Russian Drexel Student Reconnects with Hidden Family Heritage

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“I just really wanted to experience Judaism in a way that I wouldn’t be able to in Russia because in 2010, Russia really didn’t have that much religious life as it has now,” said Faina Driganets, a Drexel senior.

 

For most Jewish teens, attending a Jewish summer camp instills a sense of Jewish identity and tradition that lives on well after the season ends.

The same goes for Faina Driganets, except for the fact that she never knew she was Jewish.


Driganets, now 23 and a senior at Drexel University, was raised Christian Orthodox in her hometown of Voronezh, Russia, a small city about 300 miles south of Moscow.

“We’d go to church once or twice a year, but that’s it,” she recalled. “It was kind of intimidating to me. I didn’t like going to church. I didn’t feel connected.”

At 14, her grandmother quietly opened up about their family history.

“I heard that my grandmother was Jewish, but I didn’t know what it meant,” she said. “She mentioned it to me a couple of times, but Jewish sounds like gypsy — it didn’t mean anything to me. I was young; I didn’t know the difference.”

Her grandmother was born in 1939, at the very beginning of World War II.

“When she was 2, they just had to move because where she lived in Belarus was just war,” Driganets said. “The Germans came, so her mother had to take her and run away. She hopped on a train — the first train that was going somewhere away from the war — and they ended up in Russia.”

While in Russia, her great-grandmother became a partisan in the Belarusian woods, leaving her grandmother with a cousin for five years.

“They couldn’t find each other because my great-grandmother — who I’m named after — she really wanted to help out the Jews. So I can only imagine what my grandma felt — she couldn’t see her mother for so many years. 

“Then in the USSR after the war, it didn’t get better. It was just as bad in terms of [oppression] — Russians and Ukrainians hated Jews in general.”

But after attending a Jewish summer camp in Hungary, Driganets started to feel a real pull. The camp wasn’t very religious either, but she responded to the overall attitude and togetherness. 

When she returned to Voronezh, a connection with a local Jewish family helped get her to where she is today.

Driganets met a family at a Chanukah party who are also active with Chabad. She celebrated Shabbat with them, learning basic elements as to how Jewish people live.

They then connected her to a Jewish host family in Langhorne, where she studied for a year at Neshaminy High School.

“I just really wanted to experience Judaism in a way that I wouldn’t be able to in Russia because in 2010, Russia really didn’t have that much religious life as it has now. Of course, comparing it to America, it was nothing. So I thought going to America was also a chance for me to experience Judaism.”

Back in Voronezh, she slowly became more involved with Chabad.

“When I was deciding where to go [to college], the Chabad rabbi in Voronezh told me that his cousin, who is Chaim Goldstein, is at Chabad at Drexel, and he told me really good things,” she said.

The decision was that simple, and Driganets has been involved with Chabad serving Drexel University since her freshman year. She is on the student board as well as the Shabbat coordinator, “which is a position I kind of made up myself,” she laughed.

“A lot of students have a home away from home because people don’t live as far as me, but they definitely can’t all just go home for the weekend. They really get a place to go on Friday nights when [they feel] like going home or lonely. Instead of spending the weekend doing nothing interesting, we discuss interesting topics at the table, and you go home and have something to think about.”

Driganets added that Chabad gives students opportunities like going to Israel, learning about your heritage or even making a Jewish connection — like the one she made with her boyfriend, Rafael, also a Russian Jew who she met at Chabad at Drexel.

“I’m alone here now, I’m in a different country,” she added. “My life would be very different if they didn’t introduce us to each other.”

Driganets keeps kosher but not all of Shabbat, though she hopes to in the future.

“I’m getting there. I’m definitely more religious than I was before when I just found out about it. I can say it definitely changed my life in a lot of ways.”

Driganets said Russia is changing, too.

“I go back and I see how people are less scared to attend Jewish events now and how it’s going toward the American Jewish lifestyle where you can be openly Jewish.”

In the beginning of her Jewish discovery, Driganets’ mother was at first afraid of her newfound religious side but has since become more observant as well.

“Now she has noticed how much Judaism has done for me in terms of just how my life is right now — how much I value what I am. Judaism was lost for a long time in my family because my grandma and my mom [were] not religious, but everyone before was religious in a way. So it was lost, but I kind of brought it back to the family. So I think she really appreciates that.” 

Contact: rkurland@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0737

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