Shortly after marrying in 1985, Igor and Faina Gorokhovsky shortened their name, keeping the first three letters and the last three, into Gorsky, a surname meant to embrace a new life in America.
They both emigrated from Ukraine in 1979 — he from Kyiv and she from Odesa — with the help of HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) and met in Baltimore. They came as part of a mass influx of immigrants from Soviet republics, which, according to their daughter, they referred to as the larger “Russian community.”
Jessica Gorsky Halle is a first-generation American who grew up in Owings Mills with her parents and younger brother, Joshua. Their grandparents and great-grandparents also moved to the United States, and told them stories of the old country and how they were restricted from expressing their Judaism. The newly 35-year-old (this is her birthday month) recalls her great-grandfather telling her how Jews would gather in small groups in private apartments in a “hush-hush” celebration of holidays or life-cycle events. In fact, she says, one of his joys was going to synagogue openly when he got to the U.S.
That fact is not lost on her; she and her family — husband Jordan Halle and 2-year old Myles — belong to Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation in Baltimore. It’s the synagogue she attended with her family growing up, although then it was known as Har Sinai Congregation before merging in 2019. Myles attends day care there, not far from their home in Owings Mills.
Both she and her husband, who is from Reisterstown, are attorneys who work at the same firm: Whiteford, Taylor and Preston (she specializes in estate planning and wealth preservation).
Gorsky Halle graduated from Pikesville High School and Syracuse University, where she studied political science and fine arts with a legal-studies minor. She attended the University of Baltimore for law school.
She volunteers as co-chair of the Ben-Gurion Society, is a board member of the Young Adult Division (YAD) of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore and is an ambassador for its Baltimore-Odesa Partnership. She speaks Russian, and with her family history was a natural to take such a leadership position.
With Russian’s war on Ukraine now a year old, she is relieved that it’s “still getting such global attention,” acknowledging that she was “concerned whether people would stay focused on this, whether people would continue to care.”
What does your work on the Baltimore-Odesa Partnership entail?
The ambassadors meet monthly to consult on an array of matters, including updates on how the war is impacting our partners on the ground in Odesa and what we can be doing as part of the larger Associated community to help; organizing events to educate the Baltimore community on the culture and history of Odesa through art exhibits in partnership with the Jewish Museum of Maryland; discussions with authors and experts on the history of Odesa; and open dialogues and presentations with teachers, educators and nonprofit leaders in Odesa who serve as direct resources for the Jewish community there.
Although many of our ambassadors have been in such a capacity for years, I had the privilege of joining the pack in January 2022. Since then, the ambassadors have worked closely with Associated staff and partners in Odesa trying to address as many needs of Jews in Odesa as we can, especially as these needs continue to evolve over the course of the ongoing war. We have also begun exploring plans for “reconstruction,” so to speak, for after the war ends. We are committed to helping get our friends in Odesa get through this war and to the other side victorious, safe and with the tools they need to regain the pre-war normalcy they long for.
What do you want people to know about Ukraine that they might not realize?
In many respects, Ukraine is no different than any other developed and autonomous Western European country, which among many things makes this war even more egregious. Ukraine has been a beloved part of the former Soviet republics; it is rich in resources, culture and historical influence. The idea that a neighboring country from which independence was rightfully gained could invade and essentially make the citizens fight to sustain the freedom they already have is mindboggling.
There are many reasons from the international-relations standpoint that make this war complicated to understand, and without getting into too many complexities, I think it’s important for people to realize that Ukraine is not just an important player in the game of global diplomacy; fundamentally, it is a peaceful, democratic, independent sovereign nation just like the United States.
Where many thought Ukraine would not have the capacity to withstand this war and even advance it in their favor, they have proven everyone wrong. Ukraine and its people are a model of resiliency and strength, and I am so proud to have their blood running through me.
Why is it important for young families such as yourself to be involved in the Jewish community?
It’s hard for me to remember a time in my life when it wasn’t consistently impressed upon me that horrible things have happened to Jews throughout history — wars, displacement, genocide — and that antisemitism continues to persist. While I wish we lived in a world where Jews could feel a sense of comfort that we will be left alone in peace, this has rarely been the case for any minority group. And we have to be mindful of that for the safety of ourselves, our loved ones and our community.
