When I turned 16, my father told me I was Jewish.
This isn’t uncommon in Russia, where I was born and raised. Many people discover their Jewish roots later in life. But I just didn’t think I’d be one of them.
I spent the next few weeks poring over family documents — birth certificates, passports, letters. They reaffirmed the story my father shared with me: my paternal grandfather was Jewish.
I had no knowledge of Jewish traditions. I never celebrated a Jewish holiday. I didn’t feel a connection to my newfound Jewish identity.
What was I supposed to do next?
My wife, Darya Chabina, and I recently celebrated our one-year anniversary together. We plan to raise a family soon in Moscow. And I wasn’t sure how Judaism would fit into my life — our lives.
A few years later, I decided to visit Israel with my father, who later repatriated there. That visit left me with more questions than answers about my Jewish heritage. And when I learned about Taglit-Birthright Israel with Hillel Russia, I had to apply.
Because I was born deaf, I knew communication could be a roadblock. Professionals at Hillel Russia informed me that no support existed for deaf Russian signers who wanted to visit Israel on Taglit-Birthright Israel. At least not yet.
I know Russian Sign Language, which is different from Israeli Sign Language and American Sign Language. Hillel Russia would need to provide me with an additional translator on the 10-day trip.
Hillel Russia worked closely with Taglit-Birthright Israel to secure a Russian Sign Language translator named Darya Mikhailova, making it possible for me to explore Israel only a few years after learning I was Jewish.
I boarded a Tel Aviv-bound plane in late December with Darya Mikhailova, who recently discovered that she had Jewish roots as well. We traveled with strangers who later became our friends. Some were raised in traditional Jewish homes. Others were exploring their Jewish identity for the first time.
We hiked up the ancient fortress of Masada. We learned about the history of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem. We visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
The experience was one that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
A few weeks ago, I returned to my home in Moscow. I knew that Taglit-Birthright Israel wouldn’t be my last encounter with Hillel Russia.
I wasn’t religious before and I’m not religious now, but I know I want Judaism and Israel to play a significant role in my life and my family’s life.
More than 5,000 students have traveled to Israel with Hillel Russia, which has eight centers throughout the Russian Federation: Moscow, St. Petersburg, Saratov, Penza, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Krasnayarsk and Khabarovsk.
-- Nikita Rotin