Connecting to one’s Jewish heritage and identity is a special challenge for deaf Jews wherever they live. But in Russia, it’s often harder, with few public services available to help them or their families. That’s why a recent trip to Israel by 16 Russian deaf young adults from different parts of the world became such an emotionally charged, transformative experience, according to participants and hosts alike.

“Those eight days were not just [about] exploring. Israel was a place where we felt home,” emailed Irina Normatov, originally from Uzbekistan but now living in New York. “We had an opportunity in understanding where we came from; we received our blessings on land that is holy. We expressed appreciation, forgiveness, grief and gratitude through our prayers. We had lots of personal growth throughout the different activities.”

Sponsored by the Chabad Global Jewish Youth Initiative, and led by Rabbis Mendy Wilansky and Yehoshua Soudakoff, the eight-day trip in February was geared to men and women between the ages of 18 and 30. Registration was open to Russian Sign Language youth from all over the world, with participants coming from Russia, Ukraine and the United States, specifically from Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania. The trip offered them an opportunity similar to others their age who visit Israel on programs like Taglit-Birthright Israel.

The Global Jewish Youth Initiative was launched at the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries this past November. It’s being funded by the Mirishvilli family, prominent members of the Georgian Jewish community. While the initiative oversees and sponsors large-scale projects, it also focuses on the individual; in this case, deaf young adults.

Wilansky, 28, originally from Elizabeth, N.J., moved to Russia two years ago to run youth programs and projects across Russia, including Shabbatons, lectures, classes and trips. Soudakoff, 22, who is deaf, grew up in Los Angeles and later attended a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbinical school in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lives today. Both rabbis believe that excursions like this are vital for the Jewish deaf population of Russia.

Misha Shushpannikov of Moscow prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Misha Shushpannikov of Moscow prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

“Chabad used the trip to show them many of the programs that exist in Israel for the deaf,” Wilansky said, “and how we as Jews take care of each other.”

‘Tears in Her Eyes’

The group was met at Ben-Gurion International Airport by Rabbi Nissim Elmalich, the airport’s official rabbi, whose parents are deaf. He greeted them in sign language with a warm welcome to Israel.

They then proceeded to tour throughout Israel, with particular stops at four cities: Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed and Tiberias.

Visiting Israel, where they felt accepted and appreciated, turned out to be especially moving and emotionally intense.

“The emotions I experienced when entering the Holy Land are beyond words or explanation,” wrote Elvira Livchits of Boston. “The tears in my eyes said it all.”

“The trip really emphasized the individual’s Jewish identity and helped us realize that we are part of the Jewish people,” she added. “It has catapulted me out of my comfort zone and taken me to a level that I had yet to experience.”

The group met with representatives of the Israeli air force, army intelligence and ground forces who are deaf, as well as with a deaf representative of the Israeli police. Officials noted that Israel’s army may be the only one in the world to employ deaf soldiers.

The group met with members of Israel's military, discovering that the nation is one of the few in the world—perhaps the only one—to employ deaf soldiers.
The group met with members of Israel's military, discovering that the nation is one of the few in the world—perhaps the only one—to employ deaf soldiers.

They also had a round-table discussion with Doron Levy, CEO of the Association for the Deaf in Israel.

There were so many inspiring moments of the trip that Wilansky couldn’t even begin to describe them all. One occurred on Friday night after visiting the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem, when the group was invited to eat Shabbat dinner at the home of Rabbi Yossi Swerdlov.

“In addition to his incredible hachnasas orchim [mitzvah of welcoming guests], the group was surprised to see that he, too, knew sign language because he has a brother who is deaf,” said Zev Jacobson, who runs Israel Maven Tours, the company that tailored the trip to these participants.

Of course, there were some challenges involved, like finding a licensed tour guide who knew Russian Sign Language. So they used two people: a standard Israeli tour guide and an RSL translator.

All together now with members of the Israel Defense Force. Rabbi Mendy Wilansky is standing in the bottom row, left; Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff is in the top row, second from left.
All together now with members of the Israel Defense Force. Rabbi Mendy Wilansky is standing in the bottom row, left; Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff is in the top row, second from left.

The group really connected with the staff, with participants expressing how the guides felt very much like parents and family. The feelings were mutual, as was apparent at the farewell banquet, where the guides tearfully spoke about how much this trip meant to them. Having a competent tour guide and translator were essential for the attendees to be able to experience Israel for the first time.

Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky, executive director of Merkos Suite 302, was instrumental in helping secure the necessary funding for the trip. “This is something different and unique. We here at Merkos [L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement] felt that it was an extremely noble project, and partnered alongside Chabad of Russia and Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar to ensure its success. Giving these youth the opportunity to experience authentic Judaism—many for the first time— is an unbelievable privilege.”

‘A Very Positive Experience’

The men and women also got the chance to see Israel’s Parliament and meet with the Speaker of the Knesset, Yuli Edelstein, who is Russian. It was only a week after his wife had passed away and he was still in the month-long mourning period, but he felt that it was important to speak to the group.

“It was very, very powerful,” said Wilansky, noting that they met with him in his private office for more than a half-hour.

Trip-goers got the chance to see Israel’s Parliament and meet with the Speaker of the Knesset, Russian Yuli Edelstein, seated at the end of the table.
Trip-goers got the chance to see Israel’s Parliament and meet with the Speaker of the Knesset, Russian Yuli Edelstein, seated at the end of the table.

Edelstein spoke about his time in Russia before he moved to Israel, and how he adapted to life there. He also described the Jewish values that define his actions.

“I think that was part of what made an impact on our group,” wrote Rabbi Soudakoff, who is deaf. “He is a proud Jew, and though he speaks Russian, he is first and foremost a Jew.”

The trip also nurtured some powerful new connections, right from the start.

One man from New York was met at the airport by his father, who moved to Israel nearly 20 years ago; the two hadn’t seen each other since. He was accompanied by a young Israeli soldier who turned out to be a brother.

“These two brothers had never met before in their lives. This was their first meeting. I was shocked,” Wilansky said of the emotional reunion. “You don’t expect these things to happen.”

Edelstein speaks with Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar. The trip was sponsored by the Chabad Global Jewish Youth Initiative, funded by the Mirishvilli family.
Edelstein speaks with Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar. The trip was sponsored by the Chabad Global Jewish Youth Initiative, funded by the Mirishvilli family.

Said Livchits: “No words can describe how incredible this [trip, this] gift was. The experience was so intense that if you even stopped to think for a second, you would miss something extraordinary. The places you went, the people you met and the entire trip itself was nothing but beauty. Whenever memories cross my mind, they still bring tears to my eyes.”