May 20th, 2015
Natalie Shnaiderman, of the Jewish Agency for Israel, speaks about the organization’s work in Ukraine and the former Soviet Union
By ERIN ELLIOTT BRYAN / Community News Editor
When Natalie Shnaiderman was just seven years old in Moscow, Russia, her first-grade teacher asked each student, “What is your nationality?”
“There were no Jews in the class, or at least nobody actually said it, because not all of the kids knew — most of the Jewish kids were not told that they were Jews,” Shnaiderman said. “I was fortunate to know the family history, to hear Yiddish… at least I know who I am. I told [the teacher], ‘I am Jewish.’ And my teacher laughed.”
Shaiderman said she came to realize, many years later, that her teacher’s response was “probably not so negative,” the teacher was just surprised to hear “that a small girl was not embarrassed to say she was Jewish.”
But that experience had a profound impact on Shnaiderman at the time and she stopped saying anything about her Jewish identity. She said most Jews in the former Soviet Union only knew of their nationality because of the anti-Semitism they experienced.
“When you don’t have any education, any knowledge about your history or heritage, you can’t be proud of it,” Shnaiderman said. “Many of us thought that it was very unfortunate to be Jewish because of the reaction of the outside world.”
Shnaiderman shared her story during a recent visit to the Twin Cities, as a guest of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation. She is now the Jewish Agency for Israel’s director of development and activities for Russian-speaking Jews in North America and Australia.