Russian adoptee blossoms, becoming a bat mitzvah

At first, it was the little things — like sleeping alone in a bedroom — that proved the biggest adjustments for 8-year-old Masha Maskell. The wide-eyed brunette had grown up in a Russian orphanage, where she and the other children all slept side by side on crowded mats and cots.

“Her dad slept in a twin bed next to hers for the first few months,” recalls Joyce Maskell, her adoptive mom — who, with her coloring and petite build, could pass for Masha’s biological mother. She and her husband, Jay, adopted Masha from the former Soviet Union in the summer of 2006, forming their family of three in Morgan Hill. “There was just so much to get used to, and she was frightened of a lot.”

Masha Maskell with parents Joyce and Jay on a recent vacation in Montana.

Almost five years later, it’s difficult to believe this inquisitive, outgoing 13-year-old — now tall, with a mane of wavy hair and an easy smile full of braces — was ever so timid. She loves animals, running and Lady Gaga. Though she moved to the United States with no English, she’s now a fluent speaker and a voracious reader who easily devours books well above her grade level.

And those who know her well say she has a knack for bringing folks together — like the 175 people who will gather Sat., Aug. 27 at Congregation Emeth to see their favorite Russian émigré become a bat mitzvah.

Born in Kharbarovsk, a city of about 800,000 in the eastern part of Russia, near Siberia, Masha was left at an orphanage as a baby. There’s no information on file about her birth mother, who probably gave a fake name.

She remembers the orphanage as “a terrible place” where kids were beaten and there wasn’t enough food. She was one of only two girls in a large group of children, and says she became tough and “tomboyish” as a result.

In July 2005, through an arrangement with a Maryland-based summer camp program called Bridge of Hope (part of a larger program called Cradle of Hope), Masha traveled to New York with a group of other children from her orphanage to live with temporary foster families considering adoption. In the months after the kids returned to Russia, almost all the host families came to permanently adopt the children they’d fostered. Masha’s foster family had decided against it.

A young Masha (left) at the Russian orphanage where she lived until she was 8. Masha (right) with her friend Sasha at the orphanage (above). Sasha will be coming to the bat mitzvah.

“We always had parties before anyone left,” Masha remembers. “I definitely felt jealous.”

In January 2006, Joyce and Jay Maskell saw a photo of Masha in their adoption agency’s newsletter. Joyce’s father, a Holocaust survivor, had recently died, and it had become important to her to build a family of her own. The couple had married in 1996 (it was a second marriage for Jay, now 57), and it was “too late to do it the other way,” Joyce, 54, says with a laugh. When they saw the picture of Masha, something clicked.

“She looked like a Jewish girl,” recalls Joyce. “She reminded me somehow of a picture of a grandmother I never knew, who died at Auschwitz. And she seemed like the right age for us … Even though we knew people who adopted older children face a lot of potential challenges — kids are already who they are, at that point in time — you have to go on your gut instinct.”

The couple traveled to Russia to meet Masha in March 2006 before making a final decision in July. Initially, both parents and child were unsure of each other.

“It was difficult for her to trust adults after what had happened with the [foster] family,” says Joyce. But though they couldn’t communicate directly — an interpreter helped with conversations while the Maskells were in Russia — a few signs pointed to it being the right match for everyone. Joyce became sure of it when, after presenting the 8-year-old with a Barbie they’d brought from California, Masha promptly named the doll Alice.

“Now, Alice isn’t a Russian name, and it also happens to be the name of my deceased mother,” explains Joyce. “That seemed like a pretty heavy-duty signal. That’s when I took a deep breath and said, ‘Somebody’s telling me to give this little girl a chance.’ ”

In the States, Masha had to make lightning-quick adjustments left and right. A month after arriving in Morgan Hill, she began third grade at Jackson Elementary School (the classmate assigned to show her around school, Taylor, remains one of her best friends). The Maskells learned as much Russian as they could, and gathered an informal team of Russian speakers to help interpret when they encountered problems.

But for the most part, Masha learned quickly — both the language and the ways of American kids. By November 2006, she was able to tell a local newspaper reporter that her favorite food was ice cream. Her curiosity meant she tackled schoolwork enthusiastically, always eager to learn something new about the world. A natural athlete, she excelled particularly at running; she won second place in in her age group in Morgan Hill’s July 4 5K run last year.

A year after arriving in the United States, Masha converted to Judaism and began taking Hebrew classes. And she developed a close relationship with Rabbi Debbie Israel at Congregation Emeth, a Reform synagogue in Morgan Hill, as the two prepared for Masha’s bat mitzvah.

“From the moment I met Masha, she has always asked me serious philosophical and challenging questions about Judaism and God,” says Israel. “Working with her, especially as we studied texts in preparation for her d’var Torah, she continued to probe deeply. Masha never accepts anything at the p’shat [simple meaning] level.”

Working with Masha has at times been challenging, but the inquisitive teen is in other ways ”a rabbi’s dream student,” said Israel. “I’m going to miss our weekly study sessions, but we have a long list of topics she wants to discuss, so I don’t think it will end with her bat mitzvah.”

Masha’s clear-headed convictions, confidence and eloquence belie her rocky childhood. Now an 8th-grader at Morgan Hill’s Oakwood School, she doesn’t worry about fitting in with her classmates (“I think people worry too much about that. You have to be who you are.”) She likes to ride her bike. She’s done school plays. At home, she takes care of her chinchilla, Chili, and likes to study dinosaurs. “My goal is to be a paleontologist,” she says. “I’ve always been fascinated by ancient life.”

Her passion for animals, in particular — which Masha traces to having preferred the dogs at her orphanage to the adults — has blossomed into a focus on animal rights and vegetarianism. At her bat mitzvah, she will be speaking about Jewish dietary laws.

“I’ve started to reason with these laws, and parts that don’t make sense to me,” she explains. “For example, if you must slaughter an animal humanely, quickly and without suffering, it doesn’t make sense to me that before they’re slaughtered, they can be kept cruelly, treated cruelly, as in factory farming.”

That compassion is a natural extension of how Masha approaches people, her mother believes. As the daughter of two parents who survived concentration camps, Joyce has come to think of Masha as a survivor in her own right.

“She has the gift of opening people’s hearts,” she says. “We know people who didn’t even like kids before they met her, and she just opened their hearts with a key.”

The bat mitzvah will serve as a testament to that talent, as people — including some of Masha’s longtime friends from the orphanage who now live on the East Coast — fly in from all over the country to attend.

Masha, on the other hand, shrugs off her purported gift. “I don’t give up on people,” she says. “I keep pushing because I think that inside, people are good. You just have to keep digging until you find that out.”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.