As a young boy in Minsk, Belarus, Pavel Ilyashov would look out the window of his apartment building and daydream about what he would become when he grew up: a heavy equipment driver. He was enthralled by the massive machines moving dirt, lifting steel girders and constructing new buildings.

The daydream was just that, however.

Pavel couldn’t escape his fate or his talent, particularly with the legacy of musicians and performing artists in his family—including his father, who is a violinist, and his mother and sisters, who are both pianists.

What Pavel could escape, with a legion of known and unknown assistants along the way, was persecution, anti-Semitism and intolerance in his native country.

Now 32, Pavel is an accomplished musician and teacher; a Norfolk resident who plays violin with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and teaches at the Governor's School for the Arts, as well as privately.

Pavel is also a passionate speaker, addressing and performing for Jewish audiences throughout the United States, where he speaks about his experiences, expresses his gratitude and shares his remarkable, musical gift. For Pavel, it’s a way of giving back, to repay the kindnesses that were shown to him more than 20 years ago.

Pavel and his family became political refugees from the Former Soviet Union when he was 10, after the family came to the sad, and fearful, realization that their Jewish status limited any opportunities for the children. With the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), Pavel, his parents Zena and Yuly, and his sister Masha went on a tumultuous two-month journey before settling in St. Louis, MO in 1990.

In St. Louis, the Jewish community rallied to help the family. Eventually, the Ilyashovs settled in and got back to the business of making beautiful music. Pavel went on to get his Bachelors and Masters Degree in Music. Eight years ago, he became a part of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra.

Along the way, Pavel has reinvented himself—many times over—particularly where music is concerned. When he was young (after he got over the desire to drive big trucks), he was assured he would become a famous soloist, and he practiced intensely. When Pavel got to college, he discovered what he calls one of the greatest joys in music—chamber compositions and playing with a small group. He explored the genre, finding it to be what he calls, “some of the greatest literature ever written.” And then Pavel discovered orchestra, and the vast, unmatched repertoire written for large groups. The exhilaration of playing a great symphony, with other incredibly talented performers, creates a sound that is impossible with any other musical ensemble, he says.

Currently, Pavel is at a point in his life when he has fallen hopelessly in love with teaching. Watching him instruct 13-year-old Jong Lim in the music room of his new home is a demonstration of dedication and intensity. Pavel demands the best from Jong, and the young violinist strives to meet those demands.

“He knows I can do better and, in a nice way, he has stretched me as a performer,” the 8th grade student says. “Before I started taking from him, I wouldn’t think that I could play certain pieces—but I am. He makes me want to keep improving myself, without losing my passion for music.”

As Pavel listens to Jong play, his hands and body move like a conductor’s, accentuating beats and making swift corrections. Student and teacher are swept up in the music and the lesson.

“It warms my heart to see that the students are willing to go along with me,” Pavel says. “It was wonderful to me when I realized it was possible to instill a sense of love for music in young people.”

As committed a musician and teacher as Pavel is, his commitment toward giving back to the Jewish community is of utmost importance.

Speaking at Congregation Beth El recently for a United Jewish Federation of Tidewater Women’s Division outreach program with the Beth El Sisterhood, Pavel told of his journey to Judaism and America, played a few selections for the audience, and humbly expressed his gratitude.

“All of these people here, whether they know it or not, have indirectly helped me. And the indirect impact they have had on my life—and the lives of so many others like me—is incredible. Jewish people have a way of sticking together, and to come here, to be given such opportunities and being able to connect with myself, is just remarkable.”

Because of all that was given to the young boy who came from a country that couldn’t see his potential because of his Judaism, and all that was given to the young man who has been able to explore music and expand his talent with the help of people he didn’t even know, Pavel has adopted a simple, yet intense philosophy:

“I believe that when people are kind, and when you’ve been shown great kindness, well, then you must be kind to someone else. That’s the least I can do.”

*Pavel’s story is so compelling we wanted to be able to share as much of it as possible with you. We offer you two versions—the first, briefer video filled with the gratitude Pavel so ardently expresses whenever he can, and the second, longer video filled with richer descriptions of the experiences and journey that led Pavel to become a member of our community, speaker for the United Jewish Federations of North America, and a humble example of what it means to receive, and to give thanks in return.

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