Stella Shurhavetsky lives in Beit Shemesh, Israel, but in many respects, she has created a little Russian oasis there.

Although she mastered Hebrew, she and her family speak only Russian at home, and their neighborhood houses many Russian businesses bearing Cyrillic signs. Their home is filled with Russian music and books. And Stella cooks only Russian food.

Born in Saint Petersburg in 1947, Stella grew up in Chelyabinsk, the city in which her family settled in 1961 after moving around for several years thanks to her father’s military career.

Stella ShurhavetskyHer mother, a teacher at the military school in Chelyabinsk, had grown up in the Jewish community in Saint Petersburg—Leningrad at that time—and had attended Jewish school and synagogue. Raising her children in the era of communism, Stella’s mother did not practice Judaism in her own home. Though it went unspoken and unpracticed, Stella and her sister knew that they were Jewish, and in the 1990s, they began studying Hebrew secretly in a peer’s basement, as Jewish learning was forbidden at the time.

In 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Jewish Agency opened a school in Chelyabinsk, and Stella joined as a Hebrew student and as a Sunday school teacher for children. The following year she visited Israel for the first time as part of a trip organized by the Jewish Agency for Israel for Hebrew teachers. Upon her return, her son participated in a year-long program in Israel, and Stella was able to visit him there.

When her son returned to Israel to study at the University of Haifa, Stella could no longer bear to have the immediate family separated, so they joined him in Israel, settling in Beit Shemesh where Stella’s aunt was already living.

In the few years that followed, the family moved back to Russia because daughter Sonia was unhappy, but they returned to Israel shortly thereafter, and Sonia had an easier time settling back into Israeli life.

Now the family is firmly rooted in Beit Shemesh. Russian culture, however, is not let go of so quickly or easily, so the family’s Israeli home has been transformed into a “mini” Russia. Stella’s favorite dish to prepare for her family is borscht, but hers is not the commonly known beet soup. Rather, it’s a flavorful combination of potatoes, cabbage and other vegetables with some beet added for good measure.

Napoleon cake, a time-consuming, but festive, layer cake makes appearances on special holidays. Broken down into steps with several days of preparation, the cake is a particularly special treat…layers of cake for layers of memories of the place that was once their home.