Sara Yitta Gopin, Beis Moshiach
“My story is symbolic of Chanukah because I was victorious in igniting a flame of Divine light where pure oil was nonexistant. Hashem was by my side in the darkness, and there were miracles every step of the way.” With those words Ilana Umansky began our inspiring interview. “Every Jew has forty-two journeys in his lifetime. When one ends, the next one begins. I always felt a strong connection to Avraham Avinu, as I, too, left my home and birthplace in order to be part of the Jewish nation. By Divine providence I came to Israel just before parshas Lech Lecha.
“I was born in a small town in western Siberia, a faraway place where four hundred years ago those who opposed the Czar were exiled. My parents were intelligent people, my mother was a librarian and my father was the head of the cultural center of the town. In that period following World War II there was a severe shortage of food and of every basic necessity. Who ever heard of the luxury of candy and toys? We did not even have running water in our home!
“As a child I felt that I was different from the other children. I preferred to be by myself and to spend my time discovering and developing my musical talents. At the tender age of seven I began to play piano and continued to learn throughout high school. I studied in a college for musicians and trained as a choir conductor.
“At the time I met and married my future husband, Netanel Umansky, who was Jewish. Both sides of parents accepted our ‘mixed marriage,’ which was a common tragedy in the atheistic atmosphere of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately Netanel’s home was totally void of Jewish tradition. In those days the Perestroika was beginning and many people took advantage of their new freedom and left Russia. There are twelve children in Netanel’s family, and several of his brothers decided to make aliyah to Israel, and later became Lubavitchers!
“We set up our new home in Kazakhstan, where our two children were born. I was teaching music, and Netanel, who is also blessed with creativity, was the photographer of the town. Something never felt right and we thought that we could solve the problem by moving to a small village near Rostov where I had lived as a child. We soon realized that we were in a faraway place of farmers and drunkards, and the extreme spiritual vacuum is what awakened a desire for enlightenment. I understood that the wisdom of Hashem is found among the Jewish people.
“There are no coincidences, everything is from Hashem. At the time I was facing difficulty breathing and went for treatment to a Buddhist healer. He was dressed like a monk in a long robe as he explained that in order for there to be the peaceful home environment necessary for health, the wife must always follow the path of her husband. The Buddhist then emphasized that when one marries a Jew, the non-Jewish spouse is obligated to follow the Jewish tradition. His words were an eye-opening discovery for me, and I couldn’t stop crying as I accepted the truth that a Jew must be married to a Jew.
“Soon afterwards we made aliya to Eretz Yisroel. Netanel had a Bris, learned to daven, and began to keep the laws of Kashrus and Shabbos. Our home life was changing. I felt a strong desire to convert to Judaism, and began a course under the direction of Rabbi Aharon Fradkin. In the Beit Din three rabbis asked me why I wanted to convert. At that fateful moment I had a vision that I was in a dark room, and there was a small opening where I could see the great light that awaited me. I had an intense desire to escape that dark room by following the light. Baruch Hashem, I succeeded.”
After Ilana’s conversion the Umanskys became part of the Lubavitch community in Rechovot. For the last ten years they are a “foster family” offering support and guidance to men and women in the process of conversion. Recently Ilana’s creativity began to express itself in magnificent paintings, mixed media pictures and greeting cards that reflect her spiritual awakening. (Her artwork appears in this article.) Ilana’s path went “full circle” when her musical talents were enlisted by Shluchim of the Rebbe M”HM to compose songs to strengthen Shabbos observance in Kazakhstan, where she once lived.
Ilana teaches a weekly Tanya class in Russian. “When we strengthen the powers of our intellect by learning Tanya a new world opens, and we are able to find the answers to all of our questions. With every cycle of studying the Tanya our understanding is deeper and clearer, and we draw tremendous blessing into our lives.”
Our interview concludes in the spirit of Chanukah: “My life has been a miraculous journey. I thank Hashem with even more intensity with every passing day, just as the Chanukah Menorah increases its illumination and prepares the world for Geula.”
Pictured are selections of Illana’s art. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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