About 25 students listened to two Jewish immigrants tell their personal stories about their aliyahs, or immigrations to Israel, Wednesday night at Hillel.
Ethiopian immigrant Tsaga Melaku and Ukrainian Ronnie Vinnikov discussed the anti-Semitism they faced in their home countries before moving to the Jewish state in a discussion sponsored by the Jewish Agency and Hillel.
Melaku, a famous Amharic television and radio host for Israel’s growing Ethiopian community, said moving to Israel allowed her to be openly proud of her religion. She said she had to invent a new excuse to explain why she missed school every Saturday, because she could not mention it was the Sabbath.
Vinnikov said he adopted his mother’s last name when he began high school, because it sounded less Jewish than his father’s.
At 16, Melaku said she moved to Israel but was captured en route and had to spend three weeks in a Cairo prison before arriving in the northern Israeli city of Tiberias.
Raised in an isolated Jewish community in northwest Ethiopia, Melaku said that she experienced culture shock in Israel where she saw light-skinned Jews and secularized Jewish life without kosher food.
Vinnikov, a Jewish Agency spokesman, said his family left the Ukraine in 1990 as the Soviet Union collapsed and borders opened.
He said children refused to play with him as a child because he was Jewish. He said he told his mother he wished he were not a Jew.
Vinnikov said he “started to be reborn” in Israel. He quickly made dozens of friends, learned Hebrew and was invited to go to the movies with a girl, all unthinkable for a Jew in the Ukraine.
Vinnikov is a spokesman for the Jewish Agency, the organization which helped him, Melaku and millions of others “make aliyah.”
During the last decade, Israel has accepted one million immigrants, comparable to the United States absorbing 60 million people, Vinnikov said. He also said he expects at least several hundred thousand more Russian Jews to enter Israel over the next five to 10 years.
“I am proud to work in an organization that helps thousands make this dream, too,” Vinnikov said.
Several students said that the struggles of Melaku and Vinnikov are also common in America, where parents, money or other conditions keep some Jews from moving to Israel.
“Judaism comes alive in Israel more than it does in the United States,” Hillel member Scott Taub said.
Esther Yegelwel, another Hillel member, said that she witnessed many Jews’ desire to live among other Jews when a group of former Soviet Jews moved to her hometown of Jacksonville, Fla.
“It is important to keep a community strong and together,” Yegelwel said. For those who do not move to the United States, she added, “Israel is the perfect place for that.”