The Final Countdown
We are now entering our final week in Ukraine. We now know how to say that in Russian. We now have been married for over a year. We now are preparing for a life in the great state of Maryland. We now ….
Its hard to believe our year is finishing in just 7 days. We remember the first day we arrived, when a burly Ukrainian man greeted us at the airport lifting two of our duffel bags with ease over his shoulders and plowing a path through the terminal to make our way out to the car. We remember our first Shabbat, stowed away on the 11th floor of our old soviet building, unable to find the stairwell that could lead us to freedom from our cramped apartment. We remember the cold days in winter, the thousand cups of tea, and the impossible words of Russian we attempted to learn. It’s hard to believe that was all so many months ago.
Per usual, a lot has happened and a lot has stayed the same since our last post. We were part of a several fantastic programs on Shavuot, including a late night Torah study session at the Podol synagogue and an afternoon of ice cream making at our apartment. We hosted our final Shabbat meals, made our final visits to the elderly, and said goodbye to our peace corps friends Jeremy and Avital with one more trip to Jeremy’s tiny village Boyarka. We met some of Stephanie’s family in Rome for a wild five days of beautiful architecture, wonderful museums, and endless amounts of delicious food. We met Aryeh’s brothers and co. (i.e. sisters in laws, niece, and nephews) in Israel for the first time we all had been together since our wedding. And last week we worked/participated at Beiteinu Family Camp, a ten day camp for families in the Crimea run by Kiev’s Beiteinu (the Jewish family center).
We have mixed feelings about leaving. On the one hand we have a lot to be proud of. We have had more than 150 people to our apartment for Shabbat meals and holiday programming. We led programming at tens of different events, ranging from children’s camps to professional seminars. We visited over a dozen elderly families and groups, and interacting with dozens more at the Chesed center. We were involved with two very successful short term service trips to Ukraine, one which we had an intricate part in planning. At the same time there is much we that feels unfinished or untapped. We know in the grand picture we played only a small part in the reconstruction of the Jewish community here. We felt limited in our roles in certain organizations we had hoped to play a larger part in, and entirely absent in others. However, like any experience, it is both the successes and the frustrations that are worth remembering.
The country has changed remarkably in the last few weeks. Every street is lush with green, stilettoed boots have been replaced by stilettoed sandals, and many of our usual Friday night guests are spending the weekend at their family dacha (summer home). Our work here feels as if it is changing as well. With only two months before returning to America we feel as if we are entering our final stage in Ukraine.
This past week we helped run a JDC short term service trip from NYU which we were part of planning over the past several months. Seventeen students made the journey and spent 4 days in Lvov and 4 days in Kiev doing various service work such as repairing homes, visiting elderly, and running a camp for children. It was great to see some familiar faces, make new friends, and to introduce two communities to each other, both of which we know we will always very much feel a part of. The trip had its struggles and its successes, but in the end we felt that our past 8 months here helped us add a unique and worthwhile voice to the groups experience.
As we said goodbye to the group this past Monday night we felt ourselves transitioning, for what seems like one last time, in our roles and mission here. The next few months brings several highlights. This week we will begin working at a camp for Jewish Youth at Beiteinu, next week brings the holiday of Shavuot, the following week we will be seeing members of both our families in Rome and Israel, and at the end of July we will partake in Beiteinu’s week long family camp in Crimea. However, with our departure date nearing, we are beginning to reflect more and more on our time spent here and have begun planning for our future in Maryland and beyond. We keep asking ourselves what sort of impact we have had and whether that impact will be lasting. While we have many events, dinners, or experiences to point at the very nature of this work makes it somewhat unquantifiable. What does it mean that we have had X number of people over for Shabbat dinner, or interacted with Y number of elderly people through our weekly visits?
As these questions circulate in our minds we are strengthened by the thought of the numerous people who have influenced our own lives. Our families, teachers, friends, and colleagues have all in their own ways shaped the people we have become and will continue to shape the people we will be. We can only hope that in some way we have also helped shape the people we interact with here. With this in mind we feel energized and excited to make the best of our last months in Kiev.
6 Degrees of Separation
It has been a little over a month since our last post and thank God we can say things have been busy. We spent a week in Berlin at the mid year seminar for the Jewish Service Corps, we traveled to Israel for the second half of Pesach, and potentially saved a drunk man’s life who fell off his motorcycle (don’t ask…actually ask it’s a great story!). In this time a few events in particular stick out in our minds.
