In my culture, we take pride in our differences and those things make us unique. Diversity is something we can celebrate. You can walk around and enjoy your heritage and feel pride in that.

Irina and Tim Orf’s Story

Irina is Jewish and was raised in Ukraine, while her husband, Tim, is from Minnesota. These two Gen-Xers met in an unlikely, but perhaps providential, way. Their love story is one of hope and healing.

Tuvya: I’m delighted today to be with Irina and Tim Orf. They live in Minnesota, where their lives allow us to listen in on some fascinating cross-cultural experiences. Tim is a Minnesota native. He works as a compliance officer for a chemical dependency treatment center. Irina is from Kiev, Ukraine. She currently works as a translator and as the international projects manager for the Communications Department of the ministry Jews for Jesus. Irina, so you grew up in Ukraine. How did you meet Tim?

Irina: During a speaking trip in the United States, I became friends with a pastor and his wife. That pastor took a fatherly interest and said he would try to find me a husband in the States. I was 42 years old with not a lot of hope of finding a husband. Two years later, that pastor met a musician at another church in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. That was Tim. After a while, the pastor felt Tim would be a perfect husband for me. So, he brought up the subject with me and then with Tim.

Tuvya: Tim, you’re a native Minnesotan. What’s the story about you being a musician?

Tim: I started to play the guitar when I was 14 years old and just really enjoyed it. I played in garage bands with friends. Eventually, I played with various bands in a five-state area and taught guitar lessons at home. Nothing very big and no fame. That’s what I did for a living during my late 20s, early 30s.

Tuvya: What kind of music were you playing?

Tim: Nowadays we call it Classic Rock, like Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith. We played a lot of American blues music, stuff we liked. It was fun. I met a lot of the people who are still friends today. I don’t play professionally anymore. Now, I volunteer with the worship team in my church.

Tuvya: So, you were a rocker who ended up in a church. You played lead guitar, making you the center of attention. So, is there a connection between your current professional work in a chemical dependency center and your previous career as a rock musician?

Tim: As it turns out, not surprisingly, there was. It’s a powerful portion of my life. I did develop some habits that were not healthy. I drank too much, to the point I needed help to find a healthier lifestyle. With the grace of God, I’m free from all that now. Music was a great thing when I was a teenager. It connected me with friends, opened some wonderful opportunities to share music, but the lifestyle brought with it unhealthy habits. I ended up spending time in a treatment facility, where I did get help. Now, many years later, God brought me back to a place where I’m able to help others who have struggled with similar issues that they need to deal with.

Tuvya: Irina, you grew up in Ukraine. So, when you met that pastor, you were on a speaking in some US churches, sharing about the connection between your Jewish heritage and Messianic faith in Jesus. Did Tim know any Ukrainian or Russian?

Irina: No. It’s okay because I was a translator for churches and Christian groups in Ukraine, and I interpreted for the Ukrainian government for many years. Now, when needed, I translate for the Israeli government.

Tuvya: So, you also had another fascinating profession?

Irina: It was actually a hobby that turned professional. I saw the Irish music and dance production, Lord of the Dance. I was so taken by that! My salary at that time was $300 a month. Tickets to the show in Kiev cost $150. I told my mom if they had another show tomorrow, I would be willing to give the other half of my salary just to see it again. It looked like such fun. I found an Irish dance school, and it was fun. Then, as I was developing, my teacher invited me to join the professional core of his dance troupe. We competed in several major competitions. We won the European Championship twice and the World Championship twice. Later, I suffered a back injury. So, I studied, took exams, and I became the first fully certified Irish dance teacher and judge in Eastern Europe.

Tuvya: That’s an amazing cross-cultural picture. You are Jewish, living in and representing Ukraine at international Irish dance competitions where your troupe was besting European and world teams, including the people who originated the dance style! That’s a really an interesting picture and such a great story. Okay, so back to your tour around the United States. This pastor says, “Yes, I’ve got somebody for you.” What happened the first time you met?

