In the Shadow of Chernobyl, I Found Out I was Jewish at Age 16
Masha Merkulova immigrated to San Francisco and today empowers Jewish teens to stand proud for Israel.
Growing up in the Soviet Union during the 1980s, Masha Merkulova didn’t realize she was Jewish. Despite having Jewish aunts and uncles, being Jewish was never spoken about at home. One time she probed, asking her parents about a possible Jewish heritage. “What difference does it make?” her non-Jewish father replied. “It's not like you could start going to synagogue – because there are none!”
“The Soviet Union succeeded in stamping out the Jewish identity of millions of people," Masha said during an Aish.com interview. "Our only identity was that of a Soviet. Nobody ever mentioned anything about being Jewish. Our main concern was: Is there bread in the store?”
But Masha did experience some curiosities at home. “Once a year, in springtime, I’d be instructed to eat burnt crackers that would magically appear from an underground bakery. And my mother lit a memorial candle for her mother – on the Gregorian date, because she had no access to a Jewish calendar.”
Masha’s destiny changed in 1986 following the catastrophic meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. With the Ukrainian wind blowing north, Belarus suffered the worst radiation. Twelve-year-old Masha – her mother a doctor and her father working in the health ministry – became acutely aware of the health issues involved.
“After the accident, the Soviet government was paying triple-salary for people to work in Chernobyl. We had friends who went there with their families – and they all died quickly and painfully,” she says.
Soon after, Masha’s mother traveled to America to visit her brother in the San Francisco Bay Area. When she returned, Masha became obsessed with the idea of emigrating from the Soviet Union. “We have to get out!” she told her parents. “I want to have a normal life with normal children, not mutants.”
Masha took charge and mailed an application to the U.S. requesting refugee status, with her uncle listed as sponsor. Despite numerous attempts, the paperwork never made it through. “Someone finally told me that for reliable mail delivery, I need to leave the Soviet Union and mail it from another country. So when I was 14, I joined a school trip to Poland – just to mail our documents.”
These were tense years for Soviet émigrés; refuseniks like Natan Sharansky were imprisoned in the Gulag. Yet Masha had no awareness of their plight; she didn’t yet know she was Jewish.
Then, at age 16, she was in a government office filling out some forms. For nationality, she wrote “Russian.” The clerk, noting the Jewish-sounding name of Masha’s mother’s, Riva Levovna, shouted: “Don’t you realize you’re Jewish?!”
Masha went to school the next day and told everyone, “Guess what – I'm Jewish!” Some classmates looked at her funny, but she was oblivious to any negative connotation. When someone called her a derogatory term in Russian, Zhid, she shot back: “So what if your nationality is Russian. Does that make you any better?”
It took her family six years to get out. In 1992, an 18-year-old Masha arrived in the Bay Area, eyes wide open to a new frontier… and virtually zero Jewish identity.
A registered nurse, Masha worked in a maternity critical care unit to help support her family. It would take nearly a decade in America to experience a Jewish awakening.
“I wanted my son to get a Jewish education, so I signed him up for Jewish day school,” she says. “That increased my exposure to the Jewish community, but I still felt disconnected. My English was not yet good, my Hebrew was worse, and I was even unfamiliar with the songs.”
The school sent home a weekly newsletter that included Israel-related articles. This planted a seed of interest, and during the 2005 Gaza disengagement, Masha found herself “craving information and crying my eyes out at the uprooting of Jewish homes.”
She turned to her Jewish friends, but found them generally “unconcerned and even unaware.” Two weeks later, at a family weekend at a Jewish overnight camp, Masha asked the professionals running the event to explain the Mideast situation. “Unfortunately, most were either uninformed or uninterested in what was going on,” she says. “This seeming lack of connection to Israel disturbed me.”
A year later was the Second Lebanon War. “My relatives in northern Israel were running to bomb shelters. Meanwhile, my colleagues at work were standing around the nurses’ station, engaged in Israel-bashing, accusing Israel of apartheid and war crimes. I knew it was all untrue, but I didn’t have the facts to confront them.”
Just then, another nurse, originally from Ghana, walked in and gave an informed defense of Israel, using historical, archaeological, biblical, and ethical arguments. Feeling inadequate to defend her own people, Masha committed to becoming an educated Jew.
Masha came across Aish.com which became her go-to site every day.
That evening, Masha did a Google Search and came across Aish.com. She was instantly attracted to the mix of Jewish national, historic, religious and traditional elements. “Aish.com became my go-to site every day,” she says. “I watched all the videos and Lori Almost Live. I read all the articles on holidays, current events, and Torah portion. I devoured the website. One article spoke about lighting Shabbat candles every week, and that was the first piece of observance I took on. It made huge difference in giving our home a Jewish flavor.”
