When I walked into Hillel for my birthright interview, I was slightly skeptical. As many others, I was perhaps surprised that someone was offering me a free trip to Israel. But unlike most participants, I wasn't sure that I was Jewish enough to go.
My father is certainly Jewish. When we lived in Moscow, it said so in his passport. My mother's passport said Russian.
My father was certainly Jewish enough for Moscow State University--he never got in. He was also Jewish enough for the American government in 1991--we received refugee status and moved to the States. My mother, however, was Russian Orthodox, and often took me to church with her in Russia. In fact, I wasn't aware of being Jewish until the age of seven, when we were welcomed by the Jewish Community Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, and my parents told me to hide my icons and replace them with a menorah. Slightly confused, I spent the year fervently guarding my "Christian drawer" from anyone who came to visit.
During my first year in the United States I was introduced to Judaism--a religion that had been forgotten by many Jews in the Soviet Union since the government had made every attempt to stamp out religion in general, and Judaism in particular. The Jewish Community Center made it possible for me to attend a Jewish day school, and I studied Hebrew along with English. During that year I first learned to identify with Jewish customs and traditions. My mother was very supportive of my Jewish education, especially because we could not have made it in America without help from the JCC.
Then my family moved away in search of better jobs and the American dream, and I lost touch with the Jewish community outside my father's family. I would draw bizarre stares by telling people that I'm half Jewish and half Russian--it must have sounded to them as if I were saying that my shoes are half blue and half comfortable. Yet I never lost the feeling that I was indeed ethnically Jewish, even though, with an agnostic father and a Christian mother, I felt rather distant from the Jewish faith.
It was, therefore, no surprise that I had doubts about going on birthright. I was afraid of feeling out of place and lost, because I had been out of touch with the Jewish community for so long. I was incredibly drawn to ancient texts, however, and to the thought of winding streets steeped in tradition, valleys full of history and heroism--it's easy to romanticize Israel as the cradle of religion and the birthplace of all tribulations to have ever stirred the world. Yet I had never entertained the idea that I had a birthright; that I was entitled to see Israel simply by being born. The thought first entered my mind at the Hillel birthright information session. To my surprise, Hillel--where I had hardly set foot before--was very welcoming, and I soon found myself on a plane above Tel Aviv with the sun rising behind us as we landed.
My fears seemed justified at first. As in third grade, I found myself hiding part of my identity. I wanted to be part of the group, but having been out of touch with the Jewish community for so long made it difficult. I didn't know the traditional songs they were singing, I couldn't recall any Hebrew, and I only vaguely remembered the customs. I didn't want to stick out even more by revealing my Christian background. So while people on my bus got to know each other quite well, I worried about making a mistake, about asking for the meaning of unfamiliar terms, and about acting inappropriately in a given situation. The students came on the trip to bond with other Jews, but was I Jewish enough to really bond with them? I simply didn't know how to reconcile my identity back home with the identity I was creating for myself on the trip. I didn't know how to incorporate the overwhelming new experiences into my past experience. What I asked myself was how compatible are the two cultures, Russian and Jewish?
Then, one week after our arrival, we reached Jerusalem for Shabbat (Sabbath). On Saturday night we made Havdalah--the ceremony that ends Shabbat--in the Jewish quarter by the Western Wall, the only part of the Second Temple to be left standing and the most sacred Jewish place. The night was warm and clear as we stood together under the towering structure of the Wall, majestic and mystical against the night sky. We said prayers together--I tried to follow along as best I could--and passed the traditional spices and candle around the circle. Maybe it was something about the Western Wall, or maybe in the voice or the hand of the person next to me, but at that point I felt connection--connection to the people in the circle and to every person in the square watching our ceremony; I felt a link through history and through standing in this square at that very moment.
The following morning Avraham Infeld, the president of Hillel International, came to speak to our group. What he said was not new, but his words resonated very strongly with me. He said that in Israel, Judaism is not a religion--it's a nationality. Moreover, he said that once a person is Jewish, he or she cannot stop being Jewish. One can convert to Christianity, one can deny the existence of God altogether, but that person remains Jewish despite everything.
So, yes, I was Jewish enough to go on the birthright trip. By being born Jewish I didn't simply receive a visit to Israel, I inherited the culture and history of the Jewish people. I had every right, and in fact every obligation, to feel a connection to Judaism, regardless of how I was brought up, regardless of my distance from religion in general. Seeing Israel is thus not a Jewish "birthright," but a "birthduty."