It is 1991, and I am sight-seeing around Moscow with Natasha, a fellow counselor from the Soviet Pioneer camp where I am working for the summer. Natasha is hoping that I, the American Jew, will be able to educate her about the religion of her ancestors. But I know almost as little about Judaism as she does.

At the age of 19, my Jewish identity is nearly entirely negative. I would never have a Christmas tree in my house. I would never join a church. I would never wear a cross dangling from a gold chain around my neck. But I would probably have to think pretty long and hard to come up with something that I do do because I am Jewish.

I am the only out-of-the-closet Jew for miles around I have come to Russia as part of a Glasnost-inspired cultural exchange of camp counselors between the US and Soviet governments. Everywhere I go at my summer camp outside of Moscow the children point and yell "Amerikanka!" as though they are sighting Madonna or Michael Jackson or Paul Mccartney himself in the flesh. But it only takes a few days for me to start sensing that, in their eyes, the fact that I am Jewish is not exotic and glamorous like being an American. Judaism, in Russian eyes, is less like a religion, and more like a chronic, debilitating disease that they sincerely wish I could be cured of sometime very soon.

I am the only out-of-the-closet Jew for miles around; and the anti-Semitism is palpable, even a bit threatening. I have never felt so distinctly Jewish in my whole life.

And then Natasha and I see them coming from the other direction on Arbat Street. Three young men in black hats and black jackets. It can't be, but it is; we are seeing real-life Orthodox Jews in the middle of Soviet Moscow!

If I had seen one of these young men on the streets of my native Baltimore, I would have felt as different from him as I would from a Sikh cab driver wearing a neon yellow turban.

But here, I feel as though I am about to be reunited with a long-lost twin from whom I was separated at birth.

We make a beeline for them.

"Hey there! What are you doing in Moscow?" They are stunned by my excited greeting.

One of them answers that he has come from Brooklyn and his two friends from Australia in order to work at a Lubavitch summer camp for Jewish children.

"I'm also working at a summer camp!" I am amazed by the coincidence.

He mentions the name of a Jewish camp, and asks if I am working there.

"No, I'm working at the Zorky Pioneer camp with Russian children."


I am surprised by how easily I remember my Hebrew name There are a few seconds of total silence. All three of them look at me as though I have just told them that I live on Venus and am planning to return there sometime real soon.

Why are they reacting like that? I wonder. Don't they realize that they are the ones who look like aliens here, not me?

"Tell me something." the one from Brooklyn asks me as he smoothes the sides of his beard. "What is your name?"

"Jenny Freedman."

"No. What is your Hebrew name?"

I haven't had any reason to remember my Hebrew name since my bat mitzvah, but I surprise myself with the ease with which I remember it. With a blip of a delay as short as the one during a transatlantic phone call, I tell him with pride, "My Hebrew name is Chana."

His face becomes serious, more serious than any other 20-year-old face I have seen in my life. "I want to tell you, Chani Freedman, that I see that you have a beautiful heart. You came to Russia to help children, and that is a kind and noble act. But the truth is that if you don't help these Russian children, then somebody else will. But if we Jews don't unite to assist the hundreds of thousands of Jewish children here, nobody will."

I am stunned by his gentle but powerful rebuke.

One of the Australians scribbles down the phone number of the local Lubavitch synagogue and suggests that I could attend a class there. "Sorry, but we've got to run," the one from Brooklyn apologizes, and I watch the three of them disappear as they rush down Arbat Street.

I never saw them again, but this young man's comment stuck with me for months and months. Back at the camp, I chewed on it when I woke up in the morning and when I went about my day and when I went to sleep again at night, like bitter bubble gum.

When Natasha and I went to the synagogue two weeks later, it was filled to capacity. The European conference of Lubavitch rabbis, it turns out, was taking place that week in Moscow.

In the women's section, Natasha and I hold prayer books but instead of trying to decipher them, we gawk around us at our strange surroundings like country yokels staring up at Manhattan skyscrapers. I stand next to a young Russian Jewish woman who is praying in a loud determined whisper as she twists back and forth, her arm wrapped around her waist.

Natasha asks me a question about the prayers, and I try to ask the woman next to us, but she just points at her prayer book and keeps on praying and twisting. I think about the fact that this woman was raised under Communism, and she has managed to learn so much about Judaism that she can pray with such impressive devotion from her prayer book. I was raised in America, and was allowed to learn about Judaism. So why is it that I am the one who feels more at home inside a church than a synagogue?

It is difficult to pinpoint a moment that a life changes course. But that morning, in that synagogue, I believe, was one of those pivotal moments. At that moment, watching that woman, my heart started shifting, changing angle, altering orientation.

"I am a Jew," I said to myself. "And I also want to know what that means, like this woman praying next to me."

There were many detours and stalled engines and uphill climbs along the way, but that fateful encounter on Arbat Street and that morning at the Lubavitch synagogue were the points of departure for a life-long journey towards leading a truly Jewish life that my husband and children and I are still on to this very day.

We know the sacrifice that they made for their heroic decision Last week, like most of us, I needed windshield wipers to read the news through my tears. At 29 and 26, Rabbi Gabriel and Rivka Holtzberg had already lost one child to a debilitating genetic illness, and were parents to another child hospitalized with the same disease. Not one person would have raised an eyebrow if this young couple had said that they needed to put their own pressing personal needs above those of the thousands of backpackers and business men and Jenny Freedmans who passed through their Chabad House during their travels through India.

But we all know that that was not what they did, and we know the ultimate sacrifice that they made for their heroic decision to put the needs of the Jewish people before their own in order to spread the light of Judaism to all Jews, wandering and otherwise.

As I thought about this heroic young couple this past week, I realized that the time had finally come to say two words to all of the Rebbe's emissaries. Two words that I should have said many years ago. To the Holtzbergs and those three students from Arbat Street and the rabbi of the Chabad House in Boston with whom I spent my first Shabbats at the very beginning of my journey to a Jewish life.

I think that they are the two words that most Jews were thinking and feeling when we followed the events unfolding in Mumbai until their unfathomably tragic end.

Two words from me, we, all of us:

"Thank you."