Irina: The first time I saw Tim was on Facebook. Unfortunately, he hadn’t been a very frequent Facebook user. So, what I saw were only a few pictures where he was with friends. I had to really zoom in a lot to have a good look at him. Later, on another speaking tour back in the States, my pastor friend called to tell me, “You’re not going straight back to Kiev after Florida. I’m buying you a plane ticket back here to Minneapolis. I want you to meet Tim.” And the very first time I saw Tim in person was at the church where he was playing. It was Easter Sunday. I was sitting in the middle of the auditorium when he took the stage with the worship band. I wondered if he knew I was there?

Tuvya: You expected him to be looking for you?

Irina: Yes. (Laughter). And he did because a second later, he turned his head and looked straight at me. His smile was brighter than any light I have ever seen in my life. After the service, our pastor friend and his wife, introduced us properly. They gave us a little time to meet, to communicate, then Tim gave a tour of the church. The facility was really, really big. Tim was so nervous that he basically directed his tour, all of his explanations, to the pastor and his wife. But I had an opportunity to watch him and got a good impression, in spite of his nervousness.

Tuvya: I understand, Irina, you went back to Ukraine then came back to the States on another spring tour when you and Tim reconnected in Minnesota. In 2019, you got engaged, and were married the next fall. Where did the wedding take place?

Tim: At the same church where we first met in person.

Tuvya: Irina, you were raised in a Soviet atheist Jewish family. What should that mean so an American can understand?

Irina: In the Soviet Union when I was born, most Jewish people did not believe in God. We knew we were Jewish because everybody around kept reminding us by making anti-Semitic remarks. Being Jewish did not have a connection to religion in any way.

Tuvya: Did your family keep Passover?

Irina: No. My family did not keep any religious rites. However, we had some traditions left over from earlier, pre-Soviet days, but they were without the former religious connections. For instance, on a certain week in spring, my family had to clean the whole house. One time, when I asked if we could do it another weekend, my parents told me, “Absolutely not, we have to clean it now.” It was connected to Passover, but they had no idea about that. It was just the way my parents were brought up and was something their families did from the earlier days when the Soviet government repressed Jewish practices and religion in general. So, they just continued the traditions. We had a very mixed view of life. My grandmother had a brother who was a rabbi. And another of her brothers was famous from the revolution. A street in Kiev is named after him. But my family was absolutely not religious. Absolutely not.

Tuvya: This isn’t that long ago. I mean you’re not that old. Why was it that people would make anti-Semitic comments to Jewish people?

Irina: If you were a Jewish person in my country, you expected to be treated that way. I was nine or ten when I heard my mom in a bad quarrel with our neighbors. I asked her what they were quarrelling about because I did not understand anything from their comments. Somebody made a rude anti-Semitic remark to my mom, and she reacted. That was the first time I learned that we were Jewish. I was just 10 when I learned that people would treat Jews as if we had a bad disease in society. For me, being Jewish meant people would treat us like we had contracted something very bad.

Tuvya: Tim, when you were growing up in Minnesota, did you have any contact with Jewish people or ever hear an anti-Semitic comment?

Tim: I did not. In the town that I was raised in, I don’t remember that there were any Jewish families. So, no. I was a young child in the ’70s and teenager in the ’80s, and that was a different world back then. I think what was maybe more common would be jokes that people

would tell where somebody Jewish would be the punchline. I didn’t get the humor or understand that it was anti-Semitic. I wasn’t well versed enough in culture and how groups of people can dislike others enough to make those types of jokes.

Tuvya: So, since you two got married in 2019, have you been learning a lot about Jewish holidays and different cultures?

Tim: I’ve learned a lot about Jewish holidays and Jewish culture as we learn about them through our study of the Bible. As an adult Christian, I became aware of the various Jewish holidays. I learned for example that Easter has a connection to Passover. My family grew as a Christian going to church. I always knew who God was. I knew that Jesus loved me, and I understood that Christianity and Judaism were connected in some sort of fashion. I did study the Bible in college when I was in my mid-20s. I got my intellectual grounding in Judaism and its connection to Christianity. I had a theoretical understanding of biblical concepts and holy days like Passover. I knew things in an intellectual way. But I’ve come to understand so much more after meeting Irina, like some of her stories about experiencing anti-Semitism. That’s still like a gut punch to me.

