Over three-dozen eager Birthright participants from "Russia Down Under" arrived in Israel on Thursday to hold a week-long, identity-building celebration on KangaRusski - a new initiative of The Jewish Agency in partnership with the Genesis Philanthropy Group.
"When I was given a bar mitzvah, I dreamed that night that I'd live in Israel," said an excited Emanuel Banak during a visit to Jaffa, their first stop soon after an early morning arrival. The first-ever such visit by children of FSU émigrés' to Australia is an "extremely moving experience," for everyone in the group, Banak added.
The Russian-speaking Jews in their teens and early 20s signed on from cities across Australia, including Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.
Sporting a kippah and speaking from behind incongruous, bright orange hip-hopper shades, the shaggy-haired 20-year-old said he'd "tried to make it to Israel several times, but didn't succeed."
Banak, whose family originally hails from Kiev, in the Ukraine, works as a physiotherapist, while his father works in construction and his mother is busy raising his younger brother.
Noting that he'd "tried out for the one-year program – but wasn't accepted; I tried to join another program, but couldn't make it – but this time it worked for me," Banak said with satisfaction. "I'm so excited to be here in Israel and fulfill a dream I struggled to keep with me since I was very young."
Sasha Klyachkina, the Jewish Agency shlichah (emissary) for Russian-speaking Jewry in Australia, pointed out that "most of [the participants] speak Russian at some level of proficiency at home," and emphasized the significance of the inaugural trip.
"This is a great accomplishment - to bring such a group, one which is not involved with other Jewish communities around Australia, although they comprise 20 percent of the 120,000 Jews in Australia," according to Klyachkina. "Russian-speaking Jews are not affiliated with or related to the English-speaking Jewish community, are totally isolated from this community, and the arrival of such a group [in Israel] for the first time is very important."
The group, at first glance, appeared to be all or predominantly secular, an impression supported by Tanya Schwartzman, the group's counselor, who noted that a majority of Russian-speaking community is non-affiliated.
Her counterpart, Gleb Shinkarsky, said he viewed the group's arrival as a catalyst for greater engagement by Australia's Russian-speaking Jews within the wider Jewish community.
"We are grateful for Sasha's vision in taking on such a complex and multifaceted project on behalf of the Agency among Russian-speaking Jewry, which led to the group's arrival in Israel," he said.
(translated by Dave Bender)