It was only 10 years ago that she was a little girl wandering the streets of Ukraine, neglected, alone and unloved. No one believed in her, and her future was bleak. At the age of 13 she was brought to Israel by the organization Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl, and her life turned around. Today she’s happily married with three children. She sings and tells the story of her unusual life to groups of women.
This is the story of Anya Kabanovsky's personal exodus.
Sleeping Behind the Curtains
“I was born in Kiev, Ukraine. I was the only child of parents who separated when I was very young. My mother was a singer in a successful band, a true artist, with all that that involves. I grew up in a house that was filled with music all day, and sometimes, when Mommy went out to perform at night, I went with her. I got used to spending a lot of time with adults, to hearing many types of music and to sleeping behind the stage curtains. While all the girls in kindergarten were interested in dolls and pink clothes, I was preoccupied with deep thoughts and my rich inner life. Perhaps that’s why I had no friends.
“When I was seven, Mommy thought I was big enough and responsible enough to be left alone when she went out to perform. I was independent from the time I was very young, and by the time I was nine, I was cooking for myself and for my mother.”
My Daughter, You Are Jewish
“When I was five, Mommy surprised me by telling me that she’d signed me up for a Jewish school. When I asked her why, she told me that we are Jewish, and that the Jewish school is considered the best in Kiev. I was very excited. I had no friends in kindergarten anyway, and I was curious about what a Jewish kindergarten would be like, especially a kindergarten that was considered the best in the city.
“I enjoyed learning in the Jewish school. Before every holiday we would learn about the holiday themes, as well as songs and dances about the holiday. We performed for our parents. Mommy, and sometimes Grandma, would come to see me, and I was proud and happy.
“Every Friday we baked delicious challahs. I would bring them home, and everyone enjoyed eating them. The Jewish concepts that we learned in school never made it into the house, though. We didn’t start keeping mitzvahs or Shabbat, but I was discovering a complete and wonderful world of mitzvahs and traditions, and I loved it very much.”
Becoming Mommy’s Mommy
“When I was four, Mommy fell from the fourth floor of our building. The damage this did to her nervous system became apparent only years later.
“I was only in third grade when Mommy was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and started to limp. Her situation quickly deteriorated, and she needed to be cared for. Mommy, the successful singer who had made me so proud, was trapped in a broken body.
“Her physical state affected her emotional state. She became depressed and almost ceased functioning. I would come home from school and take care of her. I’d cook and feed her, clean the house and do the shopping. We lived on the fourth floor of a building with no elevator, so Mommy hardly ever left the house. I was her only connection to the outside world.
“As Mommy’s situation worsened, mine did too. I had no stable adult I could rely on. I paid no attention to anything Mommy said, and became a child with no limits. No one came to my parent-teacher’s meetings at school, and so I wasn’t afraid of what anyone would say about me. I cut school a lot and wandered the streets, which was just as bad as it sounds.
“Our financial situation was critical. We couldn’t afford even the staples, like oil and salt; we just made gruel cooked in water. Sometimes I ate that three times a day. During the school year, the teachers had pity on me and let me stay until 6 PM, so that I would be off the streets and could eat nutritious meals; but during the vacations, Mommy and I went hungry.
“I didn’t have a uniform until the parents’ committee collected money and bought one for me. After school, I’d change into my grandmother’s old clothes. The situation destroyed my self-image. The neighborhood girls would smirk at me, and I was full of self-pity. In the winter, when they’d ask me why I didn’t have boots, I’d tell them it was because I wasn’t cold, but the truth was that both my body and soul were freezing.”
Children of Chernobyl
Anya’s school housed the office of the organization Children of Chernobyl. This project was initiated by the Rebbe in 1990, four years after the meltdown of the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, when it became clear that the radioactive contamination in the area was not decreasing. The Rebbe told his chassidim to remove the children from Ukraine and Belarus and take them to Israel, to remove them from the danger zone. These children were housed in a dormitory and received full medical care, along with a Jewish education and a lot of love.