Tuvya: That’s a totally new realization of what your loved one experienced?

Tim: Yeah, absolutely. Growing up, I certainly knew about historical atrocities committed against the Jewish people. But it is so different to love someone and then to hear how Irina learned a significant aspect of her identity within a negative connotation. That is so different than just knowing something intellectually.

Tuvya: Yeah. On a lighter note, Irina, you told me previously that Tim helps you translate at times. How does that work?

Irina: Well, for instance Tim learned a few Russian words. One word that he learned is a difficult Russian word. Velocipede, in Russian means “bicycle.” He just learned it. I don’t know why, but he just learned it. And one time we were having a Zoom chat with my friends from Kiev. So, we were both speaking Ukrainian, Russian. I was translating to English for Tim and back into Russian for them. And as I was translating to Tim, a word just escaped my mind. It happens to translators sometimes. And, without missing a beat, Tim immediately just supplies, “Oh, velocipede.” It was the funniest experience. That couple really could not believe their ears, that he just said it like flawlessly, no problem. Sounded like he’d been translating for all his life.

Tim: My one Russian language triumph in life so far is to say “bicycle” in Russian.

Irina: Another time I was sitting on the couch doing a crossword puzzle in Russian, and Tim was passing by. He just looked over my shoulder, and he pointed to a space and said, “Oh, this one is pyure” which means “mashed potatoes” in Russian. And I’m like, “Oh my gosh! Yes, it is! How did you know that?” And he said, “Oh, it’s just the only four-letter word in Russian that I know.” It happened to be the right word! (Laughter)

Tuvya: I love asking questions about cross-cultural differences because they illustrate how all communication is cross-cultural. So, Tim, what surprised you about Irina’s knowledge or outlook about the United States?

Tim: Well, Irina, travelled throughout the United States, maybe even more than I have. And she knows a good deal about American culture. There are a lot of things that I take for granted, until I see those things through the eyes of someone else. For example, when Irina was still living in Kiev, we were engaged, and she was planning to come back to the United States. We were talking about food and what each of us enjoys. We wanted to know where we like to go out to eat and what kinds of things we like to eat. Irina said the only quibble she had with eating in the United States while travelling was she could never get something that was not essentially a sandwich. I thought, “My gosh, I don’t eat that many sandwiches. I mean, we eat all kinds of things that aren’t sandwiches.” Then I started thinking about my favorite foods and really how often they came with bread. I thought, burgers, and then, “No, a burger is effectively a sandwich.” All of a sudden, I was understanding what she was saying. If meat is served between two pieces of bread, whatever form it takes, then we do have an awful lot of bread around here. I mentioned that to my friends, and their eyes open up, “My gosh. That’s our diet to a large extent!”

Tuvya: Hey, you guys said something else that I found funny. It was in the different ideas about how long Americans and Ukrainians think it’s okay to keep food in the refrigerator. Who was it who said that?

Irina: Probably me. We do grocery shopping every Saturday. If we don’t eat all the food by the end of the week, I assume automatically that it just keeps another week. If we don’t eat it another week, you know, if it doesn’t turn green or anything, it’s fine. To Tim, it’s a totally different matter. Every Saturday morning, he would ask, “Okay, has this been in the fridge all this week? Okay, we are throwing it away.” I’m like, “No! No, no, no, no! It’s only been there a week!” (Laughter) He examines all the expiration dates. I don’t. Like, if you have an apple, and it gets a little tiny soft spot, you don’t throw away the apple. You cut out the soft spot, you throw that away, and you eat the rest of the apple. Tim says we need to eat “good stuff.” (Laughter)

Tuvya: I’m going to go back to life in Ukraine one last time to note the difference between Jews and non-Jews. You said it was not uncommon for you to encounter anti-Semitism. Did that make it uncomfortable to walk around? Did Jewish people wear symbols, like a Star of David or an Israeli flag, or anything that indicated their Jewish identity?

