When Inna and Slav Levin’s daughter, Polina, was born with hearing loss, the newborn’s grandmother had an idea for how to give her a little edge.
“My mother suggested getting a Hebrew name would give her additional strength,” said Inna Levin, 36, of Livingston, who was born in the former Soviet Union. “My mom, the farthest from anything Jewish, said this.”
When the family joined the Chai Center Chabad of Millburn/Short Hills, she and Rivkie Bogomilsky, the rebbetzin, often spoke about the idea. It turned out there was a whole group of families whose daughters had never received Jewish names, and others who had Hebrew names but didn’t have a formal naming ceremony.
It took a while to make it happen, but now, six years after she was born, not only did Polina finally get a Hebrew name that she chose herself (Aliza), so did her older sister Eliana (Eliana Shimona), and even Inna (Shoshana). And so did the female members of about 20 other families — nearly all from the former Soviet Union — on May 3 at the Chai Center in Short Hills during the rosh chodesh Torah reading. The Levins sponsored the event with two other families — the Zelinsky and Guberuk families — who, like the Levins, are former Soviet expats who reside in Livingston and are members of the Chai Center community.
“I feel like it created a bond with us and with the girls,” said Inna. “I did not realize how special it would be until we did it.” She added, “It’s just bringing us closer to each other and to our culture and our religion.”
Although not required by Jewish law, it is traditional for children to receive the names in a formal ceremony. Unlike Jewish boys, who are named during a brit milah, circumcision, girls are usually named in between aliyot during the Torah reading, often soon after the baby girl is born.
“It’s a really personal connection,” said Rabbi Mendel Bogomilsky of the Chai Center. “Many of us take having a Hebrew name for granted, but if you have not had the opportunity from a young age, you might feel like you’re a stranger at someone else’s party.” He added, “Your name is not just a handle. It’s what connected us to each other through the Torah as Jews. We are very excited to be able to facilitate that connection.”
Irina Guberuk was insistent that her children have Jewish names — her sons are Josh, Zachary, and Matthew. But she and her husband, Igor, never had a ceremony for their daughter, Lea, now 8, and Lea took it upon herself to research a name meaningful to her, said Guberuk. She ultimately chose the name Leora, which means “light unto me.”
“Light is special because it helps guide us,” Lea explained during the event. “It also helps us see. It illuminates, like the sun … I plan to be a positive light for myself and others.”
Although initially planned for Lea, the naming became a three-generation affair for the Guberuks: Irina and her mother also chose names for themselves. For Irina’s mother, the public ceremony was particularly meaningful. Irina said that shortly after the ceremony, her mother, who does not speak English, recalled that in the former Soviet Union, “She had to hide, not highlight, her Jewish identity. To her, it’s really important to be in a country where she can be proud of being Jewish.”
Marina Zelinsky also gave her daughters Hebrew names when they were born, but at the time she and her husband, Alex, did not belong to a synagogue. “It was lovely to do the ceremony,” she said. “To be honest, I thought that ship had sailed and we didn’t do it.” She said her two daughters, 8 and 6, also enjoyed the process, especially her older daughter. “She talked about it, about getting her name,” Zelinsky said. “And she thought it was fun to have a party.” Zelinsky’s mother-in-law also took a Hebrew name — that of her own grandmother, Rivka.
“We had Jewish names in our family, but in the Soviet Union you wouldn’t name your kid Rivka,” she said. “People did not practice religion openly. You stayed far away from that. And whatever traditions people kept, it was a light version, just remnants.”
She added, “My mother-in-law never saw that coming. She never thought she would end up with a Hebrew name — or find herself at a Chabad in Short Hills.”