Anya asked the office to facilitate her emigration to Israel. Her mother agreed immediately. She knew that Anya needed someone to take care of her, that if she remained in Ukraine and continued to wander the streets, her future would be bleak. Anya promised the people in charge of the project that she would get a grip on herself; she would obey the rules and concentrate on her education. Anya left her mother knowing that she would receive some care from her father, who still maintained a connection with his ex-wife and was able to provide for her most basic needs.
Does Anybody Care About Me?
“I got to Kfar Chabad and began studying in an ulpan (a school for learning Hebrew), which was to prepare me to enter 8th grade. As soon as I got there, they bought me clothes and other things I was lacking. I enjoyed the filling meals and the way they pampered me. People were always complimenting me and asking me how I was. For me, who had had no love and had gone without life’s necessities for several years, this was a huge shock. I couldn’t digest it. I couldn’t believe anybody cared about me. When someone would ask, ‘How are you?’ I would answer, ‘What do you care?’ I resisted all limits and rules, I was angry all the time, and I hated everyone.
“To get out of school, I kept saying that I was sick, that my head hurt or my stomach hurt. The staff understood, but they explained that in Israel you get to stay home for only two days of sickness. I was coming from Ukraine, where a child with a runny nose could stay home for two weeks.
“The staff saw me as a challenge, and they didn’t give up on me. They kept telling me that they believed in me, and they complimented me on any little thing I did right. They set limits on my behavior, but put no limits on their nurturing. Within six months I’d changed completely. I began to believe that people loved me as I was, and even more importantly, I began to believe in myself. I wanted to show the staff that their investment in me was worthwhile. I wanted to prove myself.”
A Visit to Ukraine
“Sometimes I’d call Mommy. The Parkinson’s made it hard for her to talk, but she listened to me. These conversations weren’t easy for me, but I still called.”
After two years in Israel, Anya asked to go visit her mother. She wanted to return, well-dressed and well-groomed, to the place where she’d had to wear her grandmother’s cast-offs. But the visit was difficult for her. Seeing how her mother lived shook her to the core.
During her visit, friends introduced her, via the Internet, to a Jewish man in Canada named Ronen. They corresponded by e‑mail and felt an amazing connection. When she got back to the dormitory, she told the house mother that she’d met a man. He was older than her, but she was sure that someday she would marry him. The house mother understood that she wasn’t going to be able to forbid their relationship, and just asked Anya to limit their contact to telephone calls and letters.
While Anya got more interested in Torah and mitzvahs, Ronen didn’t, and their connection weakened.
“He actually had a certain connection to Judaism. He carried a picture of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—in his wallet. He had been born sickly and had to be connected to a respirator as a baby. After his mother asked for and received a blessing from the Rebbe, his situation improved immediately, and he began to breathe on his own. His mother told him to carry a picture of the Rebbe with him wherever he went.”
One day, when Ronen was cleaning out his wallet and came across the picture of the Rebbe, he decided to find out a little about him. He went to a Chabad website, read about the Rebbe and listened to a sound clip of him singing. The melody moved him.
“It turned out that the day was the 11th of Nissan, the Rebbe’s birthday,” Anya says. “Shortly afterwards, Ronen called me to tell me he was starting to keep Shabbat and to learn about Judaism with Rabbi Zaltzman, Chabad’s emissary to the Russian community in Toronto. I was in the clouds: my prayers had been answered!”
Some time later, Ronen and Anya were married.
“The people of Children of Chernobyl married me off as if I were their daughter, providing everything from the dress to the photographer and the hall, and everything else we needed. They shared in my joy and made me feel like I deserved the best. My husband paid his half, and helped pay for a ticket for Mommy.”
Bringing Mommy to Israel
“My father died a year and a half ago. I started to think about Mommy’s situation, and felt that I had the ability to care for her. I brought her to Israel, took care of all the paperwork, and for now she lives next door to us. I’m happy that I can help her and care for her, and that she can enjoy her grandchildren. In Ukraine, the state refused to help her. They have no appreciation for the value of a human life. Here, she gets medical care that has significantly improved her quality of life.”
