When Irina Merzlykh's parents closed the door to the living room and told her that they had something important to tell her, Irina thought she was in trouble. To her astonishment, they told her that she was Jewish and they were sending her to a Jewish Agency summer camp in Budapest. Irina cried and refused to go but in the end, it was a turning point in her life.
"The camp was amazing. The counselors really made us look deep inside ourselves and understand what it meant to be a Jew. During one activity, we had to draw a picture of a Jewish person. Everyone drew men with sidelocks, yarmulkes and black hats. Then the counselor said, 'look around, do you see anyone like that here?' Something opened inside of me and I began embracing my Jewish identity."
Irina returned to Moscow and became involved in the Jewish Agency's youth club. Her interest in learning Jewish texts took her to Sweden, where she studied Talmud, and inspired her to start a short-lived women's study group in Moscow.
In 2001, Irina visited to Israel on a birthright israel trip and fell in love with the country. After the ten-day trip ended, she vowed to return.
Irina chose to return to Israel and signed up for the Kibbutz Movement's Bina program, a secular organization that promotes Jewish studies. The program is part of the Jewish Agency's MASA/Israel Journey initiative; the gateway to over 100 unique long term programs in Israel.
For ten-months Irina is living in Tel Aviv and volunteering with children and youth. She teaches them English and spends time with them, playing, learning and listening. Upon completing the program, Irina plans to return to Moscow and continue her work as Hillel project coordinator. "Young Russian Jews are too busy to spend time learning about their Jewish heritage. I want to find ways to reach out to them so they will want to become part of the Jewish community."