The best way I’ve always been taught to deal with the stress of the unknown as a Jew has been to not forgot, not ignore and continue to engage. Our best defense is the support we can garner together as a collective.
To this end, it’s critical for young families to teach our children the history of Jews (the good and the bad) so that the next generation can be as armed as we have been to protect ourselves; observe the signs that warrant concern; work collectively to protect each other; and embrace our religion and culture together.
Torah values community among Jews among its most important pillars, and that makes sense; Jews are responsible for one another, and inherit in our traditions is the value of caring for each other. We cannot do this without engaging in our greater Jewish community.
Is there something that stands out being a first-generation American?
The funny thing about being a first-generation American is that you spend your life straddling the line between old world and new world.
I know many first-generation Americans like myself that learned the language, customs and traditions of their parents’ old world first, and then the English-American way. As a kid, this often made me feel like an “other.” People outside the immigrant community used to say (and sometimes still say) I was Russian (at that time, all former Soviet immigrants were bundled together and identified as “Russian”).
I remember my grandfather telling me constantly, “You are an American, and I am an American.” In his mind, he came to this country and was naturalized as a citizen, so this made him as American as anyone born here. On my end, this was always an issue I felt I had to explain … why my family spoke differently, ate different food, shopped in different stores and just generally engaged differently.
Over the past 35 years of my life, I have seen my family come a long way in accepting American ways while still staying true to their old-world values and traditions. Now as an adult, I absolutely love and embrace being a first-generation American. I am so grateful to have been raised in a melded environment where I had the privilege of learning that the whole world does not think and function the way most Americans do — and that is OK. In fact, it’s even better because it opens up dialogue on new ideas and creative ways of thinking. My experiences have been critical to framing my view of the world and how I interact with people from all walks of life, and that is a gift I would not trade for anything.
It seems that your family has really made Baltimore their home. Have they visited Ukraine since they left? Have more relatives come over since then?
Baltimore has definitely always been “ground zero” for our family. Many have moved to other states in America since first settling in Baltimore, but I feel confident that Baltimore will always serve as our family’s center.
Despite this, we do still have some family in Ukraine — namely, my father’s first cousin and his family who live in Kyiv; and my mother’s cousin who is a dual citizen and happened to be in Odesa when the war started, and decided to stay and join the resistance. All of my family in Ukraine has been displaced at one point or another since the start of the war, which has created a constant state of anxiety and struggle for all of us as we try to help as best we can from here. Luckily, everyone has been able to stay safe, and before the end of 2022, all our family in Kyiv (not otherwise fighting on the front lines) were able to be reunited back in Kyiv, which was a huge sigh of relief.
While I myself have not yet been able to visit Ukraine, many in my family have, and they have shared beautiful stories and memories of their visits. My father and my brother last visited Kyiv when it co-hosted UEFA Euro 2012, and they still regale us with stories from the trip. They were able to visit with all of our family and see pivotal places from my father’s childhood. I know that trip was very memorable for both of them, and I truly cannot wait to take my son to see where maternal family came from, too.
Do you plan on teaching your son Russian?
Definitely. My mother, father and grandmother have been talking to him in Russian since birth so that he can get used to hearing it. I grew up hearing only Russian spoken around me, which lead to my learning that language before English.
In our house, we admittedly speak only English (my husband does not speak Russian), which makes it a bit harder to expose our son to the same extent that I was. But my husband is also very interested in learning Russian and supports encouraging my son to learn it, so we do plan on making this a priority. For the time being, if we could get our 2-year-old to say anything other than “no” or “Mickey Mouse,” I would take that as a win.
What is your favorite family outing or vacation spot?
As an entire extended family — parents, grandparents, kids, now grandkids — we love visiting the ocean. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Maryland/Delaware Eastern Shore, Jersey Shore, the Carolinas or Florida; we love the beach. I have always assumed this originated from my mother’s side being from Odesa, which is a port city on the Black Sea, and her literally growing up on the water.
Being at the ocean is like being “home” to all of us. We try to visit the ocean every summer. In fact, after my son was born in February 2021 during the height of the pandemic, we still made it a point as a whole family to visit the beach that summer so he could put his toes in the water. We all got a house where we could quarantine together to make it happen. It was a beautiful memory for all of us.