'We Met on a Birthright Trip to Israel and Fell in Love Instantly'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: A young couple explain why they left Ukraine for Israel, and a tour guide who is spending her coronavirus downtime volunteering with Palestinians who need medical care

Noa Epstein
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Zhenya Dvidova and Yevgeny Ofer.
Zhenya Dvidova and Yevgeny Ofer.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Noa Epstein

Zhenya Dvidova, 21, and Yevgeny Ofer, 23; live in Ramat Gan, Zhenya is flying to Kiev

Where are you coming to the airport from?

Weekend banner.

Zhenya: From Ramat Gan. We’re a couple, Zhenya and I.

What do you mean “Zhenya and I”? You’re Zhenya!

Yes, we have the same name. He is Yevgeny and I am Yevgenya, and the nickname for both is “Zhenya.” When we marry we’ll be Yevgeny and Yevgenya Ofer, or Zhenya and Zhenya Ofer. It’ll be weird.

You’re getting married?

Zhenya: Yes, soon. We met on a Birthright trip and fell in love instantly. But then Zhenya [Yevgeny] stayed here on Masa [a Jewish Agency program for young adults] with the intention of moving to Israel. We stayed in touch for half a year, and the day I came back we started the relationship. Eleven months later, Zhenya proposed; that was a year ago. Now I’m going back to finish my university exams to get a diploma.

Why did you want to move to Israel?

Yevgeny: I had never been to Israel, but I lived enough in Ukraine to understand that I didn’t want to stay there. From day one of Birthright, it was clear that it was a one-way ticket.

What’s so terrible about Ukraine?

Yevgeny: In Ukraine there is a huge difference between upper class and lower class, but in contrast to Israel, there is no middle class. Corruption is a way of life there, everything works via bribes, including with the police. It’s a mentality.

Zhenya: I don’t think the problem is mentality, it’s the government that leaves people poor. But in the past year there’s been a new president, Volodymyr Zelensky. He’s a comic by profession, and seems to be a good person who identifies with the problems of the people. The day he was elected, Zhenya and I bought a bamboo plant and named it after him.

Do your other houseplants have names, too?

Zhenya: Sure. We have Rustic, Cube and, as I said, Volodymyr Zelensky. They’re like my children.

How do your parents feel about your leaving?

Yevgeny: My mother and my grandfather followed me in making aliyah; they live in Bat Yam. My mother is 45 and her father is 80. He receives reparations because of the Holocaust and she found work. She is happy with her decision, despite the difficulties.

Zhenya: My mother and sister came to visit me half a year ago. My sister also wants to go on the Masa program. My mother’s now learning Hebrew. She is 52, but she’s persistent and it’s going well for her.

And your dad?

Zhenya: I don’t know where he is. He left us when I was 8, found another family. The same thing happened with Zhenya, more or less.

Yevgeny: It’s a popular story in Ukraine.

Why?

Yevgeny: Because of money. During the Soviet regime, students who got married and had a baby got an apartment from the state. Many young families were waiting for an apartment when the Soviet Union fell. They were left with a baby and no money and couldn’t find themselves.

Zhenya: I’ll explain. In Russia and Ukraine, there are many beautiful young women. Amazing women. In the past, they would get married and have a child, but life was terribly hard. The men had to work really hard to get money, and the women had to raise the child and also work. One thing led to another, and the man got tired and the woman he married wasn’t young and beautiful and well-groomed anymore. Outside, many more beautiful young women were waiting.

Yevgeny: My father became a father when he was 21, just a kid. But they took the risk because they expected something from their government.

Zhenya: Men had no sense of responsibility at all then. They felt comfortable leaving the family. My dad simply went on his way.

Yevgeny: My dad and I renewed our relationship in the recent years. He is older now, and understands the importance of the ties. But that’s the kind of generation it is: The father is not in the picture and the mother is a single parent.

Zhenya: Of all my girlfriends in Odessa, there are only one or two who come from a “whole” family.

What about in general, among your generation?

Zhenya: There is more responsibility. We don’t plan to have children before we have an economic future and psychological stability.

How did you get through the coronavirus period?