On the first eve of Pesach with the help of the local Moishe House we ran a seder for 36 young adults in our apartment. It was many of the participants first seder, or even first Pesach experience. We wanted to stick as close to the traditional seder as possible, which many of the participants appreciated. While some of the songs and stories were familiar it was an opportunity for the young adult Jewish community to be exposed to the wide variety of tradition Judaism has to offer, while encountering it in a relaxed and youthful atmosphere
This past week we spent three days in the wilderness of Ukraine participating in a week long “camp” on volunteering, ecology, and Judaism. The camp was created by two Ukrainian young adults (both graduates of Paideia) and was participated by teens and young adults from throughout Ukraine and Russia (Moscow). We arrived on a Thursday evening after the group had spent several days volunteering and studying Jewish sources on ecology and volunteerism. We joined the group for their last day of volunteering and helped run the Shabbat programing over the weekend, including shabbat prayers, parshah study, and havdalah. It was an extremely moving experience to be a part of such a new and entirely Ukrainian directed initiative. It is also fun to track how we ended up at this program. Ola, one of the women who started the camp, invited us to join. We met her at one of our shabbat dinner’s, when she was a guest through the new initiative Shabbat Host. We partnered with Shabbat Host through Moti, a local Rabbi who invited us over to discuss the initiative when he and some local young adults were planning it. We met Moti when we visited one of the local synagogues with our friends Ina and Igor. We were introduced to Ina and Igor by Amir (our boss) one of the first days we were in Kiev. Amir knows Ina and Igor from Dnepropetrovsk where Ina worked with Amir at the JDC office…. Exhausting.
A night in the country
Two hours from Kiev, in an old Public school, about 40 people gather to discuss Jewish traditions and ideas. The session is targetted at people of all ages and is organized by a unique organization, The Regional Association of Jewish Organizations of Small Towns of Ukraine (it’s a mouth full). Established in 1993 by Pyotr Rashkovsky, a resident of Korsun-Shevchenkovsky in Cherkasy oblast, the association serves forty small Jewish communities in Kyiv and Cherkasy oblasts. Perhaps 4,500 Jews remain in these population centers, most of them former shtetls. They meet on average once a month (and also for major Jewish holidays) to listen to lectures and share thoughts on Jewish tradition. It has the distinction of being one of the only Jewish organizations in Ukraine fully operated by Ukrainians.
We had the opportunity to run an hour long program (with the help of our peace corps friend Jeremy, who introduced us to the group), which we chose to focus on the Jewish values found in prayer. We discussed a section of the morning prayers, which includes a Mishnaic and Talmudic excerpt: “These are the things which have no limit:[the size of] the corner [of the field left for the poor]…good deeds…and studying Torah. These are the things for which a person reaps the fruits in this world and his reward is in the world to come: honoring one’s father and mother, acts of loving kindness … Accepting guests. Visiting the sick. Eulogizing the dead … bringing peace between people… The study of Torah is equal to them all.” The participants offered their fascinating, insightful and thoughtful ideas, including several challenges to this excerpt. We finished our session by talking about our families and lives in America, a topic the elderly especially here love to hear about.
Afterwards, we travelled with Jeremy to his placement in a village called Boyarka, where he volunteers in youth development. This tiny village of 600 people, 3 hours from Kiev, felt like a completely different world (one we think many of our friends and family imagined us living in). Jeremy’s four-room house, at the end of the small main street of the village, is surrounded by personal farms, animals, outhouses and wells. We drank fresh goats milk at the home of the schools physics teacher, played hop-scotch in the middle of the street with one of his students, and finished the day by milking his neighbors cow (who also happens to be the school director (the neighbor not the cow), and his Peace Corps manager). Like many small villages in Ukraine,there was once a large Jewish community. We walked by the synagogue, which is now the cultural center, the mikvah, which became a sauna, and is now an abandoned building, and the Jewish cemetery that was completely destroyed and dug up by the soviets. Standing now where the tombstones of our ancestors once stood, we couldn’t help but feel a small victory, the three of us products of an improbable history.
Purim in Kiev
This past week we celebrated Purim, the Jewish holiday that commemorates the Jewish people’s triumph over Haman during the Babylonian exile following the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem. Around the world Jews celebrated by reading the megillah, a scroll which tells the story of Purim, giving gifts of food to each other and money to the poor, and singing and drinking over festive meals. In Kiev we celebrated in traditional Jewish, and Ukranian style, both of which include lots of drinking.
The festivities began Friday afternoon when we were joined by our two friends Jeremy and Avital who are both in Ukraine with the Peace Corps. We must thank Laura, a JSC fellow in Israel, who introduced Stephanie and Jeremy in Israel when they were both visiting at the end of December (Jeremy subsequently introduced both of us to Avital whom he knows from even before the Peace Corps, it’s a tiny Jewish world). Friday night we hosted a Shabbat meal for young families and adults. While we have been doing so ourselves for the past couple months, this past week we officially joined with a new initiative in Kiev called ‘Shabbat Host’, which aims to include more people in traditional Shabbat meals. It was a nice change, having little children running around our apartment, reaking havoc on whatever they could find. We are hoping to continue this partnership for the remainder of our time here.
