My Jewish journey started many moons ago back in Armenia, at that time part of the USSR. During the “iron curtain” era, everything Jewish was forbidden. You could not hear Jewish songs on the radio, buy Jewish books at the bookstore or even admit that you were Jewish. Jews were not accepted at prestigious schools and they could not land jobs in management. People changed their last names in order to build better careers. We knew that we were Jews but kept that quiet.
From my childhood, I have memories of matzah on Passover and my grandma making knedlach and singing “Varnichkes” in Yiddish.
One afternoon as I was strolling through my home town of Yerevan, a playbill for an upcoming theatrical show caught my eye — it was for Fiddler on the Roof, by Sholom Aleichem. I read it over and over again before I realized I was not dreaming.
I ran inside and purchased tickets for my mom and me. When I told her that we were going to the theater she was very skeptical and kept saying “Oy, what have you done? It is a setup, you do not understand, we are in trouble!”
The day of the premiere arrived and we went in spite of her misgivings. I was very excited. As we entered the theater I saw many Jews in the audience. The play was incredible, the actors were on fire, and the Jewish music made my heart pound and my feet dance under the seat!
As we were walking out of the theater quoting Tevye, I saw a box with a note that said, “If you are Jewish and would like to be contacted, please leave your name and telephone number in the box.” By the time my mom said, “Oy, this box is for anti-Semites and they are preparing another pogrom!” I had already written our names and phone number and dropped the piece of paper in the box.
I went back to see every performance of Fiddler on the Roof. I took all my friends and family, learned the play by heart and always sat in the first row, middle seat.
At the end of one of the performances, maybe the 13th, the actor playing Tevye came into the audience and handed me huge bunch of flowers. He said I was their most devoted fan and he knew I had not missed a single show. I was deeply touched.
Soon after, my mom received a phone call from a young man who introduced himself as Rabbi Hershem. He invited us to the first gathering of the “soon-to-be” Jewish Community, the first one in Armenia. We had an amazing time learning Hebrew, Judaica, and so much more. I celebrated my first Rosh Hashanah, built my first sukkah, ate my first challah, sat through my first very long seder and read my first Megillat Esther. I loved my new community and learning about who I am. I made Jewish friends and I heard a cantor with a breathtaking voice.
A few years later, on the day my daughter was born, Rabbi Hershem and Cantor Villy came to our house and Cantor opened the piano and started singing “Idishe Mame.” It was a hot summer day and all the windows were open. Neighbors looked from the windows and ran out the doors asking, “Who is singing? What is the occasion?” Cantor Villy yelled at the top of his lungs, “We are celebrating, it is a simcha, a Jewish girl came into the world today!” By the end of his song, the entire (non-Jewish) neighborhood was outside giving him a standing ovation.
Shortly after, my mother and four others marched to the President of Armenia with a petition officially registering the first Jewish Community Center in Armenia. My mom is very proud to be a co-founder of that Jewish Community Center which is still active and going strong. The first synagogue in Armenia opened in 1996.
My journey continued in the United States when we landed in the San Francisco airport on August 11, 1995. As we were driving to our first home in America I saw a blue van that said, “Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center” and had the logo of five dancing children forming Star of David. I was stunned. I could not believe that a van with a Jewish star could freely drive around town. I thought to myself, “Is it not dangerous?” I wanted to find out where this van was from.
A few days later, my family and I visited the Jewish Family and Children’s Services that was housed at the JCC. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that mysterious blue van in the parking lot. I thought to myself, “This place feels like home. This is where I want to be.”
Six months later, I joined the JCC staff. I was so very lucky to meet an incredible group of people who taught me, helped me, guided me and made me feel welcome. The JCC has become my second home. My daughter grew up at the JCC, attending after-school care, specialty classes and every single camp for ten summers in a row. Later she joined the JCC staff, working as a summer camp counselor and helping in the office. My mom also taught chess here for number of years. My husband volunteered with security services at various JCC events. My late grandfather was president of a war veterans’ group, and my three cousins were camp counselors and teen program participants. The JCC became a huge part of my life, socially and professionally. It went through a number of transformations, becoming the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center on January 1, 2009 and opening a state-of-the-art campus on September 1st, 2009.
I am incredibly happy to be a part of the JCC community. This year I will be celebrating a huge milestone, 20 years on American land and 19 years working at the JCC. My Jewish Journey is going strong.