Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers trends among youth and millennials, progress and pushback in the Orthodox world, women's issues, the Jewish LGBTQ community and Reform and Conservative Jewish life. She also heads the Investigative Journalism Fund, a special project of the Jewish Week to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting, and 36 Under 36, an annual special issue profiling 36 exceptional young leaders. Reach her at email@example.com
Growing up in Kiev, Marina Imberg-Zurakhinsky recalls being the only Jewish child in a school of 400 students.
“From a young age, I felt something about me was different,” she said, recalling the “uncomfortable looks” that sometimes came her way. Like most Jews growing up in the former Soviet Union, she knew almost nothing about her Jewish identity.
That changed at age 10, when she attended a JAFI Jewish summer camp and discovered a community of others with similar backgrounds. At 19, she left a stable job, a social life and a significant other to move to America.
“I’m an outgoing person, but moving here at almost 20 without the language, friends, or a community was hard,” she said.
Not missing a beat, she immediately enrolled in Brooklyn College, where she completed a business degree in two years and landed a competitive corporate job at a bank. “If I have a goal, I pursue it with everything I have,” she said.
Today, that goal has shifted to creating Jewish spaces for Russian-speaking and unaffiliated Jewish families in order to “provide them with the Jewish foundation I never had.” That includes COJECO’s Project Dacha, a new model of Jewish day camp designed by the organization specifically for Russian-speaking Jewish families who spend summers in cabin communities in upstate New York. There, as COJECO Project Director, she provided informal Jewish educational experiences presented with cultural sensitivity. COJECO Project Dacha is generously supported by the UJA-Federation of NY.
“If I have a goal, I pursue it with everything I have.”
In 2010, she founded Zplay School, a Russian-immersion preschool and supplementary school on the Upper West Side attended today by 300 children ages 1 to 13. Classes include art, Russian theater and educational seminars for Russian-speaking parents.
“The biggest reward I can have are happy kids and happy parents,” said the mother of two young sons. “What else is there?”
She continues to rebuild and create her own Jewish identity with her husband, who similarly grew up in a Russian-speaking home with no knowledge of his Jewish roots. They were the first members of their respective families to get married under a chuppah and circumcise their children. Shabbat and holidays feature prominently in their home.
“We are learning how to practice in our own way,” she said. “It is important for me to give my children — and other Russian children and parents — a basis from where they can grow.”
Ballroom champ: During college, Imberg-Zurakhinsky joined the Brooklyn College dance team, where she competed in ballroom dance — and won several first place awards.