Like many other Israelis, I haven’t been able to experience Israel from a different perspective, an objective one. However, one month ago, just before the end of my military service, I got the opportunity as a soldier to join a group from Saint Petersburg as part of Taglit-Birthright Israel.
As a person with disabilities, 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 do 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 subsequently will never fit in.
That is why the moment I was standing in front of my peers, wearing in my IDF uniform, with them looking at me as an equal and watching me with admiration was a unique moment, full of pride. It gave me, for the first time in a long time, the feeling that I’m in the right place at the right time. I was an integral part of something big and important—exactly as I am.
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, as well as to me. Still, there was a familiar feel to it.
What excited me was the fact that the contagious energy didn’t skip anyone and everyone took part in the activity, each and every one in their individual way.
The circle we created represented for me the essence of what it’s like to be an Israeli—the authenticity, the happiness, the love and the feeling of togetherness that was stronger than words... being connected to people who were supposed to feel like strangers, from places I knew nothing about.
As someone who has grown up with Sabras (people born in Israel) from a young age, I haven’t had the chance to know my Russian-speaking peers either in Israel or abroad. 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 about their daily life. Many talk about the disconnect between the Jews in Israel and Jews in the rest of the world. However, the time we spent together taught me 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 the reality of this country and to add meaning to the issues close to my heart.
Those of us who were Israelis talked about our IDF the uniforms, explaining that the military makes uniforms that are 100 percent vegan—for those who choose to observe such a lifestyle, as well as uniforms that are “accessible” for soldiers with disabilities. Those from foreign countries were shocked to hear that, but also admired the IDF’s efforts, and I couldn’t be happier that I have the honor to serve, to help educate and show people those achievements through my eyes.
There aren’t many experiences in this world, and it doesn’t matter who you are, that allow you to feel in such a short period of time that you are an integral and equal part of something so big. When people talk about Taglit, we mostly think about what it means for those from abroad and what they take from that experience. Maybe it is no less important what we, as Israelis, take from it. Sometimes, when we look at ourselves through their eyes, we can truly be reminded of our part in this circle.