Irina: It was not very common to see those things. In fact, even saying the word “Jewish” out loud was kind of uncomfortable for me. I graduated from the Jewish university in Kiev. Many times, while riding the bus home with my Gentile classmates, they would want to discuss something we had read in a Jewish history textbook. I always felt awful about discussing Jewish history in public, like on the bus! It was very uncomfortable.

Tuvya: Have you had an experience like that living in the United States, particularly in Minnesota?

Irina: No. One time we were going out, and I said to Tim, “Oh, hold on! I need to go change my T-shirt!” Tim asked, “Why? It’s fine.” I explained that I had to go back and change because it had a Star of David on it. He looked at me totally blank as if to say, “And, what’s wrong with that?” That was a big eye opener for me because I was not used to being public about Jewishness while just going for a walk?”

Tim: From my perspective, that was certainly not something to cover up in public. Rather, it’s a source of pride. In my culture, we take pride in our differences and those things make us unique. Diversity is something we can celebrate. You can walk around and enjoy your heritage and feel pride in that. We can do that in the United States. We can do that in the neighborhood we live in certainly. However, in reality, we live in a world where sometimes you do have to be mindful at times. You know, Irina has this sense of self-protection, and it’s not irrational. There are reasons. So, I savor even more that we can walk around town and celebrate ways that we are unique. Yet, it’s not that way everywhere in the world, or even everywhere in this country.

Tuvya: Irina, Tim shared how he came to a more personal faith later in life. You grew up in a pretty secular environment. Religion had not been part of your heritage. When did that change?

Irina: I came to faith in Jesus when I was 14. It was purely by accident, if you can say that about God. I saw the Jesus movie in a secular cinema in Ukraine. I was invited by the organizers to come see a Christian film. The words had no meaning to me at the time. In that film, for the first time in my life, I realized that God might be real. In that church, as people were talking, I was surprised to hear normal adults, young people and older ones, they believed in God as if He really existed. Before that, everything I was taught was that if you believe in God’s existence then you have to be either very old or out of your mind. So, when I heard ordinary people talking about God, I suddenly realized He does exist. I really want to have a relationship with Him. So that’s when I came to believe in Him.

Tuvya: You were 14 years old. How did your parents respond?

Irina: My father, went with me to that church meeting. He wouldn’t let me go alone because in his mind, “It’s a sect, it’s something terrible.” So, my father was there next to me when the pastor of the church asked if anybody wanted to reconcile with God, to have a personal relationship with God. I wanted to say, “Yes,” but my father quietly said into my ear, “Don’t you dare.” So, I didn’t. I just kept sitting there. Then I saw several people get up and go forward. They prayed, and the pastor prayed for them. They went back. Everything went on. Music resumed. And suddenly the pastor interrupts the music and says, “Hey! Stop! Maybe there is just one more person here who really wanted to reconcile with God but didn’t do it for some reason.” And I just jumped up and said, “Yes, that’s me! Thank you!” So, I ran up. I forgot about my dad. I forgot about everything. I was so excited to realize that God is there, that He made

this little miracle for me, interrupted the church service. How many people can boast that? And yes, that’s how I came to believe in God.

Tuvya: Tim, what’s it like being married to someone who shares your faith and yet comes from a different ethnic background and the culture from a different country?

Tim: God has found the most amazing ways to stretch me. He calls me into areas when I would not have ever gone into on my own. I’m married to another person who is a believer. Irina and I have our faith as the central element of our marriage. That is amazing. It gives us such a great source of peace and calm. It gives us an understanding of our marriage in the world around. That is such a firm foundation. Those things are even more comforting than I would have imagined before we were married. The fact that Irina has a different ethnic background, comes from a Jewish family, and joins my family as a Christian are ways that I think God has blessed us. Irina is an amazingly bright person, and she wants people to just know God. Irina found a different entrance into the faith, and that is an amazing blessing to many other people, and to me as well. It makes faith fresh and new. Irina’s faith adds to my relationship with God that is just sweet and refreshing.

Tuvya: Thanks to both of you. This has been terrific. If people want to know more about your story or ask you questions about the things you’ve been sharing, they can write to me and I’ll pass those along to you: [email protected]

Tim: That would be wonderful.