To Make Music and to Sing—A Mission and the Closing of a Circle
Recently, Anya has begun to sing and tell her story to women.
“From a young age, I knew that I wanted to make music, but I had no chance to express myself musically. I was very embarrassed to perform before Mommy, who being a perfectionist would criticize me. In the dormitory I was given many chances to show my abilities. We had a recital at the end of the first year that I learned music. I participated and received many compliments. I’ve recently decided that I want to do something with music. I’m studying voice, and through musical competitions aimed at performances based on life stories, I’m becoming self-empowered.
“When I perform, I feel that the circle is closing. But music by itself is not enough. It needs the added value of being used to strengthen others.”
Thank you, G-d, for giving me strength
to be brave, and not to forget
that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
When I get there, I’ll find it’s just the beginning.
It was early May 2010, and I sat at my desk in my office at home staring at my computer screen. I had been a Conservative rabbi for 20 years, but we all have our moment, or moments, when we evaluate life and ponder our purpose, when we ask ourselves those big questions: What do I really want to do? What is important to me? What will I accomplish in my future? While we are contemplating these deep thoughts, we may even begin to think that we are figuring it out. At those moments, it is so difficult to remember that the story has already been written . . .
The Land of Israel was on my mind. My wife, Nancy, and I had recently returned from there, and I cried on the plane. I’m too embarrassed to give the details, but whenever I leave, I cry.
I decided that I wanted to do something for Israel. I would make small video snippets of Jews talking about Israel. I would ask, “Any comments on Israel?” and they would say how much they like the spirituality, or the falafel, or the archeology, or the beaches. I would put the short pro-Israel comments on my website, and presto, everyone would watch. All the ills and ill-wills would be readjusted.
At the time I was using my website, RabbiLIVE.com, to broadcast prayer services for American Jewish soldiers in Afghanistan, Iraq, and on aircraft carriers . . . and also for some very lazy Jews in Boca Raton, Florida. I figured this would be the best place to post my Israel falafel videos. I would push that magic “viral video” button on my keyboard and help Israel’s public relations in the world.
Meanwhile, my teenage son, Adam Natan, was up in his room, also busy. (We named him Adam Natan because he was the first male on my wife’s side in 90 years.) He has a website of his own for teenagers to learn about and discuss Jewish topics. He is quite a remarkable young man—he went to Washington by himself and streamed the entire AIPAC conference live on his website.
That May, Adam called up the White House and requested to attend the President’s Chanukah celebration the following December. (He somehow knows how to contact the right people.) They asked him if he was confused. “Are you sure you mean the Chanukah celebration, and not the upcoming Jewish heritage celebration?”
“Oh, the upcoming Jewish heritage celebration,” he answered. (It is a proud parental moment when our children learn the power of a white lie.) The White House media office was kind enough to provide press credentials for Adam, his friend Daniel Landau and me.
I took time out from my busy schedule of contemplating my life, and drove down with the two teenagers to celebrate Jewish Heritage Month with the president. Maybe this would be a good place to find a group of Jews to ask my “Any comments on Israel?” question and put a spotlight on my precious homeland.
On May 27, 2010, I stood in the White House briefing room with my cell, calling, very specifically, anyone and everyone I knew, bragging, “You’ll never guess where I am!” Suddenly, I saw former president Bill Clinton walk by. Everyone ran to the door as he passed. He greeted us swiftly as he moved along, and I turned to the person next to me and said, “That’s Bill Clinton!” The man said, “I know. I’m Joe Biden.”
We attended President Obama’s first press conference in 10 months, in the East Room of the White House. The topic was the oil leak in the Gulf. The three of us had brilliant questions prepared to ask if called upon, but alas, no such luck. The big room was packed with seasoned reporters from all over the world, and only a handful were given the honor to ask a question. Helen Thomas, dean of the White House Press Corps, was one of them.
