Every once in a while there’s a crystallizing moment when everything comes into focus and the path of your life is dramatically altered. For Artyom Freyman, a 21-year-old Russian immigrant, the moment came seven years ago when his parents tried to register him and his brother for a Jewish summer camp. The answer was firm: “We got there and they told us that we weren’t Jewish enough.”
“Our father’s father is Jewish, but they said it had to be from the mother,” he explains. But while attempting to sign up for the Jewish summer camp, Freyman heard about the Na’aleh program, a guided aliya and education program for young Russian Jews. “I was Jewish enough to make aliya,” he says. His younger brother Maxim followed two years later.
Since its inception in 1992, Na’aleh has brought 11,000 immigrants here. The program was started for high-school students from the former Soviet Union, but in 2001 it was opened up to Jews from North America, Latin America, Europe and Australia. The students are sent to one of 32 high schools around the country and live in dormitories. A few groups are based on kibbutzim. According to the Jewish Agency, which runs the program, 90 percent of participants make aliya, and 60% eventually bring their parents to join them.
“They told me a little about the matriculation exams and how it was to learn outside of Russia; they organized everything, and I thought it was a good idea,” Artyom says. “The first year you learn just Hebrew. They gave me an ulpan, and we got to learn about the holidays and traditions a little.”
“I also thought it was a good idea to learn outside of Russia, to do the matriculation exams. I made aliya two years after him,” Maxim says. “After he made aliya, I had already started to get interested in the idea and in Judaism in general. I also made aliya for Zionistic reasons. I think Jews need to be here.”HOME FRONT
“Our home was very much not a Zionist home. Our family wasn’t religious at all, not Jewish, not Christian. Never in our lives did we talk about Judaism in our family. We didn’t even really know that we were Jewish,” the brothers explain.
The Freymans are from Khabarovsk, one of the largest cities in the southeastern part of Russia. Just across the river from China and near the border with North Korea, it’s much closer to Beijing than Moscow, an eight-hour flight away. Khabarovsk is also a sister city with Tel Aviv. LEAVING HOME
“Yes, it was a difficult decision,” Artyom remembers. Fourteen is a tender age to move thousands of miles away from home, and his parents were hesitant to agree. “They didn’t want to let me go in the beginning, but they let me decide. I told them what they told me about the project, that you go to school and live with other people like me.” By the time Maxim turned 14 and made aliya himself, two years after his brother, it wasn’t as much of a surprise to their parents.THE HARDEST THING
“The hardest thing was to be alone,” Artyom says. “It was hard to learn by yourself. You don’t have a mother to worry about you. You have a house where they give you what you need, and they kind of worry about you, but a mom is a mom.”
“The language was really hard in the beginning,” adds Maxim. “They wouldn’t let us speak in Russian, only in Hebrew. It was really hard. I’d say a sentence in Russian and then try to say it in Hebrew.”BROTHERS IN ARMS
But once high school and the Na’aleh program ended, both brothers made the same decision: stay, join the army and volunteer for a combat unit. “We had already gotten into the atmosphere and started to learn. We didn’t want to leave after that,” Maxim says.
“I already feel more Israeli than Russian when I go home. It wasn’t a specific time that I started to feel more Israeli, it’s a slow process,” says Artyom.
Today, both serve in combat units in the Givati Brigade. They see each other about once every two months, which is about as often as their free Shabbatot coincide.
Their mother came to visit once for a week, but they don’t expect either of their parents to join them here permanently. “To come and live here, for the meantime that’s too much to demand from them,” the brothers agree.‘LIKE A FAMILY’
“In the beginning, when I didn’t even know Hebrew, I got an adopted family. They support me like a family in every respect; they love me and wait for me at home, and take care of all of the problems and help me,” says Artyom. His adopted family, the Weisses, live in Kfar Hogla, where Artyom rents an apartment. “Without them I wouldn’t have been able to finish my combat training. I have friends who are lone soldiers and the training is really hard for them. They have no one to worry about their laundry and food and small things like that. It’s really important that people do things like this, it’s really wonderful.”
Maxim’s still in touch with his adopted family in Safed, though he recently moved to Givatayim. He lives in Beit Kobi, an apartment complex for lone soldiers founded in memory of Kobi Ichelbom, a Givati officer who was killed in Gaza in 2002. “It’s a beautiful project that takes lone soldiers and gives them not just an apartment but everything they need. They help them, ask them what food they want them to buy for Shabbat; they clean their apartments, help fix their problems, it’s really wonderful. It’s important that as many people hear about this as possible,” Maxim says.WORDS TO THE WISE
Both brothers hope to continue in university after they finish their
army service. Artyom, who will finish first, has no idea what he wants
to study, but Maxim knows he’ll study something with math or physics.
As for words to the wise, both brothers shy away from giving advice,
acknowledging that this is an intensely personal decision.
“I don’t have a whole lot of recommendations. Everyone needs to decide
for themselves,” says Artyom, the more talkative of the two brothers.
“There are some people that it suits them to come to Israel alone, and
some that it doesn’t. Everyone’s got their own family situation back
home. It’s hard to get yourself set up in Israel, in terms of the
language and everything. In short, it’s just really hard.”