Zhenya: We worked remotely, so it was convenient. I discovered, happily, that we’re good at being together. It was fun being able at any given moment to get up and say, “Kiss me now!” I’ll miss that.

Kayla Ship.
Kayla Ship.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Kayla Ship, 50; lives in Jerusalem, arriving from New York

How are things?

It’s good to be back in Israel.

Yes? Where were you?

I went to New York for three weeks to work. I’m a tour guide here, mainly for American groups. I went to meet with groups that will be coming to Israel. Before that I’d decided to spend a few days with my parents in Florida, and in the end I didn’t make it out of there. Within 48 hours everything was canceled or switched to Zoom.

Then why didn’t you come back?

All the work here was canceled, so there was nothing really to come back to. When I understood that I would have to be quarantined in a hotel, I preferred to pass it up. It was good, because I was able to help my elderly parents, to shop for them. That way they didn’t have to worry about me or I about them. I stayed for two-and-a-half months.

And now there’s something to come back to?

Not really. I’m still not clear about what I’ll do in the summer. We are a boutique tourism company that tailors the trip to the group’s needs. We are all also academics and in the education field. I have a master’s in theology at Harvard, and most of the groups I guide are congregations from synagogues in the United States who arrive with their rav or rabba [male and female rabbi]. Right now I’m very concerned about the future. I’m waiting for July-August; maybe things will become clearer. Our travel company survived a first intifada, the [Second] Lebanon war, Operation Protective Shield and more – but what’s happening now is completely different and a lot harder.

But maybe everything will soon be back to normal.

Here, maybe. But Americans aren’t going to be coming anytime soon. At the moment I’m trying to save the October-November-December groups, and there too we’re getting across-the-board cancellations. No American with eyes in his head is going to make an advance payment on a trip.

So what will you do this summer?

I will spend time in the National Library, because I am also a tour guide for Spain. That is, I join the local guide and add information about Jewish history, so I’m learning about that all the time. I also plan to do more volunteer work than usual.

Where do you volunteer?

With Road to Recovery. I drive Palestinians from the Palestinian Authority who need medical treatment. In my case I meet them at the Erez checkpoint [of the Gaza Strip] and drive them to Hadassah Hospital or to Augusta Victoria [Hospital], in Jerusalem.

How did you get involved in that?

My boss sent me a link from Haaretz about the organization. I wanted to help, and I don’t have a background in medicine. So I thought, I have an opportunity to help and I like driving. I think that a lot of coexistence initiatives are mostly empty talk. But here there is something real. And also, it’s not political.

Why is it important for you to be nonpolitical?

I am centrist in my views. I see problems among the right and the left. Through the tourists I see how exaggerated the entrenched opinions are: It’s either “King Bibi” or, “Bibi is the cause of every problem in the country.” It’s important to me that they come out of their trip to Israel not with answers but with the right questions – and a little humility. As a Jew, it’s important for me to help people get medical treatment.

Do you speak with them during the trip?

I usually pick up four people, and I don’t know who I’m driving. I don’t speak Arabic and they don’t speak Hebrew. The trip takes place in silence.

A bit odd: a humanitarian act alongside remoteness.

Yes, it is odd. Sometimes I drive someone and I think: Maybe he’s from Hamas? But I say okay, the idea is to help people without asking questions. One time I drove a man and he suddenly started to sing Israeli songs like the ones you hear on Independence Day. It turned out that he was born in Israel and moved to the Strip in 1979. “I made a mistake,” he said. He wasn’t satisfied with his life there, but who imagined in 1979 what would be? Another man, who also knew Hebrew, looked out the window. It was February and he admired the blossoms. “Those are beautiful shkediyot [almond trees],” he said.

Would you like to know what they are thinking?

Sometimes I think maybe it’s better not to know, but it makes me curious. We pass by fields, vineyards, communities. Maybe they’re thinking, “You stole this from us.” Or maybe, “Why doesn’t it look like this where I live?” Maybe they hate me – Jewish Zionists. I don’t know. Mostly they fall asleep very quickly. I pick them up at 9 A.M., but they were up before dawn for sure, and they’re also sick.”

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