly to change the world and impact thousands of lives through their efforts.
So when I’m pushed to leave a place that’s comfortable, I don’t despair. To wander is Jewish. And I do not go alone.
Jane Yamaykin is originally from Minsk, Belarus and is a graduate of Drew University. Her AVODAH placement was at Metro TeenAIDS in Washington, DC, and she currently serves as AVODAH’s Senior Development Associate.