Alexander Pitkin, 27, was a typical Russian child. He grew up in the city of Miass, on the southern slope of the eastern Ural Mountains. His mother was a hospital nurse, and his father, a civil engineer, had his own construction company. There were no other Jewish people in the city.
“My father told me that we were Jewish, but this did not play any role in our life when I was growing up,” says Pitkin. “We wanted to avoid questions and problems, so we did not tell anyone that we were Jewish.”
He loved sports, swimming and hiking with his friends. As an outstanding high school student, he participated in national competitions in physics, math and English.
The family’s only connection to Israel was his father’s brother who made aliyah in the 1990s and constantly tried to convince Pitkin’s father to join him. “He told my father that there was so much opportunity in Israel, especially for me,” says Pitkin.
When the 2008 global economic downturn hit Russia, his father’s business began to slowly crumble. His father understood that the situation was only going to get worse, and that his son’s future did not look bright.
“When I graduated high school in 2013 and was trying to decide what my next steps would be, my father told me that I needed to go to Israel and change my life for the better,” he recounts. “The usual trajectory in my town was to graduate, get some vocational training, and then work in a local factory for the remainder of your life.”
Pitkin heard about the Selah program in Israel for high school graduates from the former Soviet Union. In 2014, on his 18th birthday, he was on the plane traveling to the country for the first time. Sadly, his father, who wanted to join him in Israel, passed away from a heart attack. His mother supported his decision but chose to remain in Russia.
Moving to Israel from Russia
Along with other new immigrants on the program, Pitkin spent a year at an absorption center in Karmiel, acclimating to his new country.
“My life took a 180-degree change,” he laughs. “I was very close to my parents and loved being at home. I had no experience living on my own. All of a sudden I was far away, in a country in which I didn’t understand the language or the culture.”
He recalls going on a hike, seeing the signs in Hebrew and thinking that they must be a mistake because everything was from right to left.
During the time on Selah, Pitkin took Hebrew-language classes at an ulpan. In a matter of weeks, he jumped from the beginner to the intermediate class. He learned about Jewish history, Zionism and Jewish holidays. He loved the visits around the country to cultural places and the hikes from the North to the South.
“I fell in love with the North, full of beautiful, green landscapes and natural beauty,” he says.
Finding work and a life in Israel's North
PITKIN WORKED odd jobs when he finished the program, until his mandatory army service began. He says his job at a local pizzeria went south after two days. The manager told him he could take some leftover pizza home. Pitkin, thinking of his near-empty refrigerator and his roommate’s unemployed situation (also a new immigrant), filled it with so many extra toppings that the manager docked his wages.
Serving in the army as a lone soldier was another significant milestone and his first encounter with Israeli bureaucracy.
“I have so many stories, but the one that really stands out is them telling me that I needed to get to my army base on my own,” he says. “I was in Karmiel and my base was deep in the Negev. I had no clue where I was going, nor had I ever traveled on the bus or the train. I don’t know how I did it, but I managed to arrive at the base, four hours late, and with only a minute to spare before they closed the base to new recruits.”
Pitkin wanted to serve in a computer logistics unit. They told him because he was from Russia, he could not get the security clearance and he could work either in the kitchen or as a driver.
“I chose to be a driver. The only problem was, I didn’t know how to drive,” he laughs.
He got his license and was assigned to the Foreign Relations Unit. He did his service driving around high-level army brass and meeting dignitaries from all over the world.
“I don’t think there is a new immigrant who enjoyed the army as much as I did. I got to see the country, meet new people, and have fun. They asked me to stay on, so I spent another 18 months in the professional army.”Alexander Pitkin
“I don’t think there is a new immigrant who enjoyed the army as much as I did,” says Pitkin. “I got to see the country, meet new people, and have fun. They asked me to stay on, so I spent another 18 months in the professional army.”
However, he knew that this was not his future. He wanted to go to university and get his degree in something interesting and meaningful. He chose software engineering – a field with limitless opportunity, especially with the explosion of artificial intelligence (AI).
After acceptance to Ort Braude College of Engineering, Pitkin knew that his savings were not enough. He searched the Internet for scholarship opportunities. When the head of Atidim’s Takeoff program contacted him, he felt like he hit the jackpot. The program, for students on their own without family support, offered tuition, a living stipend, academic counseling and a host of other support services.
This was made possible by four young people in Australia from a committed philanthropic family who wanted to do something in memory of their grandfather.
“I met one of the four when he was in Israel, and I was amazed at his generosity and brilliance and the similarities between us. His grandfather’s and my father’s stories were very similar,” Pitkin says. “Because of him and his family, I am able to invest everything I have in my studies, without worrying all the time.”
Pitkin is now in his junior year. Alongside his studies, he volunteered at the absorption center where he began his life in Israel. With the help of Takeoff, he looks forward to integrating into a hi-tech company in the fall, in a student position.
His “eureka” moment was in 2018, when he and his girlfriend, Nikol Sherman, originally from Ukraine, went to visit Russia.
“When I returned there, I felt that Russia was no longer my home. Everything had changed. I was now so connected to Israel and knew that this was truly where I was meant to be,” he says.
Looking to the future, Pitkin sees himself settling in the North and working his way up in an innovative, exciting hi-tech company.
“At the end of the day, I want to be a good father and husband, and a good person who can contribute meaningfully to this world.” ■
Alexander Pitkin from Miass, Russia, to Karmiel, 2014