After the conclusion of Shabbat, which also marked the begining of Purim, we listened to the Megillah reading (which was even faster than Aryeh reads it) and headed to a young adults purim party sponsored by Chabad. It was held at a local bar, which they rented out, and featured music, games and sushi (for those of you who have been to a Chabad party of any type none of those should sound unfamiliar).
The next morning we attended Beitenu’s Purim activities where we ran a Purim program for teens. While Beitenu mostly serves young children and families, they have asked us recently to help provide more programing for teenagers. A few weeks ago we planned a mini-color war which included trivia, leadership games, and art projects. We felt it was a moderate success, and we asked to run another program on Purim. We ran a similar style activity, this time with charades, pictionary, and trivia. Both Avital and Jeremy were extremely helpful, as it’s often hard for the two of us to keep the energy level high enough, especially when we are struggling through our Russian. Luckily, Jeremy is fluent in Ukranian, as he lives in a village with no English speakers, and he acted as our translator. We tried to include as many Purim related topics as possible, and we finished the activity with a Mordechai and Esther costume contest (see pictures).
Finally, in the late afternoon, we attended our friend’s, the Rutmans, Purim party. We are often guests at their house on Shabbat, when their meals can reach 20-30 people and last as long as 5-6 hours. Their Purim party was no different. They rented out a room at the Hyatt hotel, and hosted over 150 guests for a beautiful Purim meal. We were there for 7 hours, and while it seemed the festivities were winding down, there were many people who still seemed committed to making the day continue. The meal was also a fundraiser for a Jewish orphanage in Dnepropetrovsk which their good friends run.
It was an exhausting but meaningful few days. Moving from between the different parties and programs, it was amazing to see how much Jewish life and spirit still exist here, and the diversity of Jews that is beginning to emerge.
Today, approximately 170 Hesed Centers serve over 250,000 clients throughout the Former Soviet Union. At these centers, Jewish elderly residents of the city have access to hot meals, medical services, cultural programming, educational courses and social events For many in the larger cities, traveling to the Hesed center is a task in itself. In response to this struggle the JDC developed a program called “Warm Homes.” In Kiev alone, there are 12 Warm Homes, private apartments that active elderly Hesed clients open to their neighbors twice a week. These Warm Homes act as a social outlet for the 8-15 elderly clients who attend.
With assistance from the local Hesed staff, Aryeh and I run a small Shabbat celebration at a different Warm Home every Friday morning. The following is a reflection on one typical Friday for us in the Warm Home.
As we enter the expansive complexes of Soviet housing, we inevitably get lost in the maze of identical looking apartments. The host apartments are typically classic Soviet: hidden off dark and dirty hallways of the buildings, the small apartments are often cluttered with old furniture, pictures and elderly Hesed clients who are equally bewildered and thrilled with our presence. In true Ukrainian style, we remove our shoes upon entering the apartment and space is quickly made for us around the small table that is full of cookies, candies and of tea (for true appreciation, read Aryeh’s previous post).
As I settle into a half-collapsed couch between two bundled women we begin to speak casually, introduce ourselves and speak about our role in the JDC. We begin brief Shabbat programming: singing Jewish songs, eating Challah and drinking grape juice.
Moishe, the only man at this Warm Home visit, wears a large kippah on his head and holds small siddur, Jewish prayer book, in his hand. While the majority of the clients have had little Jewish exposure in their lives, Moishe is a fountain of Jewish stories, ideas and history. We later learn that Moishe grew up in Austria, where he attended Jewish school until the war began. For the following 55 years, due to the Holocaust followed by Communism, he lived with no open Jewish identity. He was humble, reserved and sad when speaking about his past, but continued to educate his peers with reflections on Judaism. This week, he spoke about having both a universal and individual God, comparing the light and warmth of the sun to our relationship with God.
Of Course, the immediate answer from Vera when we asked the group if they lost family during the war. All of us here, we were the lucky ones, we survived. I remember Babi Yar, I lost half my family that day. My family that survived, we rode on horses to Kazakhstan. I was 10 and worked at a coal mine. The others continued to offer parts of their stories, on the surface they seemed familiar, but the details are all shockingly personalized. There is a tentative desire to share their past with us, and this is both the most difficult and meaningful aspect to these weekly visits. Unlike the majority of others terrorized by the Nazis, those living under Soviet Russia continued to live with institutionalized fear for 50 years, where openly practicing or associating with Judaism could send you to Jail, or worse. For one Warm Home host, she learned everything she knows about Judaism from her daughter, who attended the first Jewish school that opened in Kiev after the fall of the Soviet Union, 20 years ago. The host, just like Moishe, uses the Warm Home as not only a social venue, but as a space to speak about their shared Jewish backgrounds.
