When Gene Drubetskoy was 8 years old, his parents told him they were moving from the Ukrainian city of Kyiv to the local village where his grandparents lived. So when the family arrived at an airport, he was understandably confused.
It wasn’t until after Drubetskoy boarded the plane that his parents revealed they were actually making their way to the United States.
“My parents didn’t want to tell me where we were going,” Drubetskoy said. “They were hiding it from me, because they were scared that, I guess, I would tell other kids and they would pick on me even more.”
Today, Drubetskoy, 41, a resident of Reisterstown, is a member of ARIEL-Jewish Russian Community Center and Synagogue. He is also the founder and team leader for the Gene Dru Property Group of Keller Williams Legacy, a real estate organization.
But his life in Kyiv, where he lived with his father Leonid and mother Larisa, was quite different from the life he has today. Drubetskoy said he has few pleasant memories of Ukraine, as they were regular targets of antisemitism.
Drubetskoy remembered swastikas being drawn on his family’s door and being called derogatory Jewish words, even though he wasn’t sure what being Jewish actually meant. Before immigrating to the United States, he had little opportunity to explore his Jewish identity in Ukraine.
“When I was living in Kyiv, I did not receive a Jewish education because we actually had to hide that we were Jewish,” Drubetskoy said. “So I didn’t grow into my religion until I moved to the States and was able to practice my religion freely.
“I remember them cutting ‘Jew go home’ in our doors,” Drubetskoy continued. “So celebrating Jewish holidays wasn’t in the cards for us.”
Along with his parents, Drubetskoy was accompanied on his exodus out of eastern Europe by his mother’s sister and his maternal grandparents, he said. Remembering how he seemed to be rushed through customs and onto the plane, Drubetskoy believes that a combination of family connections and bribes were instrumental in his family’s swift departure.
The Ukrainian flight took them to Vienna, where the family spent five weeks before boarding a train for Italy, Drubetskoy said. He lived there for five months while his parents worked to secure refugee status and come to the United States. The family received support from Jewish organizations like HIAS, which was all the more important as the Soviet Union restricted how much money or wealth could be taken out of the country.
In 1989, after receiving sponsorship from a relative living in Maryland, Drubetskoy’s family landed in Newark, N.J., then took a smaller plane to Baltimore.
With no knowledge of English and with maybe a few thousand dollars between them, Drubetskoy remembered adapting to American life to be something of a challenge for his family initially. As his father was a tool and die maker, though, Leonid Drubetskoy was able to find work at a machine shop where language was less of an issue. Larisa Drubetskoy found work at retail stores before working her way up to being an office manager.
The presence of many Russian children in their neighborhood helped Drubetskoy’s own transition process, he said. Attending Baltimore County public school, he acquired English fluency within a year and a half, and he became a U.S. citizen in the mid-1990s. He was very grateful to Jewish organizations, such as Chabad houses, that reached out to Russian Jews and helped him discover his identity through free Hebrew school and invitations to Shabbat dinners.
Enrolling in Villa Julie College, today Stevenson University, Drubetskoy graduated in 2002 with a degree in business administration. He struggled initially to find work after college, due in his view to a lack of connections, so he took advice from a friend and got into the mortgage business. He made $100,000 in his first six months and remained in the business for 15 years, he said. He became a licensed real estate agent in 2015.
Drubetskoy met his second and current wife, Enessa, at a Reisterstown restaurant she was working at. He has two children, Max, 9, and Aubrey, 6.
When not working, Drubetskoy volunteers by making bags of necessities for Baltimore’s homeless population. He also serves on the board of ARIEL, hosts Shabbat dinners at his house and spends time with his family in his fruit and vegetable garden, growing berries for his children.
“My whole message is that, people talk about how the American dream is gone, and I spend my free time living the American dream,” Drubetskoy said. “People complain and people talk about things that are so minor compared to the stuff that people have to deal with in other countries.
“So I try to spend as much time travel[ing], and spend with my family, and enjoy what life has to offer,” Drubetskoy said.