April 22, 2007 / 4 Iyar 5767
"Independence Day is what we're fighting for - to be independent and strong. For me, every day that I'm here, in my uniform, part of the army, part of this country, is like Independence Day for me," says 23-year-old Irina Etkin, a graduate of the Jewish Agency's Nativ Jewish Zionist Identity Program for Immigrant Soldiers.
Russian-born Irina Etkin, 23, an officer in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), has been in Israel since she was eight years old, and always considered herself Israeli and Jewish. When, at the age of 16, she was told by a clerk at the Ministry of the Interior that she was not allowed to write Jewish on her identity card, she found herself in a crisis.
“I couldn’t prove to them that I was Jewish,” Irina recalls, “so I decided to find my own way to prove this.
Irina, who is an officer in Atidim’s elite Academics Reserve Program, and holds a BSc in electrical engineering from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology – decided to join the Jewish Agency's Nativ program run in conjunction with the IDF. Nativ Jewish Zionist Identity Program for Immigrant Soldiers is a breakthrough educational program that forges stronger and deeper connections between immigrant soldiers and their Jewish identities. Participants learn about the Bible, history of the Jewish people, Zionism and the State of Israel, Jewish philosophy, and Jewish practice. The program combines practical studies with experiential activities. Nativ also offers a supplementary course designed for participants interested in conversion.
After completing the program, and the supplementary course, Irina converted, and finally listed her nationality as Jewish on her identity card.
“It was very important to me to prove unequivocally that I’m Jewish,” Irina explains in her characteristic gentle voice, “so my kids will be fully Jewish and Israeli.”
Irina is glad she went through this challenging experience and feels that the process of studying for her conversion filled in significant gaps in her Jewish education. “I learned more about Judaism during the Nativ program than in my entire Israeli schooling. It’s not just about whether someone drives on Shabbat. It’s about a love of the Bible, Jewish philosophy and history. Nativ's courses were so interesting and stimulating, I started to really understand and appreciate my Judaism.”
Irina’s parents, both engineers living in Upper Nazareth, are proud of her determination, as is her Israeli-born fiancé and her younger brother, a soldier in the tanks corps.
“Nativ enabled me to go through the whole process of conversion with dignity," says Irina in the midst of plans for her May wedding. "They really care. And now there will never be any questions about my children’s Jewish identity.”
After Irina gets married and finishes her army service, she looks forward to working in Israel’s hi- tech arena. "This is my country, my home," she says. “It is the only place I want to bring up my family.”
Irina’s connection to her Jewish identity and to Israel takes on a particular significance on Independence Day. “This is what it's all about, what we're fighting for, to be independent and strong,” she explains passionately. “But for me, every day that I'm here, in my uniform, part of the army, part of this country, is like Independence Day for me."