I am a daughter of immigrants from the Soviet Union. I am a first-generation American. I am a high school student. I am a Ba’al Teshuva, but most importantly, I am a proud Jew.
My grandfather lived in the Ukraine and I grew up listening to stories of how he had to be circumcised underground, and away from the KGB. My great-grandmother lit Shabbat candles in a secret hole in the wall, and covered them up, as soon as they were lit. My parents were not able to walk to school without hearing words such as “dirty Jew” or “kike,” being used as freely as a “hello.” Generations before me were forced to endure persecution, insults and ceaseless oppression, all for me to be able to be a proud, Zionistic Jew.
Hearing these stories throughout my childhood caused me to question what my purpose is—why was I lucky enough to be born in a free country, where everyone is accepted and equal? As of five years ago, I started wearing skirts to show everyone that I am a Jew. As of four years ago, my family threw out all of our old dishes and converted our home into a fully kosher kitchen. As of three years ago, my brothers and I all left the schools we have been attending for years and transferred to Yeshivas. And as of last summer, I took my first trip to Israel, to visit the Kotel and step foot into the land generations of my family yearned for. This is what I was meant to do: live by the Jewish faith and love it wholeheartedly.
Today, I wear my great-grandmother’s Star of David necklace around my neck. Whenever I am stressed, unsure or need a boost of confidence, I reach to my neck and feel my necklace. This reminds me of the previous generations and what they had to endure, in order for me to be here, a proud Jew.
Karina Pugman is a senior at Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Philadelphia. She is a 2019-2020 StandWithUs High School Intern.