By YOCHEVED MIRIAM RUSSO
Khaya Ditsky's mother was born in Russia, but when she was just two years old, the family fled across the border into China. "They lived in Harbin, China, for 11 years," Ditsky says, "until a rich uncle in America paid their passage to come to the US. They landed in California, then took the train to New York."
Tragically, only part of the family escaped. "The rest of the family tried to follow, but they got stuck. As a result all contact was lost. My grandmother did write several times to China, but because she occasionally quoted the Torah and Talmud, the family in Harbin wrote to ask her to stop. 'Please don't write,' they pleaded. 'It gets us in trouble.' By the time I was born, there had been no contact for many years. No one knew who was alive or where.
"My mother's maiden name was Juravel, and I knew I had two cousins in Haifa. A friend of theirs had been at an art show and had seen one of the artworks signed 'Juravel.' It's a fairly unusual name, so they arranged to have my cousins' contact information given to the artist. One day, the artist Juravel's family showed up at my cousins' door, bringing with them a photograph of everyone they knew - my grandparents, their children and all the grandchildren born by that date. They had a big family reunion.
"I wasn't able to attend, but afterward, my Haifa cousins called me with news. 'There are Juravels living in Ashkelon,' they said. 'We gave them your phone number, so if some Russian-sounding man calls, don't hang up.' Sure enough, he called and I invited him over. As soon as he arrived, he said, 'Now let's go see my sister.'
"I couldn't believe it! The sister lived right next door to me, the next entrance! We'd been passing each other for years and never knew. Once I met her, I could see that her cheekbones and eyes were just like the rest of my mother's family. I can't imagine how I could have missed that family resemblance for so many years."
"When I was 15, my cousin, whom I admired enormously, made aliya. Moving to Israel to live became my goal, too. I started in high school with a year-long program in Israel, and then came back every summer. The deal with my mother was that I'd finish college first, then make aliya. My father passed away when I was 14, and even though my mother remarried, she really didn't want to lose me - I was the youngest of the three children. My older brother and sister were both married and gone, so even though my mother was very Zionistic and in theory wanted me to live in Israel, at the same time, she knew she'd miss me."
"The summer after high school I was here in Israel again when I made a wonderful discovery: My SATs were high enough that I could get into a college here and study what I wanted - psychology and special education. I called home: 'Mom? I want to stay here and study!' She finally agreed, but on the condition that I'd come home for the holidays.
"She got my transcripts together, everything I needed, documents and references, so I could register. I kept my part of the bargain, too. I went home for all the holidays - Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Succot and Pessah - every year."
"My absorption was very easy. I had friends from that original program here, and several of us were in the same dorm at university. Most of us lived on the same floor, so I had an instant group of friends."
"I [had] attended the Yeshiva of Flatbush in Brooklyn, and by the time we graduated, our Hebrew was as good as most young Israelis. The problem was, though, that because I registered late, I ended up being in a program with all English classes, and my friends were all English speakers. So that year ruined my Hebrew forever. I kept thinking of my Hebrew teacher at the yeshiva - she'd be so disappointed in what had happened to my Hebrew."
"After graduation I started teaching special education in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh. I lived in Jerusalem, met someone, married, had two kids and then got divorced. In July 2000 I moved to Ashkelon, mostly because I could afford to buy a house there. The first couple of years in Ashkelon were hard - the kids and I used to dream of winning the lottery and being able to move back to Jerusalem.
"But we finally settled in and became part of this community. We all found new friends as well as our new niche. I started working with animals and am involved with volunteer projects of all kinds. I like Ashkelon very much. We belong here now."
"I actually tried to make yerida, to go back. I'd been here eight or nine years when everything just fell apart. A long-time relationship broke up; I lost a job I'd liked; everything was wrong. So I decided to go back to Brooklyn. I stayed for about a year - and I have to admit, I had a great time. Then I returned to Israel during Hanukka vacation and spent the whole time explaining to all my friends why I was staying in the States.
"When I finally got on the airplane, I cried all the way back to New York. My older sister met me, looked at me and said, 'Just tell me how long I have you.' Coming back to Israel was like coming home."
"In August, Emily, my daughter, became a soldier, and every time I hang her uniform out to dry, I get tears in my eyes. I always think I shouldn't be showing off like this - letting the world know how proud I am of having a child who's an Israeli soldier. My son, Shlomo, studies mechanical engineering at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Isn't that something? I have children who are sabras!
"I'm not even as idealistic as I used to be, but still, hearing 'Hatikva' does something to me. When they play it at school programs, I can never get through it without crying. But I used to be worse - years ago, when we had only one TV channel, at the end of the day they'd play 'Hatikva' - and I'd get up from the couch and stand. I'd have to rush to turn the TV off, or I'd stand for the whole thing. Everybody made fun of me for that."
THE REST OF THE STORY
Ditsky teaches at an Ashkelon elementary school, but to most students she's "the animal lady."
"I've always loved animals and had several rescue animals myself," she says. "Several years ago, while on sabbatical I took a two-year course on animal assisted teaching, therapy and rehab, and have been professionally involved with animals ever since. I've now formed a nonprofit animal rescue operation, Hatzalat Hayot, to rescue animals in the Ashkelon area, providing them with foster homes until we can place them with permanent loving families."
Hatzalat Hayot - http://hatzalathayot.blogspot.com/ - also provides community education. "We started doing animal days at the Ethiopian absorption center. We had 100 Ethiopian kids, kindergarten through high school, for a day, working to give them a 'feel' for animals they didn't have in Ethiopia, where dogs are considered dangerous. Through talks, games about animals, some craft projects and having the chance to pet a very tame elderly Lab, they learn that animals aren't dangerous and shouldn't be abused."
Recently, Ditsky and two of the Hatzalat Hayot volunteers were honored by Ashkelon Mayor Benny Vaknin for their outstanding work in rescuing and caring for animals during Operation Cast Lead. "We rescue as many street animals as we can," Ditsky says. "We also work with pensioners' organizations, helping senior citizens keep their pets, and with children with special needs. We've got a lot of projects, too, including a spay/neuter program for street cats. We work to help animals, which helps the community, too."
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