February 24, 2017
Beis Moshiach in #1058, Profile

This is a story about teachers and counselors who did not give up on a tough student. * Anya Kavnovsky lived through many challenges in a life that seemed hopeless, but from a Ukrainian street kid she became a Chassid of the Rebbe who is now married and fulfilled.

By Rocheli Dickstein

I went to high school with Anya Kavnovsky, but aside from knowing her name is Anya and that she was asuperstarin English and that she sang nicely, I knew nothing about her. When I finished interviewing her, all I could say was, “Wow, wow, wow!” So much can hide behind a smiley, normal exterior. How did I miss all that?

So before you even get to know Anya, the first and very important lesson is, when they tell you that every Jew is an entire world, believe it. If you don’t see it, go a little deeper. You won’t believe what you will discover.

And now, let us hear Anya’s fascinating story.


I was born in Kiev in Ukraine to a Jewish mother and a Christian father. I did not know I was Jewish until I was five, when my mother sent me to a Jewish school. I asked her why I was going there and she answered “because we are Jews.” There was nothing Jewish in my home; we observed nothing, no mitzvos and no customs. The rule was: Go with the flow and do whatever you believe is right for you. That might sound like an excellent approach for raising children with strong personalities, but as a girl, it wasn’t fun. This was mainly because, as I grew up, I discovered that in other homes there were rules, and I liked that. A child loves rules. They provide him with security. But in my parents’ home there were no rules.

When I was eight, I was sent to Eretz Yisroel as part of the Chernobyl project. The idea was to send children away so they would regain their health. The children arrived without their families and acclimated in Kfar Chabad. Despite the new language and new people, I liked it a lot. The staff was amazing and the place was terrific, but I was homesick and after several months I returned to Ukraine. I should have been happy being back in the Ukraine but I had become too connected to that place. I told my mother, “I want to go home.” She said, “You are home!” I said, “No, I want a home in Eretz Yisroel.” My mother explained that wasn’t possible because it’s not a bus ride away. “If we go back, it’s permanent.”

When I was around ten, my mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease wherein a person progressively loses control of their body. My mother, who was especially active and did not rest for a minute, stopped functioning and suddenly, our lives changed. A non-functioning mother means a mother who cannot attend parent-teacher meetings, who cannot go to work, who cannot cook … I began doing more around the house, not all the time, but when I could. As the quality of life deteriorated in my house, the less I wanted to go to school. Eventually, I was absent more than I was present.

I attended a Chabad school in Kiev where they served three meals a day. The children in the school were from good families, meaning, their parents could buy them clothes and shoes. In my house, that did not exist. I remember that it was winter and I wanted pants and closed shoes. My grandfather said to me, “We don’t eat pants and shoes.” Instead of buying me clothes, they bought two big sacks. In one were potatoes and in the other there were tomatoes. That is what we ate that winter. As for clothing, I wore my grandmother’s clothes, from when she was young. Obviously, I did not look too attractive and as a result, I had no friends.

I yearned for a hug, for someone to fight on my behalf, for someone who could make me feel socially accepted. But I was the least successful girl in the class. The kind of girl to whom they say “ugly” to her face, the one kids keep their distance from. The teachers did not encourage me and did not try to lift me up. I do not blame them but the situation got worse. At first, I went to school just for the food. But in the end, I decided to go to a school that had children in similar circumstances to myself. I left the Jewish school and went to public school. But the situation got worse there and I quickly found myself outside.

I could not find a place for myself, not at home and not in school. I was out on the street. I did not sleep there but I spent all day on the street and at night I went home. Being on the street isn’t pleasant, to say the least, and the miracle is that nothing untoward happened to me and that I am here to tell the story.

Street life provided me with all kinds of friends. I got clothing from here and there, and as far as dress went I looked a bit better. But my general appearance was still bad. My face was full of acne and I did not know how to treat it. I tried to cover it with makeup but that just made it look worse. I hated myself.

I remember that when I was twelve I was standing with my mother in front of a mirror and I said to her, “Look what kind of child you raised … ugly and a failure.” I wished she would have said, “Nonsense!” or at least would have encouraged me, but she remained silent. That is when I realized that our home was in a state of complete despair and I had to return to Eretz Yisroel if I wanted to get out of this depressing cycle.

This time, they weren’t willing to readily accept me into the program. There was a lot of red tape, bureaucratic forms and questions such as, why is she coming back? But a year later, I joined a new group of the Chernobyl project. During that year, when it was hard for me, I would stand in front of the mirror, with no one looking, and say to myself: Everything will be all right. You will yet be happy.

I would sing to myself, laugh to myself, try to provide myself with what I wasn’t getting from anywhere else. It was good for me. The mirror was my psychologist.


At the age of thirteen, in the middle of eighth grade, I arrived in Eretz Yisroel. I had nothing to pack. In my bag I put my pajamas and my diary; that’s all. I went to Eretz Yisroel with the clothes on my back and I relied on the staff to help me. The staff was truly special. I was flooded with care and with questions like, “How do you feel? How are you? Do you like it?” That kind of attention was foreign to me.

For a long time, they were unable to get a smile out of me, but they accepted me as I was. I tried to be tough, the kind that doesn’t cry and doesn’t care, the modern, cool, stubborn, problematic one. They would ask me how I am and I would answer, “What do you care?” Inside, I wanted to unload and talk, I wanted more attention, but this was belied by my tough exterior. Nonetheless, the staff did not give up. They constantly focused on my good qualities even when I wasn’t doing well. They encouraged me and said nice things, even when I tried to put a distance between us. It took time but it finally happened. I started believing them, and in them.