For the Jewish elderly here, we often expect anger towards Judaism for their suffering, but rather we have seen only immense pride, interest and love for their culture and religion.
This past week, two of our friends from America, Aden and Ashley, joined in on a Warm Home visit. As we sang Tov L’Hodot Hashem (It is good to give thanks to God), with a room of 12 women, the sun, an infrequent visitor to Ukraine, began to shine brightly outside the window. Our host quickly told us, Look,You made the sun shine .
Episode VI: The Return of the Stephanie
It’s been an exciting and exhausting last few weeks. We will do our best to catch everyone up in as a few words as possible.
Our fun began when a group of 18 students from Yeshiva University (both the men’s and women’s campuses) visisted Kharkov for a 8 day service and learning trip in conjunction with the Joint and the Center for the Jewish Future at YU. We spent most of the trip with them, sort of in a quasi-role of participant/leader (most of the students were only a few years younger then us). They spent their week in Kharkov learning the Jewish history of the city, cleaning and repairing the future JCC and the Shaalvim Jewish School, and engaging in social and religious programing with the Kharkov Jewish youth and young adults.
It was both unbelievable and sometimes frustrating to watch the deep connections that were made in just 8 days. Most of the participants and Kharkov locals were brought to tears (some more than once) throughout the trip. Through the joyous singing and dancing on Friday night and the heartfelt one-one’s throughout the trip, the YU students and Kharkov youth made a deep impact on each other’s lives.
This left us feeling paradoxically both invigorated and defeated. We have spent three long months aching for those types of connections (and sometimes succeeding). With 17 American peers, each student from YU had both the support and comfort of their fellow trip participants. It felt that in 8 days they had accomplished so much more they we have in 3 months.
At the same time though, we returned to Kiev with a reanimated spirit. It’s impossible (and mostly unproductive) to compare ourselves to a week long service trip. The fire and energy they brought is unsustainable for 10 months. Their mission and our mission, while similar, are very different. Their trip was a huge success, but our trip is still just beginning. It was beautiful to watch what took place in Kharkov, and it helped remind us what drove us to be a JDC Service Fellow to begin with. More than anything, it showed us what could happen if the Jewish world sent more young Jewish leaders to the FSU.
During our week in Kharkov we took a two day detour to Donetsk (about a three and a half hour drive south east) to visit our friend Dasha and her non-profit Do Good Ukraine, which mobilizes young adults and professionals in Donetsk to volunteer. We accompanied her on a visit to a children’s cancer ward (with a magician) and to a home for disabled youth (with an arts and crafts specialist). Both were powerful visits and deserve posts just for themselves. In short, the trip to Donetsk gave us some ideas for starting our own volunteer group in Kiev and some life long memories.
We are back in Kiev now and do feel as if the tide is turning. We are working out of the Joint office here and have several events we are planning on the horizon. This week we will be hosting our first Conversation on Judaism: How are Jewish Laws created?. We have started our one on one chavruta type learning and discussion We have had meetings with several people who are interested in helping start a volunteer corps in Kiev and hope to have our first event in the coming weeks.
Tea Time or What happens to the blog when Aryeh is left to his own devices
Alarm goes off. Desperately in need of a morning pick me up.
Cup of chai. (1)
Trudge through the snow to Russian classes.
“It’s cold out there today. You want chai?” Well, already had one this morning but it is cold…
Cup of chai. (2)
Ten minute break during lessons. Head to the bathroom (too much chai) and return to class.
“More chai?” I don’t think I really need any more right now but it’s a bit chilly.
Cup of chai. (3)
Classes finish. Brave the cold once again to grab lunch at the synagogue café. Place order.
“Anything else? Maybe something to drink? Chai!?”
The walk was only a few minutes, but I am going to be thirsty.
Cup of chai. (4)
Phone rings. “Want to play football?” Sure. Arrive at field (indoors). Two hours of football.
“The showers are this way.” Enter locker room, table set up with ten cups, tea bags on the side.
“Have some chai.” Well, we literally just played football for hours, why would I want a hot…
Cup of chai. (5)
Get home. Eat dinner. No chai. Thank God.
Phone Rings. “Russian Banya, 5 minutes?”
Get to Banya, change in lounge, enter sauna, sweat, sweat, sweat.
Finish sauna, return to lounge. See teacups.
“Sit we will have some chai before we go.” No wait, it was actually 160° in there, this is ridic…
Cup of chai. (6)
Get home. Watch TV. Time for bed.
Can’t fall asleep, need something to help relax. Hm. Hm.
Cup of Chai?