Diversity Reflection – Igor Kirzhner
Following Jewish Traditions
When Igor Kirzhner started medical school at Wake Forest University, the first thing that stood out to him was the custom of prayer.
“At Wake, every major event starts with a prayer,” notes Kirzhner, who is Jewish. Understanding that a Baptist institution will have “Baptist prayers,” he is not bothered by the practice, or with the other distinctive characteristics of a medical center situated in the Bible Belt.
“I’ve never felt uncomfortable in any way, either religiously or culturally,” says Kirzhner, who is also Russian.
Kirzhner was born in Kiev, Ukraine, and lived in Israel for two years as a teenager before moving to the United States in 1993. After living 13 years in Milwaukee, he relocated to Winston-Salem to begin medical school. He chose WFU largely because of the camaraderie he noticed among its students and faculty.
“What I really liked about Wake was the collegial atmosphere and the reputation that the school enjoys,” says Kirzhner, now an anesthesia resident with the Department of Internal Medicine. “It’s a very caring place.”
While he does not consider himself “extremely religious,” Kirzhner holds to certain Jewish customs. In September, he will join others of his faith in celebrating Rosh Hashanah. “It is one of the biggest holidays of the year,” Kirzhner says. “Despite popular belief, Hanukkah is a less important holiday by traditional Jewish standards.”
Rosh Hashanah, commonly referred to as the Jewish New Year, will begin at sundown Sept. 8 and continue through Sept. 10. “I will probably go to temple and have a dinner with my children,” says Kirzhner. Following Jewish tradition, they will eat apples dipped in honey, to symbolize hopes for a sweet year.
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, will follow 10 days after Rosh Hashanah. An all-day fast is required, and many Jews spend the day in the synagogue. “I fast, but I’m still in the hospital,” Kirzhner says. “I believe God would prefer I do something useful for my patients. This is where my abilities are best applied.”
Kirzhner’s Jewish customs are unfamiliar to many of his colleagues, but he does not consider this to be a challenge – particularly in light of the years he spent in Ukraine.
“There is not anti-Semitism here as in the Soviet Union,” he said. “I certainly don’t feel persecuted here.” In fact, his country of origin tends to capture more interest than his religious beliefs.
“People ask me about my Russian background more than my Jewish background,” he says. Some of his colleagues can’t resist the opportunity to joke about stereotypes. “I’m either called KGB or a Russian mobster,” he says with a laugh.
But the jokes, he knows, are the mark of an accepting environment.
“I’ve always felt welcome and given the same opportunities as everyone else,” he says. “I see the respect, and it helps me succeed.”