The change from Ukraine to Eretz Yisroel was extreme and manifested in many ways. For example, at home I was used to being the one who decided what to do and when, and suddenly, I had to follow rules imposed on me by others. I had to follow what they told me. In the dormitory, there were endless rules, tznius, for example. It was all clear and detailed. I had to listen, which wasn’t at all easy for me.

During my first month in Eretz Yisroel, I attended an ulpan in which I learned the language. I am good at languages. It was important to me to speak and listen to how things were said, and I caught on quickly. Afterward, I went to eighth grade in Beis Rivka in Kfar Chabad. The girls were excited over me. They came over, they caressed me, touched me, and said to each other, “See how pretty she is.” All my life I had heard I was ugly and suddenly they claimed I was pretty!

In general, the classroom culture was foreign to me. The girls walked around the classroom freely. They ran and shouted in the hallways. It was a culture shock for me. In Kiev, everyone is closed in, restrained. To go over to a classmate and touch her? There is no such thing. But I quickly adjusted to the Israeli culture. I realized that the Ukrainian lack of demonstrativeness caused all my social problems. Here, I felt as an equal among equals and that I did not need to be someone else. It was an intoxicating feeling. At the same time, the dormitory staff worked on drawing out my innate talents. I learned to play the guitar and took part in plays, I sang … I discovered things in me that I did not know existed.

Eighth grade came to an end and I continued on to Beis Rivka high school in Kfar Chabad Beis. In my high school years, I grew stronger in my Jewish identity. For Yomim Tovim we were sent to stay with families. I did not have a “steady” family. I was once in Nachala, once in Yerushalayim, once in Kfar Chabad. And each time I thought – which custom will I choose to take to my future home? And do I like this Jewish-Chassidic way of life? I remember writing in my diary, “What should I pick? Life like in Ukraine or life like in Eretz Yisroel?” I wanted a Jewish life and wrote this to the Rebbe. The answer I opened to in the Igros Kodesh was not to commit to everything all at once because that leads to despair, but to work consistently, a little each time. And that is what I did.

When I was in twelfth grade, I considered returning to Ukraine. I wrote to the Rebbe and the answer in the Igros Kodesh was written in Nissan, the month I wrote my letter, and the Rebbe wrote that the souls of all the children who learn in Chabad schools are special souls and that I should stay and not leave. Although the sentence was written in the plural (souls, children), I took it personally. The Rebbe said I was special! I, who had felt superfluous wherever I went, was special to the Rebbe! I decided to prove to the Rebbe that he is right. I wrote to the Rebbe a lot, and each time the answers were special and exact. At a certain point, I no longer opened to such exact answers and a rabbi explained to me that there is a stage in which the Rebbe leads you by the hand and a stage in which the Rebbe expects a Chassid to learn and grow on his own.


“In order to tell you how we met and got married, an article isn’t enough; it can fill a book,” laughed Anya.

I’ll just mention that just like the Rebbe led me step by step, the same is true for my husband, from birth. There is a twelve-year age difference between us and we are happily married for seven years, boruch Hashem.

I was eighteen when we married and we have three children. The biggest compliment I can receive today is from strangers who think I have always been religious and they have pity on me for marrying so young. It’s a compliment, because it was a long journey for both of us and a huge transformation, with emuna and free choice. When people on the outside think I was born into this, it’s flattering.


After we were married for five years, my father died in Kiev. I went to visit him in the hospital shortly before he died and saw what sort of “treatment” he was given. Until that day, I did not know anything about his medical condition. He knew about my mother’s condition and decided to stay out of my life so it wouldn’t be harder for me. On that trip, I saw the conditions my mother was living in and decided, no more.

I told my mother that I want to take her to Eretz Yisroel. We didn’t do it on that visit. First of all, there were practical things to take care of. We moved to an apartment with more space and boruch Hashem, she is here with us. She has nachas from me and our beautiful family. I try to honor her as much as I can, and to show her that although she cannot sing, play music, draw and teach, all those activities that she did so well in the past, she is still important and needed. My dream is to introduce her to good people who will really take an interest in her and provide her with friends other than me; that she should feel that her life is not over.


My main occupation these days is jewelry design and giving workshops. I started it as a hobby. Mrs. Kabakov of Yerushalayim, whom I stayed with on holidays when I was in the dorm, taught me how to make jewelry, but I didn’t think it would turn into a profession. I became an English teacher at an ulpan with a dormitory and tried to find myself … One day, someone saw me wearing jewelry that I made and loved it and wanted one too. I bought a basic kit and made one for her. The rest is history.

The principle behind my workshops is the idea that everyone can do it. Even someone who says she has two left hands. Even someone who thinks she doesn’t have talent in this area. Anybody can, if they want to. This is an idea that comes from my life experience. If people had given up on me, if I had given up on myself, I would not be where I am today. The strongest message that I took for life from my personal story, and the message I want to share is, don’t give up!

We have a very strong inner strength and we just have to bring it out into the open and use it. Thank G-d and thanks to the Rebbe that despair is no longer a part of my life and that I succeeded, against all odds, to build a Jewish home with my dear husband, to be a Chassid of the Rebbe out of true free will, and to be in such a fulfilling and positive space. May Hashem help that it continues and even gets better and better until the true and complete Geula.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (
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