Masha also went on the Momentum trip for moms to Israel (“It was amazing!”), and began keeping kosher after hearing an audio class by Rabbi Benny Friedman.
Birth of Club Z
What bothered Masha most of all was that many American Jews seemed uneducated – and worse, apathetic – about the relevance of Israel to their lives.
“If it was any other national movement, American Jews would be at the forefront. For many Americans, Judaism starts with tikkun olam and ends with tzedakah, charity. The community is very good at fulfilling ‘Justice, justice you shall pursue’ (Deut. 16:20). But many forget the second half of the verse, ‘So you will thrive and possess the land which I am giving you.’ Israel is both the name of the land and the name of the people. Jewish identity and Israel are deeply interconnected.”
Masha perceives a fundamental misperception of the role of Zionism in America today. “Many American Jews think that Zionism is only about making aliyah. It's also about pride in Jewish identity. Jews are being attacked in the streets for looking Jewish, irrespective of whether we support Israel or have family there. A Jew who cares about Israel is connected to both Jewish history and destiny. Standing up for Israel is standing up for yourself. Because if Hamas could get away with bombing synagogues in America, they’d do it.”
Masha summoned her feisty Soviet spirit and decided to change the situation.
Frustrated, Masha summoned her feisty Soviet spirit and decided to change the situation. “The Soviet Union did a great job of raising me to be a justice warrior,” she says. “We’d march down the street for Nicaraguan rights and Cuban rights. Of course, it was all just a show – because it was never about our own rights, but rather about building communism around the world.”
Masha’s nursing background came in handy, too. “I come from the world of medicine which taught me to diagnose a problem,” she explains. “What is really going on and how do we cut to the chase? I call things out and name them as they are. I'm not politically correct or especially diplomatic. If I see a way to treat the problem, I’ll pursue it.”
Masha introducing Brooke Goldstein during Club Z's virtual summit
Seeking to identify the core issue, Masha focused on the explosion of anti-Semitic bullying on college campuses, where Jewish students are ostracized from progressive groups unless they first renounce their Jewish identity and deny Israel's right to exist.
“College students are entering a war zone,” she says, pointing to the extremist Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP); Israel Apartheid Week operating on hundreds of campuses; and the infamous Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) movement. “We’re sending our kids to a hostile environment and they feel helpless and alone.”
Investigating further, Masha was shocked to discover that even college students who attended Jewish day school knew little about Israel. “They had no context of how the 1948 war came about, or how the 1967 war helped transform Jewish destiny,” she says. “Sure, they knew about cherry tomatoes, but once they got to college they’re told, ‘Israelis are thieves who plant cherry tomatoes on Palestinian land!’ Parents are giving their children everything that they can – yet they send them out into the world not knowing the true story of Israel.”
Masha cites the example of a Jewish teen from a family of prominent pro-Israel donors. “By the spring of her freshman year at Berkeley, this young woman was parading around Berkeley with a Palestinian flag, and later became the founder and director of organizations demonizing Israel and the Jewish people. When Jewish teens become standard-bearers of anti-Israel movements on campus, it’s time for parents to re-evaluate where their money is going.”
The reality hit home in 2011, when Masha’s son came home from synagogue Hebrew school saying they’d viewed an anti-Israel movie. Masha watched the film, Promises, promoted by PBS. “If you don't know anything about Israel, you’ll walk away from this film thinking that Israeli soldiers shoot Palestinians for sport, and that religious Jews are the scariest thing in the entire country.”
With this, Masha concluded that the problem begins one stage prior to campus life: in high school. She discovered that in high schools, pro-Israel students are often bullied by other students, given lower grades, and intimidated not to exercise free speech.
“The principal of one Bay Area Jewish school was adamant that American Jews do not need Israel, and said, ‘If we have to rewrite our holy books, then so be it.’ This year we had incidents at high school graduations where the valedictorian speaker suddenly started shouting: ‘Free Palestine!’ That's the kind of indoctrination that teens are getting.”
Teens participating in a Club Z program.
While various Jewish organizations provide high school students with pro-Israel programming, Masha decries the seeming dearth of young, pro-Israel leaders. “A few meetings or an annual conference is great, but then what? The American Jewish community invests hundreds of millions of dollars annually on teen education, sending them to all the best Jewish camps and programs. Yet few of these students speak up or take leadership roles in student government. Nobody has figured out this critical audience.”
The situation is indeed dire. A recent survey of America Jews under age 40 shows that 33% believe Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians, and 38% consider Israel an apartheid state (with another 15% "unsure").
Masha is alarmed by the barrage of anti-Israel content on social media. “Fashion model Bella Hadid, an outspoken critic of Israel whose father is Palestinian, has 44 million Instagram followers,” she says. “That’s triple the total number of Jews in the world! If this is reduced to a game of numbers, we’re never going to win.”
