For young Jews in the Diaspora seeking a connection to their religious and ethnic roots, a trip to Israel has always been a great place to start. But for a generation of young Israelis born in the former Soviet Union and interested in exploring their Jewish identity, it is ironically trips in the opposite direction that are providing the answer.
In recent months, the Israeli division of Hillel, the international Jewish campus life organization, has organized and financed two such trips back to the former Soviet Union for young adults who were part of the huge Russian immigration wave to Israel that began in 1990. The purpose of these trips, which are planned for next summer as well, is to allow these Israelis to let down their guard and become, well, less Israeli.
“These are Israelis who wanted no part of their Russian identity, who even refused to speak Russian at home,” explains Alon Friedman, director of Hillel in Israel. “They are young Israelis who served in the army but resented their Jewishness from day one - because they identified it exclusively with the religious establishment in a country that questions their Jewishness and their parents’ Jewishness. What we’re doing here is connecting them with their peers in the former Soviet Union and getting them through these connections to think about their heritage.”
Pola Ovroutski, a 23-year-old student from Ben-Gurion University, who participated in one such trip over the summer, describes the initiative as “Birthright in reverse,” referring to the incredibly popular international program that over the past 13 years has brought about 350,000 young Jewish adults from around the world to Israel on free, 10-day trips.
Ovroutski was part of a delegation of five Israelis that spent 10 days in August traveling around Belarus and Latvia, where, together with 25 young Jewish locals, they helped clean up and restore sites of Jewish interest, among them a synagogue and cemetery.
Barely a toddler when she moved with her family to Israel from Ukraine in 1992, Ovroutski was raised in Kiryat Malachi and lives today in Ashkelon.
“Until I took this trip, it would really annoy me when people would ask me whether I feel Israeli or Russian,” says the student of management and politics. “Obviously, I felt Israeli because that’s all I’ve known since I’m two years old. But this trip really gave me a sense of connection to my roots in the former Soviet Union, so it’s not a question that annoys me anymore.”
Upon returning from the trip, says Ovroutski, the first thing she did was go to her parents and thank them for relocating when they did. “I wanted them to know that I was grateful they had moved to Israel because I really don’t know how I would have managed if they had stayed behind after what I saw there.”
A month before Ovroutski flew to the almost forgotten landscapes of her childhood, a group of students and alumni of Haifa University and the Technion, born in the former Soviet Union like herself, were embarking on a similar journey.
This group of five young Israelis spent three days in Odessa, competing in a huge, Hillel-organized intellectual games tournament with participants from more than a dozen branches of the Jewish campus organization around the former Soviet Union. “These intellectual games are huge in the former Soviet Union and also apparently among Jews who immigrated to Israel from this part of the world,” notes Friedman. “It’s an entire subculture here we suddenly discovered, and we figured this would provide a great opportunity for bringing Israelis who come from this part of the world back to the home country.”
This was the first time a delegation from Israel had participated in the tournament, which has been a mainstay of Hillel life in the former Soviet Union for quite a few years now. “We knew that if we described it as a Jewish gathering, they wouldn’t want to come, but because it involved these intellectual games, they were willing to do this,” says Friedman.
For Mark Levin, a participant in the delegation who immigrated to Israel at age 15 from Latvia, it was an especially meaningful trip. “When I was a kid growing up in Vilna, there would always be Israelis coming to visit us in camp during the summer, and that was a big treat for us,” he recalls. “When I went back this summer, I felt like I was filling that same role for the people there. It was like coming around full circle.”
Levin, a Technion graduate who works in high-tech, had never visited Odessa before, but his grandfather was born there. “Almost our entire family was wiped out in the Holocaust," he says, "so this was an opportunity to take a trip back to my roots.”
For Ovroutski, the trip also finally explained something she had much difficulty comprehending for many years: her parents’ nostalgia for certain things left behind. “They always would be talking about picking berries and cherries in the old country and how there’s nothing that compares to them here. Suddenly I’m there picking berries myself, and I totally get what they’re saying.”