After the president’s briefing, we had an hour before the Jewish heritage celebration. We thought we would leave the grounds of the White House for a little walk. As we headed for the gate, I noticed Helen Thomas walking toward us. Our paths were about to cross. I gave my son and his friend a quick rundown: She’s one of the most famous reporters in the world, and had been covering the White House since the times of Eisenhower and Kennedy. She was the only member of the press to have a designated seat of her own—front row, center, in the White House briefing room.
She was a journalist for 60 years, and I was a journalist for 60 seconds; I figured it was time we met. So we stopped her and exchanged pleasantries. Although my cameras were in the White House, I had my small Flip video camera on me, and I started filming. She looked directly into the lens and gave some rather gracious advice about journalism: “You’ll always keep people informed and you’ll always keep learning.”
I was waiting until later in the day to shoot my Israel question at the guests of the Jewish celebration, but something made me fire one round a little early. “Any comments on Israel?”
Hashgachah pratit, divine providence. The ultimate Creator of this story, and all stories, placed in my camera the video snippet that would aid Israel and change my life. “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” she said.
If I was in a back alley in New York and a skinhead said that to me, we would probably rumble. But we were at the White House, she was 89 years old, and, if you’ve seen my photo, I’m the skinhead. The whole thing was very confusing. So I decided to be a journalist, and I asked her, “Where should they go?”
“Where’s home?” I asked.
“Poland and Germany.”
Back home to Poland and Germany. I wish I could go back to the shtetlach and shtieblach of Poland. My grandparents’ town of Drobnin, where on a Friday evening the smell of challah no doubt permeated the town, and candles twinkled in the window of every home. I wish I could go back. But not one shtetl, not one candle, not one Jew is there. The anti-Semites erased them.
We went back to New York with the video. I called a writer from The Jewish Week and told him what happened, and he said two words: “No story.” I had suffered anti-Semitism on the White House lawn, and now I experienced secular Jewish apathy in New York.
I wanted to post the video immediately on my website. But even if you are a billionaire CEO with private jets and thousands of employees, you need to hire a 15-year-old to figure out how to put something on a website. (Those who can afford it can hire a 12-year-old.) I needed my son to post the video, and unfortunately he was tied up with final exams and driver’s ed. An entire week went by, and the video remained in my camera.
Hashgachah pratit, divine providence. Something happened that week in the Middle East that brought Israel into the spotlight. On May 31, 2010, Israeli soldiers boarded a flotilla of boats that were bent on defying the security blockade of the Gaza Strip. The “peace activists” on one of the boats beat the Israelis with metal rods and attacked them with knives. Several of the activists were shot during the confrontation.
The whole world was against Israel. Helen Thomas stood in the White House, inches in front of the president, before the entire international press corps, and said, “It was a deliberate massacre by Israel against peace activists on the high seas.”
That night my son had some time. We posted the video at around 2 a.m. Friday morning. We forwarded it to some people, including Jewish blogger Jeff Dunetz, publisher of the blog “Yid With Lid.” My son left for the weekend on a teenage Shabbaton.
After Shabbat I turned on the computer to see if anyone had looked at the video. There were over 700,000 views. By Sunday it went viral, into the millions.
At a time when the events of the flotilla fueled the foggy views of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic people, my video cleared the air. Helen Thomas was forced to resign in shame, and her co-author and agents dropped her. She was banished from the White House; her name was removed from the front-row seat and from various awards throughout the country.
Every media outlet in the world converged on me, the good, the bad and the ugly. I received thousands of threatening hate e‑mails as well. Law enforcement and private agencies got involved. Everyone wanted to know about the guy behind the camera; my inbox was flooded with the entire international press corps asking for an interview.
Sitting at the computer in my son’s room with the soccer ball wallpaper and the little desk, I was overwhelmed. I thought that this would be a good time for some hashgachah pratit. Then the phone rang. It was Ari Fleischer, former president Bush’s White House press secretary. He advised me that I should have a definitive message. It was important that I know what message I wanted to deliver to the world.
My son came home from school, and I told him that Ari Fleischer had called. My son said, “I know; I told him to call you.” (Who is this kid?)
