It was a calm August morning in 2006 at Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi concentration camp where more than a million Jews were killed by Nazis during World War II. Sasha Shainoga was visiting from his home in Ukraine to learn about the horrors and atrocities that happened at the concentration camp some 70 years prior. Many Europeans have been able to visit Auschwitz because of its central location in Europe. They come to look into the past, forgetting the future momentarily, but this particular visit would alter the rest of Sasha’s life.
As he made his way through the tour, something caught his eye. “I saw a group of young people—students from Israel,” he says with a thick Ukrainian accent. “The teacher tried to explain the deep tragedy to his students—and they didn’t listen to him.” Sasha’s wife, Hanna, begins to tear up as he revisits that day. “In that moment I realized that if they don’t understand the tragedy that happened, it can happen again. I realized that if it’s so important for the devil to destroy the Jewish people, it’s important for us as believers to save them.”
In the months that followed that trip, Sasha felt a new purpose and knew God was using this encounter at Auschwitz to do something important in his life. He had already graduated from the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute (MJBI) in Odessa, Ukraine, which works to equip leaders to reach the Jewish people with the love of Yeshua (Jesus). Immediately after that he took a job there working with Valentin Sviontek. Valentin is a fellow Ukrainian who had begun helping Gateway Pastor Dr. Wayne Wilks Jr. pioneer the launch of MJBI in 1996.
When Valentin invited him to join the school shortly after its launch, Sasha gravitated toward this pathway of Messianic Jewish studies, not sure where it would lead. But it was in the moment at Auschwitz nearly a decade later that he realized he was not just toeing the line for MJBI’s goal—God had selected him for a unique purpose.
“He didn’t choose this Jewish way of studying,” says Hanna. “It chose him.”
Sasha isn’t Jewish and neither is Hanna, but their desire to reach the Jewish people stems from their time as students and faculty at MJBI. In fact, that’s where they met nearly 20 years ago. Though they certainly weren’t looking for love, they found it. “I met Sasha and I immediately fell in love,” says Hanna. “I just looked at him and said, ‘Oh no.’”
Hanna remembers her first encounter with antisemitism. Her high school teacher was Jewish and received backlash from students and fellow teachers because of it. After a particularly difficult moment for the teacher, Hanna took a stand for her. “I told her she should be brave and proud to be Jewish. It was just a moment of support, but I know it meant a lot to her,” she says. “Even as a student without any real power, I was ready to stand with her.” It was moments like this that put Hanna on her ministry path.
She and Sasha graduated from MJBI and both joined the staff at the school in Odessa, where they worked for 17 years. Along the way, they had a daughter and a son. Life went on peacefully as they continued to plant roots and work as key leaders alongside Valentin at MJBI. While there haven’t been many speed bumps along the way, some interesting things havehappened.
One day seven years ago, Sasha, for a reason he can’t explain, decided he wanted to learn the Polish language. “He just came to me one day and said, ‘Honey, I want to study Polish,’” says Hanna. “Maybe it was his Polish roots awakened in him.” She wasn’t sure how long he’d stick with learning another language. It seemed like it would be a wasted hobby. Though Ukraine shares a border with Poland, there wasn’t really a way for him to practice speaking Polish; however, he stuck with it.
Grzegorz (translated: Gregory) Boboryk is a fashionable character. His comedic timing is as well executed as his outfits—both are traits his students love about him. As a professor at the College of Theology and Social Sciences in Warsaw, Poland, he has an ever-growing knowledge and love for the Old Testament. On a trip to the United States for Gateway Conference last year, he bought a leather Indiana Jones–style hat and wears it with swagger and style. During his time here, he talked about how his school had launched a Jewish studies program that had ultimately failed. He and the school’s president, Piotr (translated: Peter) Novak, wanted it to work but they had to let it go. With everything that had happened in Poland, they couldn’t understand why it didn’t take off.
The country had once been the center of Jewish culture in Europe before 3 million Polish Jews were tragically murdered during World War II. The Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, the largest in Europe, imprisoned more than 400,000 Jewish people in a square mile. After the war, the Jewish population dwindled further with many Polish Jews moving to Israel. But now, the younger generations are beginning to return to discover their roots in Poland. Gregory and Peter wanted to reach this younger generation but didn’t know how exactly.
Gregory’s pastor, Krzysztof (pronounced Kristoff ) Zareba, was having a similar problem. His congregation had a growing population of Messianic Jews, and he was trying to figure out how to connect with them. He called a leadership meeting at his church, Christian Fellowship North. With the help of his connection at Gateway, he invited Valentin and Sasha from MJBI to come and learn more about starting a Messianic Jewish congregation. An off-hand comment from Valentin caught Gregory’s ear. They mentioned a difficulty MJBI was having in its partnership with a seminary in Odessa. Things weren’t working out there the way Valentin had hoped. Gregory laughs now when he explains the idea he got that day. “I thought, Okay, I’m a lecturer at a college,” he says. “I approached Sasha and Valentin and suggested talking to my president about incorporating the program into our school.”
Peter was excited about the idea but had some trepidation because of how the school’s earlier attempt at a Jewish program had gone. They met with Pastor Wayne and MJBI president, Nic Lesmeister, and found out very quickly that this wasn’t just a coincidence—God was putting this all together and the puzzle pieces fit perfectly.
They would adapt the program created by Dr. Raymond Gannon—the theologian who wrote MJBI’s curriculum and built The King’s University’s Messianic Jewish Studies program—and put it under the umbrella of the school in Warsaw, which would make the program the first fully accredited Messianic Jewish degree in Europe’s history. However, there was one problem. They needed someone with a deep understanding of MJBI’s program who was also fluent in Polish. Sasha’s linguistic “hobby” made him uniquely qualified for the job!
Valentin had to give up his right-hand-man. Sasha took some time to pray about it and eventually moved Hanna and their children to Warsaw. “At first, everything was moving slowly,” says Hanna. “But then everything sped up and happened very quickly. We were running to catch up.”
In Texas, perfect autumn days don’t happen often, but in Warsaw last October—on the day the College of Theology and Social Sciences launched the new Messianic Jewish program—the weather was idyllic. Inside the school’s main auditorium, designed in a modern architecture style not common in the United States, Nic Lesmeister and Dr. Gannon, along with Peter Novak, addressed the several hundred in attendance.
It was a historical day—one that may go unnoticed by most, but for Sasha, Hanna, and those who care deeply about reaching the next generation of Jewish people and connecting them with the Messiah, it was monumental. Sasha sat quietly, letting everyone else address the crowd as he made some observations—the same thing he had done when he visited Auschwitz more than a decade ago. But this time he wasn’t sad that the young people wouldn’t remember their heritage. He was happy because he knew they would never forget.