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Spiritual Autobiography (and why I'm deciding to convert)

My background

I was born in Volgograd, Russia in 1992, just a year after the fall of USSR in a city that was devastated by WW2. The Battle of Stalingrad (which was later renamed to Volgogad) is one of the bloodiest battles of human history. Millions died in that battle, and many more in the famine that followed. My maternal grandmother, born in 1941, would tell us about how she and her mom would go out in the fields to find various roots to survive winter. After the war, her mom purchased a plot of land that only had a “zemlyanka” on it — an underground dwelling built by Soviet soldiers during the war that now serves as a makeshift cellar for her house that they themselves built. I spent many days as a kid in that house. It had an outdoor bathroom and shower, despite the cold Russian winters!

(me, my grandmother in front of that house, and my husband Dylan)

My grandmother was an incredibly strong woman. She recently passed away, but certainly passed on her strength to all of us. She did everything her way—including how she practiced her religion. She was Russian Orthodox but took on a very spiritual approach to life that she passed on to my mother and on to me.

My father’s side of the family are all academics (physics PhDs). There are some family theories that my father’s side of the family might have some Jewish roots based on our last name, Ukrainian origin, and my father’s complexion. He grew up without a religion (in USSR times, religion was banned), although he loved to study them and taught me quite a bit about Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism. He also grew up with a lot of spiritual beliefs, taking concepts from yogis, religions he studied, and seeking out writings and teachings from various mystics.

Although I was brought up without a religion, my parents stressed the importance of spirituality and what that meant to them—that there’s a balance in this world, that energies exist and affect us, and that we influence and are influenced by these energies that surround us.

Why Judaism
I love history and religion is oftentimes intertwined with it. However, I never thought I would choose a religion. Bit by bit that changed when I met Dylan, my now husband, who was raised in a Jewish household. The more I learned about the Jewish lifestyle, the more I appreciated it, and the more I started to want to be officially a part of it. The three biggest reasons why I decided I want to convert are: Dylan and how the Jewish faith shaped him, the community support around fostering growth and appreciation for kids and their coming of age, and the structure of how the faith brings people closer together.

Dylan
When I met Dylan for the first time I had an inkling that this might be it—that I met someone truly special. I love his warmth, his ability to make anyone feel comfortable and welcome, and his deep caring about family. He has an amazing talent of creating his own tribe wherever he goes, a master of fostering communities. Although Dylan is naturally someone who brings people together, growing up in a Jewish home with strong family and community ties helped cultivate and encourage those traits. I can see how growing up in that environment taught him to question concepts in a healthy manner, to have healthy debates without offense, to explore topics with people of opposing views. Now that we’re married and have a kid on the way, I want to raise our family with those same strong values.


Dylan’s cousins’ bar and bat mitzvah!
Dylan and I flew over to DC in 2018 and 2020 to attend both of his cousins’ bar and bat mitzvah’s. Both were beautiful ceremonies, honoring the two young adults, even in times of COVID. I am so awed, and even a bit envious (!), of this coming of age ritual. I love how the community, friends and family come together to give a platform to these kids to evolve into young adults. They’re given respect, attention, and responsibility that helps them mature and grow.

Not only is it a beautiful ceremony, but also a beautiful journey. In a society were kids are oftentimes taught to obey, to keep their head down and be quiet, it’s a journey that gives them a voice and the confidence they need to grow. I would have loved this for myself, and I would love that for my future children.

Friends Shabbat!
One of our oldest friend groups used to live just a few blocks away. At some point in 2018 we started doing Shabbat dinners. Almost every Friday we would get together. Someone would bring the challah, we would Airdrop the prayers to one another, light the candles, drink the wine, rip the bread, and enjoy the amazing cooking made by our friends. Every week we would invite someone new, oftentimes skewing the ratio of Jewish to non-Jewish people. It was an amazing time that unfortunately got interrupted by COVID. We were able to use the structure of Judaism to create a fostering environment and to ensure we saw our friends despite our busy calendars.

Going forward, I would love to host our own Shabbat dinners at our house and create that environment of warmth and belonging—our own tribe!


As Dylan and I are embarking on the next journey of our lives—growing a family together—I want ourselves and our future kids to have the structure that Judaism provides to be part of a strong community, and to create our own. I’m excited to continue being a part of the Jewish community as well as its rituals and to take on a greater role in fostering them by hosting many more future Shabbat dinners, Passover dinners, and encouraging Yom Kippur fasts!

Thank you!
Elena
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