My son said, “You can speak to anyone in the world; who do you want me to call for advice to find out what our message is?” I thought for a moment and said one name. Sure enough, within minutes, my son handed me the phone to speak with Elie Wiesel.
As per Ari’s counsel, I asked, “Professor Wiesel, what is my message for the world?” He said that he had read in the newspaper that I attend services at Chabad each morning, and he suggested that I should find out what the Rebbe would have wanted me to say.
I couldn’t figure out what I was more confused and amazed about: that Elie Wiesel was advising me to find out what the deceased Lubavitcher Rebbe would have me say, or that I was now in a surreal world where Elie Wiesel was reading about which minyan I attend over his morning coffee.
I called my local Chabad rabbi, Chaim Grossbaum, and told him that Elie Wiesel had advised me to find out what the Rebbe would want me to say. “Okay, let’s find out,” he said without any hesitation.
We called Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, a renowned individual who knew the Rebbe, has great knowledge of the Rebbe’s teachings, and also has terrific insight into world politics and media. We asked him what he thought the Rebbe’s message would be in this situation.
“If you have a friend and you don’t see him for a little while, he is still your friend. But if you don’t see him for 50 years, you can’t be sure if he is still your friend,” Rabbi Shemtov said. “But if your child goes away for a little while, he is still your child; and if your child goes away for months or even years, he is still your child. And if, G‑d forbid, you don’t see your child for 50 years, he is still your child.
“We are not the friends of Israel. We are the children of Israel. We were away for a few hundred years in Egypt, or a thousand years in Persia, or Spain, or North America . . . we were away for a few years in Auschwitz. But we are still the Children of Israel.
“Israel and the Children of Israel are one. It doesn’t matter where or when you are born and live, or what language you speak; we are always the Children of Israel. We and Israel exist because of each other; it is G‑d-given. The Jew walking on the street in New York, whether or not he even knows or cares about Israel, is alive because of Israel, and Israel exists because of him.”
Two days later, I was on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” with Howard Kurtz. I can’t remember what he asked me, but I know the answer was that the Children of Israel and the Land of Israel are one, and that is what Helen Thomas and those who want to delegitimize Israel are denying.
Two months later I drove across the United States with my son, interviewing everyone from Jackie Mason to the Grand Dragon of the KKK for a documentary film about anti-Semitism and hatred. (The film later premiered at the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance.)
Upon returning home, I was asked to be the keynote speaker at Yale University’s inaugural symposium on global anti-Semitism. Before I spoke, the chairman of the symposium, Professor Charles Asher Small, paused to explain to the audience of professors from all over the world why I was the keynote speaker.
He explained that he never watches television, but one day he was visiting his parents, and they happened to have on CNN’s Reliable Sources. He heard me say that “the Children of Israel and the Land of Israel are one. They only exist because of each other; it is G-d-given.” He said those words caused him to ask me to speak. He said those words needed to be heard at Yale University by all the professors assembled.
Hashgachah pratit. Helen Thomas said, “Go home,” and I did. After being a Conservative rabbi for over 20 years, I traveled home to my roots. And so did my family. Last year my son Adam studied at Chabad’s Mayanot Yeshiva in Jerusalem, and this year he is studying at the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, New Jersey. On Sukkot he built sukkahs in Guatemala with the Merkos Shlichus program. On Pesach he delivered matzahs and conducted a Seder for Jews deep inside Cuba.
My daughter Shira is a student in Crown Heights at the Machon Chana Women’s Institute for Jewish Studies, and, G-d willing, she will be studying at a Chabad seminary in Montreal next year. An accomplished dancer, she now teaches dance to the daughters of shluchim over the Internet. My wife and I are very proud of our children.
I not only went home; I went to 100 homes. I have traveled to and spoken at more than 100 Chabad Houses throughout the world. From the Chabad Houses of Sydney and Melbourne to those in Manchester and Liverpool, from Boca to Boston to Bellaire, from Fairfield to Flamingo to the Friendship Circle of Livingston, New Jersey, I have been inspired and I have, thank G-d, inspired others as well.
