World Jewish News
Arrivals: I wanted to be a Jew
Nothing in David Yehuda Cargatser’s early years suggested he would one day be a religious Jew living in Israel. Yet today he resides in Givat Ze’ev along with his pregnant wife, Elaine, and their young son.
Cargatser’s Jewish heritage ended abruptly with his maternal grandfather, a man he knew nothing about for most of his childhood. When Cargatser’s mother was a child, her parents divorced and her father’s Jewish identity held no particular significance. According to Cargatser, “Most people in Russia are totally secular.” As a result, he grew up with no religious identity at all.
Born in Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan, Cargatser grew up in Nizhnevartovsk, Russia, in Western Siberia. Just before his 17th birthday, he moved to St. Petersburg.
Already familiar with his paternal grandparents, when he was 15, Cargatser became curious about his maternal grandparents. It took four years and the move to St. Petersburg, before he was able to finally meet his Jewish grandfather, Yosef.
In 2011, Cargatser spent a few weeks with Yosef in Kyrgyzstan, a five-hour flight from St. Petersburg. “Most of the few hundred Jews in Kyrgyzstan are very old. My grandfather was mesorati [traditional],” he explained. “Bukharin Jews lived in Kyrgyzstan for centuries. The Ashkenazim left around the time of the Nazis.”
Yosef was born in then-Soviet Ukraine to a traditional, Yiddish-speaking family. When the Nazis invaded Ukraine in the early 1940s, the Soviet Union deported his family. Along with deportation, they were forced to stop speaking Yiddish. Yosef, a child at the time, spoke Russian.
Meeting his grandfather inspired Cargatser to delve more deeply into his family’s Jewish roots. “I studied more and more Jewish culture, the history of Israel, the history of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. How did it happen that so many Jews from Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union disappeared? I found out the terrible things the Soviet government did with the Jews.
“It was my hobby to study Jewish history. I always liked history and geography. Also, my mother had a great influence with me. She died one year after I visited my grandfather. She wasn’t against this.”
After his mother died, Cargatser felt freer to make his own choices. He knew he didn’t want to stay in Russia. “I didn’t understand what it meant to be a Jew, but I knew I wanted to be a Jew.”
A year after meeting his Jewish grandfather, Cargatser, who had never attended a synagogue service or celebrated a single Jewish holiday, boldly immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return, which allows anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent to become a citizen.
“I made aliyah to Israel at age 20 because wanted to be a Jew,” he stated plainly. Given how little he knew about Judaism, Cargatser concluded that the only way to be a Jew was to travel 4,000 km. to Israel.
He settled in Ashkelon and began his conversion process, then enrolled in a computer science program for Russian-speaking immigrants. The program in Ashkelon closed after nine months, and Cargatser found himself with no place to go. He eventually found a room in Petah Tikva, but with no job and very little Hebrew, it was a dark time. His next step was not clear.
The only thing Cargatser knew for certain was that he was “not ready to be a Jew.” He paused his conversion studies for a year and stopped observing Shabbat. “I was too poor to buy candles,” he said about that trying time.
He moved from Petah Tikva to Ramle where he lived with friends. “It was quite difficult for me,” he commented in an understated manner. Even during his most challenging times in Israel, Cargatser continued avidly researching Jewish history and Jewish culture online.
His father helped enough so that his son wouldn’t starve or become homeless. Although his formal conversion studies were on hold, he continued to refrain from eating meat and milk together. “Before coming to Israel, it didn’t make sense to separate them,” he said. But being in Israel helped him see things differently.
In Ramle, he prepared for, and did well on, the Israeli college entrance exam. The army remained an open question. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to the army because in Russia the army is a disaster. Several thousand soldiers a year commit suicide. To every mother, it is a nightmare. I was afraid [the Israeli Army] was the same army as in Russia.”
Cargatser enlisted in an army program that paid for him to study computer science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in exchange for service after graduation. While at Hebrew University, he met Elaine, a Brazilian Jew, in ulpan. He readily admits that he spent so much time with Elaine, who eventually became his wife, that he neglected his studies. As a result, he left the university and completed regular army service.
Elaine was studying Torah and became religious while the two were dating. Initially, she didn’t realize Cargatser, who had resumed his conversion studies, wasn’t actually Jewish. She largely ignored pressure to break things off with him.
While the pair was dating, Cargatser, who has a gift for languages, helped Elaine with her Hebrew. After 18 months, he was conversational. Today he speaks Russian, Hebrew and English and is working on mastering his Brazilian wife’s native Portuguese.
While at the university, he became close to Chabad Rabbi Daniel Kalev and his family. Although he lived in the university dorms, Cargatser helped the Kalev family prepare Shabbat on campus and they spent every Shabbat together.
Cargatser, who chose a Jewish first name and took his Jewish grandfather’s last name, finished his formal conversion in January 2016. In June, he went into the army and served in the Rabbanut Division. In September of that year he and Elaine, who were by then both living as religious Jews, married.
Two months after the wedding, Elaine got pregnant. The pregnancy was a difficult one, but Cargatser’s position in the army, studying Jewish law and technology in order to create devices that could be used by the army on Shabbat, helped him support his wife.
The couple’s son, Michael Aaron, was born healthy in August 2017. Cargatser was discharged from the army in May 2018, the same month in which his Jewish grandfather died in Kyrgyzstan. Today, Cargatser works as a computer programmer, a job he got through connections with a neighbor who attends the same synagogue.
Although he never finished his university education, he feels content with what he’s accomplished over the past 12 dramatic years.
“I can earn much more money in Gush Dan, but I want to live as an observant Jew and spend a lot of time with my family. I work less than 40 hours a week. I want to have more time with my family. I’m very happy to help my wife. Everything is very good for me now.”
Cargatser reflected on all the ups and downs of his young life. “I have to make my efforts and leave to Hashem all the rest. Hashem has given me so many good things.”
He finds his life in Israel so gratifying that he convinced his brother, who works in hi-tech in Netanya, to make aliyah. “He is not Jewish, but I hope he is almost ready,” Cargatser concluded enigmatically.
BY BY RIVKAH LAMBERT ADLER