Gil Plaks, 28, says Judaism to him means family.
Plaks was raised in Reisterstown by his parents, who were immigrants from the former Soviet Union. He is a member of RAJE, an organization for young adults from Russian-speaking families, which he said has changed his life. He also meets with Rabbi Paysach Diskind.
He had recently moved into his apartment downtown in January of 2019 when the pandemic hit and disrupted his world and work as a graphic designer for Anne Arundel Workforce Development Corp.
What piqued your interest in art?
When I was like 4 or 5, I woke up in the morning and turned on the TV and there was some guy painting a picture. That was Bob Ross. It sounds so cliche, that all I did was watch Bob Ross paint. But I was thinking, “I wonder if I could follow along?” So there I am at my grandparent’s place. They have a little art set for me with markers and papers, and I started drawing. When I was 8, I got to a point where I did actual good paintings. I was able to display them in New York at a Russian Jewish festival.
Then I was in a high school arts program, one of the best in the country. It demanded an intense portfolio; my weekends were just gone. After sophomore year, I got a scholarship to a three-week program in Italy to paint landscapes. Then I did a pre-college program at the Maryland Institute of Art, which led to my enrollment there for undergrad. I then transitioned to computer graphics. When I got into MICA, it was natural to choose graphic design as my major. It felt very purposeful, as compared to painting.
Now I work as a creative designer. Currently, I’m working on a tutorial guide to show older people how to use email.
Tell us about your volunteer work.
[Out of college,] I attended this charity walk for [Abilities Network], where I found out the president of it was the father of one of my best friends, and that his younger brother had epilepsy. When I came back from Israel [for Birthright], I was in between jobs so I ended up joining their campaign. I liked that they focused on the abilities, not the disabilities. Where I work now, we hire and connect a lot of people with disabilities. It gave me the idea that everybody has a way to be employed.
[The Water Truck Project] was a class at MICA. It was about creating a filtration system that would go to disaster relief areas which didn’t have clean drinking water. We ended up learning everything about water. Like, bottled water is such a scam. Out of the sale for like $1, 15 cents is the actual value of the filtered water. You’re buying the plastic.
How did being raised by USSR immigrants affect you?
I wasn’t really raised speaking English, but Russian. My grandparents didn’t know a single word in English. The only English I knew was from kids’ shows. So my level of reading was low. My mom gave tours of D.C. in Russian, and my first job was as an interpreter. So the Russian language is mainly what I identify with. I like to be called a Russian-speaking Jew, not a Russian Jew,
Also, my parents were afraid of practicing Judaism in the USSR, so they didn’t know much about Judaism except holidays. My dad showed me being Jewish is awesome, you can be very proud. It’s like a membership to a large community. It is engaging, like the idea of bageling.
It’s my family.
How have you been affected by the pandemic?
Right now, everything’s slowly going back to normal, I would say. It’s just certain things that are different. At first, my parents who always travel [were stuck]. I had volleyball gone. Work went remote. It was weird. But it’s starting to return to a different normal.
I got into this quarantine chat app, Dialup, that connects me with people from all over the world to talk to, from Mongolia to Ireland to Mexico. So there are things to take away. With limitations, you have great options.