Born in Siberia, 29-year-old Zoya Levitin is a member of “Generation 1.5” – children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union whose job it was to translate social security documents to their parents and who knew about taxes by second grade.
“Our parents didn’t know what they were coming to. And they came with very little. We grew up fast,” says Zoya. “We didn’t experience childhood like my seven-year-old son is. I was a latchkey kid at a very young age. Today, I say to myself, there is no way my third grade son will come home alone.
“The media called these immigrants prostitutes and drunks. At the same time, we were told we had to be Israelis and that meant not being Russian, so we decided to distance ourselves from our language and culture and, many times, from our parents.
“My home is here and I’m not willing to give up on it, but for many long years I had very hard feelings about this place. I felt this country was spitting me out.”
Zoya is also part of a new generation of feminist activists. A student of gender studies at the Open University, Zoya says, “More women are struggling for their place. The movement is widening. As [feminist activist and author] belle hooks said, feminism is for everyone.”
She began reading about feminism and didn’t stop.
Reading led to writing, and writing led to an assignment in 2012 to write a column for Saluna, a leading Israeli blog. “From that moment I haven’t stopped writing about feminism, social action, and politics,” says Zoya.
Her journey to becoming a change maker flowed naturally from her new interests. Zoya was first introduced to social activism though friends who were involved in the 2011 social justice protests and she went on to help organize Israel’s first “slut walk.” She has also taken part in other women’s rights causes, including working to overturn the statute of limitations on sex crimes.
Zoya found out about Shatil’s Everett Social Justice Fellowship program through Facebook. The program enabled her to use her life experiences, activism, and interests to advance other Russian-speaking women. Through her fellowship, she connected with NIF grantee Morashteinu, an organization that gives voice to Russian-speaking immigrants who believe in democratic values. In addition to preparing a racism report and other work for the organization, Zoya organized a group of Russian-speaking women who met weekly to discuss and learn about issues relating to women and immigration from a personal and professional perspective.
“We brought in a different speaker each week who shed light on another aspect of Russian women’s experiences: MKs, researchers, activists, Mizrahi women leaders, women who told of the Kavkazi women’s experience. The growth in awareness and knowledge was profound and enabled each of the women – myself included – to connect her personal and professional life to these issues. The women still tell me how much they got out of this group and that makes me very happy. What particularly stands out is their desire to act on these issues.”
The Everett program gave Zoya a newfound confidence, introduced her to “the most phenomenal people,” and helped her broaden her horizons. In the enrichment sessions, Fellows are introduced to a wide-range of issues, many of which they have little to no previous knowledge about, such as a session on the Bedouin land struggle. “I was given a free hand at Morashteinu and I got to do things I really wanted to do. The women’s group was a dream come true. Everett is the best internship students can do. You don’t make coffee or file. You do meaningful work and really feel part of the social change world in Israel.”
The Everett Social Justice Fellowships, which begins its new year next month with 43 interns, places Israeli university students in internships in social change organizations around the country, offering a stipend and an enrichment program. Of last years’ interns, eight have continued on as volunteers in their organizations, two joined their organization’s boards, and two became staff members.