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How Rabbi Sacks Changed the Life of This Soviet-Bred Mother

November 22, 2020 | by Sofya Tamarkin

I was angry at the Communist regime that separated me from the basic connection to my Jewish heritage. Rabbi Sacks' wisdom inspired my journey home.

The author with the book gifted by Rabbi Sacks

Growing up in the Former Soviet Union, I didn't have much knowledge about my Jewish identity and traditions. Since 1989, after my family's immigration to the United States, I have been actively seeking to find meaning and purpose in Jewish philosophy, traditions and values. I read hundreds of books in attempt to understand my eternal heritage, searching for any relevance of the ancient wisdom in my own life.

I felt torn between the familiar Russian customs and my newly found Jewish faith. When my husband and I were faced with decisions on how to raise our children, it was clear that we wanted to build a home with Jewish values and traditions. But my Soviet childhood made it challenging to navigate and feel competent in the world of observant Jews. After all, I still remember the day my best friend called me a dirty Jew.

One day I came across the essay, "The Letters to the Next Generations", written by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. I held my breath as the words spoke directly to me: "Truth is that virtually every Jew alive today has a history more remarkable than the greatest novel or family saga. It tells of how they were expelled from one country after another, how they lost everything and had to begin again..."

I couldn't believe how relevant this statement was to me. This was exactly my story. I was astonished that somewhere in the world lived a rabbi who understood my personal ordeal and the depth of my struggles.

As my family was rebuilding a new life in the United States, we were hoping that our Jewish identity would no longer be our biggest obstacle but rather a sign of pride and integrity. Yet in reality, immigration brought with it many challenges and for years I felt so lost to my newly found Jewish identity. For over 70 years of Soviet propaganda, most Jews of the Former Soviet Union were unable to practice their religion. Traditions were lost, as the new generations had no one to learn from.

For years, I was angry at the Communist regime that separated me and so many others from the basic connection to our heritage. I realized that perhaps the most powerful answer to our captors was not to wallow in self-pity but to expose our own child to the insight of Jewish ideas and values. Reading Rabbi Sacks' words reassured me of this truth: "If something is wrong, don’t blame others. Ask, how can I help to put it right?"

It was intimidating for a Soviet-bred young mother to walk into a yeshiva for the first time. Rabbi Sacks' words inspired me again, speaking directly to me: "For Jews, education is not just what we know. It’s who we are.... the first duty of a Jewish parent is to ensure that their children have a Jewish education."

The Bar Mitzvah of our oldest son Daniel in 2013

These profound words encouraged me to make the ultimate leap of faith and allow my children to enter the world of ancient Hebrew texts and Torah wisdom.

The most powerful answer to our captors was not to wallow in self-pity but to expose our own child to the insight of Jewish ideas and values.

A decade after the life-changing decision to enroll our children into a Jewish school, my husband and I were sitting in the audience at Kohelet Yeshiva High School the suburbs of Philadelphia, listening to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks talk about his vision for the young generation. And without realizing it at first, I was seated right next to Lady Elaine Sacks.

After her husband’s presentation, I was lucky enough to strike a meaningful conversation about her hopes for her own children and grandchildren. I was mesmerized to realize that we had the same dreams for the next generations to come.

I never imagined that one day I would meet the author of the essay who gave me the courage to become the mother of two yeshiva students. After the lecture I spoke with Rabbi Sacks about my experiences of learning blessings, Hebrew letters and basic Jewish concepts together with my children. My husband and I attended our first Chumash parties, Hanukkah celebrations, Purim carnivals and Torah classes at Politz Hebrew Academy.

Rabbi Sacks reassured us that no milestone is small enough to celebrate and we should be proud of what our family has accomplished.

I felt grateful and overwhelmed by the joy of making so many difficult decisions that brought me to this moment, heightened by the awareness that so many young people never get the chance to learn about their Jewish heritage and appreciate their rich culture.

At the Kotel in Jerusalem for Bar Mitzvah for our son Ellie in 2017

As parents, we often encounter unexpected and unpredictable detours, yet we can find reassurance by the words of Rabbi Sacks that "faith does not mean certainty. It means the courage to live with uncertainty." Therefore, "more than we have faith in God, God has faith in us."

We all eventually leave this world, yet the legacy and the impact we create will last for generations to come. My life and the lives of my children were forever impacted by the wisdom of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

When I feel overwhelmed by all the challenges of raising children, living a Torah committed life and growing in authentic and meaningful way, I think back to the teaching of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks:

"Yes, life can be hard and full of the possibility of loss, pain, disappointment and grief. But the solution is not to avoid taking risks. It is to cultivate the things that give us strength: the love of family and friends, the support of a community, the habit of prayer that allows us to lean on God, and the faith that God believes in us, forgiving our faults and giving us the strength to begin again after every failure."

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