Talia Geister is a mother, wife, computer programmer, and JWRP sister and City Leader based in the suburbs of Chicago. Growing up in the USSR, Talia was bullied for being Jewish but only began to explore what that meant once she became a mother in the US. Talia shared with us the moment when she realized she was Jewish and how she teaches her children to appreciate their Jewish identity.
What inspired you to travel to Israel with the JWRP?
When I discovered Lori Palatnik’s blog, I quickly became a follower. Her messages resonated with me because she made Judaism feel so approachable and digestible. I grew up in Belarus with very little Jewish knowledge, and I had so many questions about Judaism and how to make it part of my life. When Lori mentioned the MOMentum Trip, I knew I needed to apply. I wanted to immerse myself in Jewish learning and to give myself the opportunity to grow.
How did MOMentum impact you?
While in Israel, people opened their homes to us and showed us tremendous hospitality. I felt the warmth of the Jewish people everywhere we traveled. Visiting Yad Vashem and being surrounded by so much traumatic history was a very intense and uncomfortable experience for me. But, when I exited the building and found a beautiful, bright, and spacious view of Jerusalem in front of me, I truly understood how valuable Israel is and how fragile it is, too.
The community that I found during my MOMentum experience was incredible. I had been taking baby steps toward living a Jewish life and suddenly, I was surrounded by people who were on the same path as me. Far from our daily routine and immersed in new experiences, we were able to learn and grow and be inspired together. I was also finally able to explain why Judaism was so meaningful to me. I always had a certain intuition that it was important, but during MOMentum, I gained the words to share my feelings as well. Ultimately, I returned home with the tools, teachers, and outlook to take my family on our Jewish journey.
Tell us about your Jewish identity in the USSR.
When I was six or seven years old, I was walking home from school when a few kids began taunting me, “What’s your last name? Are you Jewish?” I told them that I was born there and ran home, crying. I told my mother, “Those kids called me Jewish!” And then she shocked me by responding, “You are.”
Growing up in Belarus, I never understood why everyone hated me. At the beginning of each school year, every student needed to stand before the class and state their nationality. While everyone else answered, “Ukrainian,” “Russian,” or “Belorussian,” we Jews needed to answer, “Jewish,” regardless of where we were born. This made us easy targets. We accepted that we were different, but we knew very little about Judaism. Our grandparents, who did have Jewish knowledge, were afraid to teach us anything. Eventually, I became proud of my identity. But when I moved to the US, my family’s focus was on getting jobs and an education. Learning more about our identity took a backseat. It’s easy to assimilate in the US, but once I had my own family, I decided to learn more about my Jewish heritage.
How do you teach your children to be grateful for their Jewish identity?
First, I make them aware of HP (Hashgacha Pratit / Higher Power) moments. I want them to understand that nothing just happens. Even when a situation looks bad today, something good can come of it. I also teach them to appreciate their Jewish day school education. My husband and I did not have the opportunity to attend a Jewish school and sending them there takes a lot of effort, but we think it’s very important. We encourage our children to invite their friends to our home for Shabbat and holiday meals. The experience is new for many of their friends, and we teach our kids to be welcoming and respectful and to share their love and knowledge of Judaism, which they’re so fortunate to have.
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