In 2015, with confidence and clarity in her mission – “providing teens with a safe space to explore, interact, and develop a genuine pro-Israel identity” – Masha shifted into action mode. She located a study curriculum dealing with Jewish identity and Israel, and the Palo Alto JCC agreed to provide space. Masha arranged speakers and activities, her son invited some eighth-grade friends, and the kids returned week after week.
“The formula worked,” she says. “The more these teens learned about Israel, the more they related to it as special and cool.”
Today, Club Z operates full-time in five U.S. cities, with a calendar that includes weekly study sessions, hangouts and retreats – plus an annual conference and annual trip to Israel. “It’s a support network,” Masha explains. “A safe place for teens to bravely say, ‘I am a Zionist’ – without fear of harassment, intimidation, or violence.”
Developing an identity takes time, effort, respect and discussion. We encourage students to understand and articulate both sides of an argument, and to conduct their own research.
The key to Club Z’s success is sustained, in-depth education. “People think you can attend a three-hour workshop and come out with all the necessary confidence and information. No band-aid will stop the hemorrhaging. Developing an identity takes time, effort, respect and discussion. We encourage students to understand and articulate both sides of an argument, and to conduct their own research. We want them to have deep knowledge, not just talking points. For example, at our annual national conference, we don't just invite speakers to deliver one talk and fly away. They come and spend the entire weekend, so the kids can comfortably pose their questions and interact.”
Masha tells of one Club Z staff member who ran into an old friend, a staunch progressive, and they shared updates on their career paths. “I work with an indigenous rights organization, fighting for social and racial justice,” the Club Z staffer explained. “We run educational programs for the tribal youth, teaching them about their history, their heritage, and connection to their ancestral land. We empower these youth to lead the liberation movement.”
“Wow,” the friend said. “That’s so amazing! What’s the name of this tribe?”
“The tribe of Judah,” the staffer said. At which point, the friend did a double-take, saying, “Huh! I never thought about it!”
Masha contends that pro-Israel activism has less to do with actual “defense” of Israel and more about the positive way it impacts the activists. “Israel is a sovereign country, thousands of miles away, with a powerful military that can defend itself. The fact that anti-Israel sentiment takes place in the schools is not something that threatens or worries most Israelis. Instead, defending Israel is more about coming to one’s own place of identity. It is a privilege and an honor to play a role in your people's history.”
Club Z supplies college-bound students with the facts, skills, and confidence to proactively speak out. Masha tells of one Club Z member who went off to college and hung an Israeli flag over her bed. Her Asian roommate challenged: “Why do you support Israel? It’s such a horrible place! IDF soldiers are baby killers!” The Jewish student responded by opening her laptop and saying, “Ask me any question about Israel.” They sat together for hours, while the Jewish student debunked – point-by-point – her roommate’s misconceptions.
Masha emphasizes the importance of using the right language. “Instead of saying that Jews were ‘exiled from our land,’ we should speak about being ‘ethnically cleansed by imperialist colonizers’. This is the language that people today understand.”
Club Z does not shy away from confrontation. When San Francisco State University invited Palestinian terrorist Leila Khaled (involved in the 1972 Olympic murders) to deliver a Zoom webinar, Club Z spearheaded a successful campaign to get the talk cancelled. “Terrorists do not have First Amendment rights,” Club Z teens reminded those in charge. “Khaled is not allowed to step foot on American soil, so why give her the opportunity to speak on a virtual platform?!”
Looking to the future, Club Z is poised to expand. “We run pilot programs to assess whether a city has sufficient community support,” Masha explains. “The key is to assemble a small group of dedicated parents who become ambassadors and assist with the programs. This way, we not only influence teens, but entire families.”
Masha says it is also crucial to find local educators who have the background and credibility – and can relate to teens. Club Z recently opened a branch in Charlotte, North Carolina, where they met Rabbi Chanoch Oppenheim of the Charlotte Torah Center, who’d studied and taught at Aish Jerusalem. “Rabbi Oppenheim is a rare rabbi who can relate to teens and not be preachy,” Masha says. “Everyone raves about him, and I am super-excited to partner with the Torah Center on our programs.”
These days, the connection between Israel and Jewish destiny is easier to make, Masha says. “The 2021 war with Hamas triggered a wave of anti-Israel and violent anti-Semitic sentiment across America. The intensity of hate was demoralizing for American Jews. It brought home to many young people that they can’t be silent any more. Particularly, children from progressive homes are now realizing who their friends really are.
“We will only see genuine change when Jews take a stand as Jews. The antisemitic genie is out of the bottle. We need a generation of proud Jews who are not afraid to stand up for who they are.”