When I was 3 years old, my family and I made “aliyah” to Israel from Russia. Since then, like many other Israelis, I haven’t been able to experience Israel form a different perspective — an objective one. However, one month ago, just before the end of my military service, I got the opportunity to join, as a soldier, a group from Saint Petersburg as part of Taglit-Birthright Israel.
As a person with disabilities (Cerebral Palsy), that moment, as well as the journey itself, was accompanied by a special feeling of great pride. When I was born, my parents were told by the doctors, that even if I survive I will not be able to have a normal and independent life, I will never be accepted to a normal school and will never be able to have a regular social life and as a result, will never fit in.
That is why, the moment I was standing in front of my group, dressed in my IDF uniform, with them, my fellow participants, seeing me as equal, and watching me with admiration – was a unique moment, full of pride, which gave me, for the first time in a long time, the feeling that I’m at the right moment in the right place. Where I, exactly as I am, am an integral part of something big and important.
I found myself standing in a circle, taking part in a “Shehecheyanu” ceremony on the Jerusalem boardwalk, singing classic Israeli songs and dancing nonstop. The ceremony was new to them, but no less important it was new to me. Still, there was something familiar.
What excited me was the fact that the contagious feelings didn’t skip anyone as everyone took part in the activity, each and every one in their individual way.
The circle we created represented for me the essence of being Israeli, the authenticity, the happiness, the love and the “together” feeling that was stronger than words… connected with people who were supposed to feel like strangers, from places which I knew nothing about.
As someone who has grown up with “Sabars” (people born in Israel) from a young age, I never knew about my Russian speaking peer-group in Israel and outside of it. For me, it was the first significant unmediated encounter with a group like this. My time with the group had taught me about the Jewish reality abroad as well as their daily life. Many people speak about the disconnection between Israelis and the worldwide Jewish population, however, as I see it, the opposite of it is happening. Our time together taught me about how much we have in common.
Just as I got to know them, they also got to know “us” through me. It was a special experience to be an unofficial ambassador of Israel – to present our country and the reality in which we live, to cast meanings to things close to my heart. In a special activity that we, the Israeli participants, conducted about the IDF’s uniforms, I explained that in the IDF the uniforms are 100% vegan for vegan soldiers and “accessible” for soldiers with disabilities that have trouble with buttons. The shock and admiration followed immediately, and I couldn’t but be happy that I have the honor to serve, to help educate and show people these achievements through my eyes.
There aren’t many experiences, where it doesn’t matter who you are, and when in such a short time you can feel an integral and equal part of something much bigger. When we speak of Birthright Israel, we mostly think about the meaning for the participants from abroad and what they take from it. Maybe it is no less important, what we Israelis keep for ourselves. Sometimes, it is when we introspect ourselves through their eyes, that we can truly be reminded of our part in the circle.