Each time I tell my story, I offer my conclusions about how to fight anti-Semitism. I tell my audiences that the way to fight anti-Jewish is by doing Jewish. Do Torah. Do Mitzvot. Do Shabbat. Do kosher. I know this is what the Rebbe would have wanted me to say.
Hashgachah pratit has taken me from the White House to over 100 Chabad Houses. There are 4,900 more to visit; each one brings me closer to home.
I’ve always loved playing basketball. When I was in high school, I played point guard on the team, but I was nowhere near good enough to play in college. Instead I played on a women’s intramural team in university, and my signature move was stealing the ball and running for a layup. My friends on my intramural team used to tease me, “That girl has Bible power!” They would yell down the court as I ran, and we would all laugh. For some of my teammates, I was the first Jew they had ever met, and certainly the first religious one. I was fortunate that the games were on Sunday afternoons, but I always missed Saturday practices. Sometimes the others would grumble that I wasn’t being a team player, but my roommate would stick up for me.
“It’s her Sabbath, guys. Leave her alone. She won’t even turn on the lights in the dorm room. The Jewish Sabbath is serious stuff, trust me.” And so they let me remain on the team, with my “Bible power” competitive streak making up for my missed practices.
This memory came flooding back to me recently when I read the New York Times article, “Northwestern’s Aaron Liberman Studies X’s, O’s and Torah,” with the caption under the photo reading, “Aaron Liberman, a freshman at Northwestern and an Orthodox Jew, is 6 feet 10 inches of lean muscle, topped on and off the court by a skullcap.”
The article describes how Liberman remains dedicated to a Torah lifestyle while playing NCAA Division I basketball. Aaron described his days—waking up each day for an early minyan, and heading straight to the training room. And Liberman was one of the first players ever to wear tzitzit under his uniform.
The article notes, “The life of an Orthodox Jew is one of discipline. Liberman prays three times a day, keeps kosher and travels only by foot on the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.” In high school Liberman brought Valley Torah, a small Jewish high school in California without a gymnasium, to its first conference championship and a strong showing in the state playoffs. People nicknamed Aaron the Jewish Dwight Howard.
Bill Carmody, Northwestern’s coach, spotted Aaron first at an AAU tournament in Las Vegas. “He had a motor. He never quit. You could see it in his defense and rebounding,” Carmody said.
Reading about Liberman inspired me in three ways.
Aaron tells the interviewer about the time he spent studying in Israel after graduating high school. For seven months, he spent ten hours learning each day, and then headed to the gym to practice his game. Being able to focus on one goal is admirable; the ability to invest in two seemingly diametrically opposed goals at the same time is amazing. But perhaps, as one famous Orthodox Jewish wrestler (whose name I don’t recall) once remarked, “My religion and sport go together. Fighting helps me focus harder when I learn, and learning inspires me to fight harder.”
Northwestern makes arrangements for Liberman so that he doesn’t have to fly on Shabbat, and the university is also creating a special kippah for Aaron that will match his uniform. This rock-solid commitment to something higher than basketball is perhaps part of what revs Liberman’s “motor” that so deeply impressed Northwestern’s coach when he first saw him play.
Lack of Pretense
Liberman speaks freely about his unique circumstances and religious observance. He isn’t embarrassed to wear his tzitzit on the court, despite the strange looks he must occasionally get.
I remember once wanting to daven (pray) when I was in an airport in Arizona, but I was embarrassed to stand in the corner and say the Amidah. I thought people would think I was crazy if I stood up and looked like I was talking to myself. I even considered pretending that I was on the phone. But eventually, I stood up and davened anyway.
Afterwards, a woman asked me if I had been praying. I nodded. “What were you praying for?” she asked. I thought for a moment before replying, “Everything.”
When I showed one of my daughters this article about Liberman, I asked her what she thought was most powerful about his life. “He isn’t afraid to be himself,” she replied.
And in many ways, maybe that is “everything.” Not being afraid to go out into the world and be our highest selves. Because that is truly what makes us powerful players on the courts, in our homes and in our hearts.