It was a breezy night in Jerusalem. People from around the world were dining in fancy restaurants in the city center. Chaya Chertok, a close friend of mine from Chicago, Chaya Chertokand I were meeting at a café just off Ben Yehuda, the most popular tourist destination in this part of the Holy City.

As sounds of conversation in a bevy of languages reached our ears, Chaya and I discussed a topic we both feel affects our lives more than almost anything else out there: Judaism, and its study.

The following is my interview with Chaya, an intellectual young lady trying to make a positive effect on our community and the entire world:

Me: Please tell me a little about yourself: where were you born? Raised? Where did you attend high school? What are some of your hobbies and interests?

Chaya: I was born in Minsk, Belarus and came to Chicago at the age of two. My family lived off of Devon Street, like all the other Russian immigrants, and then we slowly made our way north to Skokie and finally to Vernon Hills. I went to Vernon Hills High School for all four years. In high school, I was involved with the tennis team, National Honors Society, math team, and a character-building organization called First Class.

I went to college at Loyola University in Chicago, majoring in Finance and International Business. I graduated in May of 2012. College was the beginning of my Jewish path. I joined Hillel, the Jewish organization on campus, and served on its Judaica Board (in charge of religious events) and Volunteer Committee. I also participated in Russian Hillel, a Chicago-wide Hillel for college and post-college students from a Russian background.  

Me: How did you get involved with religious Judaism?

Chaya: My first year at Loyola, an Israeli friend invited me to Rabbi Shalom Garfinkel’s for a Shabbat dinner. Rabbi Garfinkel and his associate, Rabbi Zev Kahn, run JET – Jewish Education Team, a Jewish outreach organization that works on college campuses all around Chicago, teaching Jewish students about what it means to be Jewish.

I didn’t know much about Shabbat, or anything Jewish for that matter. My family, like many Russian families, was “culturally” Jewish. We went to Heritage Russian Synagogue in W. Rogers Park or BAY Shul in Buffalo Grove for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services sometimes. We had family dinners for the holidays. We lit Hannukah menorahs and had Pesach dinners.

But none of us knew the religious significance behind the holidays. We tried to keep the “traditional” aspects such as going to synagogue and eating the traditional holiday foods, like matza for Pesach and apples with honey for Rosh Hashana.

When I got involved in JET, a whole new world opened up to me; a world of meaning– not just of tradition. A world of reasons for why we do the things we do and why the Jews have such a significant relationship with G-d that it requires 613 commandments (mitzvoth) to maintain it.

Someone might ask you: “Why do you need a whole 613 mitzvot in your life?” Do you know what we say? What is the most precious thing you can give to someone else? To someone you love? Your time. Because it’s limited. Once it’s over, it’s over, and you can’t get it back. Therefore, we use our time wisely. What is the significance of 613 mitzvot? Each mitzvah is time that we give to G-d, time that we use to connect to Him and Him to us. Jews have 613 ways to connect to G-d.

The amazing thing about Judaism is that it really encourages questions. We have a whole holiday devoted to asking questions: Pesach! Jews aren’t supposed to believe in Torah and in G-d with “blind faith.” We are supposed to know and understand our Judaism by consistently asking questions that bring us closer to clear truth.  

Through JET, I learned about the significance of not only Shabbat, but of keeping kosher, of Jewish modesty, and many other mitzvot. I learned about the deep meanings behind the holidays, Jewish thought, and Jewish law. I learned the meaning of being Jewish, of loving Judaism, of finding out that there is a G-d who loves us and who wants a relationship with us; A G-d who is involved in our everyday lives and doesn’t just leave us to fend for ourselves.

Me: What prompted you to take a year off to learn in Israel?

Chaya: I decided that the perfect time to learn in Israel would be after my college graduation, before I had commitments like a job and a family. And Israel is the source of Judaism; it’s a land of holiness and inspiration. Ba’alei teshuva (people who come back to observant Judaism) come for different amounts of time to learn in Israel. It can be one week, one month, a year, or more!

Why do ba’alei teshuva go to Israel to learn? Because growing up, we didn’t have the opportunity to get a daily Jewish education. Most of us have a lot of catching up to do, and intense study in a yeshiva (school for boys) or a seminary (school for girls) gives us the time and place.

In Israel, we are surrounded by people who also come from a non-religious background, who understand us and support us throughout our journey. The teachers at our schools know where we are coming from, how to answer our questions, and how to cater classes to our unique backgrounds.

My school, Neve Yerushalayim, is the largest ba’al teshuva seminary for girls in Israel. We have some of the most well-known Torah scholars instructing us. Many of our teachers tour the world lecturing and have also written books. Not only do we learn Torah/Jewish concepts, but we also use this time to mature as people and to learn to become knowledgeable and educated Jewish wives and mothers.

With divorce rates so high nowadays, it’s imperative to gain the skills and maturity necessary to build a stable, happy home. The Torah offers the wisdom we need to make this happen!

Me: What are some of your impressions of Israel so far?

Chaya: Never have I felt before such achdus (unity) with my people! We are so spread out in the world, but when one comes to Israel, one feels that it truly is the land of the Jews. No matter if you are religious or not, you are Jewish, and you are family. No matter what happens, there will always be people to help you, even if they don’t know you. It’s so wonderful to see Sephardi Jews, Ashkenazi Jews, Chassidim, Religious Zionists, Ethiopians and so many others types of Jews together in the country in which we belong!

It’s difficult to leave Israel. It’s like leaving home. Living in Israel gave me a much better understanding of life here, and I feel more prepared to stand up for our country. I’m so proud that we are finally back in our own land. I love Israel so much!

Me: What advice would you give others who are contemplating taking a similar life route as yours?

Chaya: Ultimately, we need to do stay true to ourselves. The thing is that many people don’t take the time to look inside themselves and ask: do I know what the purpose of life is? Is there a G-d? Does He care about me? How can I find out which questions to ask and how to get my own questions answered? That’s really the first step. Explore. No one is forcing you into anything, but you owe it to yourself to at least look for these answers!

Russian Jews have been robbed of their religion and their connection to G-d. Only several generations ago were our ancestors Torah-observant Jews. Now, we barely know anything about them or about ourselves. The pogroms during the time of Czarist Russia were violent, but they didn’t take Jews away from their Judaism. Communism did. Communism crept in and cut G-d out of the picture, instructing us not to ask questions anymore. But Communism is gone, and we Jews are still hanging on. Let’s reclaim our right to ask those questions and reclaim our right to our religion!

Find the group that can cater to your needs, search for the rabbi you feel a connection with, go to that Shabbat dinner, explore that class…There are so many resources for us out there!

If you would like information on how to get involved or how to start getting answers to your questions, please email me (Chaya) at There are resources available for any age group. I would love to help you on your journey!