This blog represents only the opinion of its writers

Friday, February 24, 2012

Totally Normal But Completely Insane

By Matthew Feinberg
Edited by Sami Stein

For those of us who managed to sleep on the train (side note: if you ever have the opportunity to take an overnight train from Kiev to Dnepro, don't) at 6:00am we heard a train conductor say what I assume translates to "Good morning, we arrive in an hour."  An hour later we pulled into Dnepropetrovsk's train station and were met by Yan Sidlekovsky, a long time leader in the community who helped coordinate this portion of our trip.  We went to our hotel and after breakfast and a quick shower, we went to learn about the Jewish community in Dnepro.

Our first stop was the Menorah Center where Zelig Brez - another community leader - gave us the grand tour.  First, we saw the Golden Rose Synagogue, which had just recently been expanded to make more space, including a room for a children's service group.  The amount of detail and symbolism that went into the construction of the synagogue is truly awe-inspiring.  There are six steps leading up to the Ark, one for each day of creation; the five arches for the five Books of Moses are supported by 12 columns for the 12 tribes of Israel.  The synagogue is only a small part of the Menorah Center, a $90 million project that started in 2008 and has created 700 jobs to date.  This seven tower center will have everything from a hotel to a Holocaust Museum and will be open to the entire community.

After a behind-the-scenes peek of this amazing project, we met with Rabbi Kaminezki, the Chabad Rabbi who was sent to lead and rebuild this community in 1990.  Rabbi Kaminezki said that the community has seven departments: religious, education, social, culture, special projects, and sports (this is a very small department).  There is also a community parliament with 90 members; only two of the members are women.  He described Dnepro as a pluralistic community that accepts everyone (i.e. mother was Jewish, or father was Jewish, or even grandfather was Jewish)  This united community has communities within it, like Hillel (more on that later).

Next, we journeyed to the Or Avner Day School, Dnepro's Jewish Day School.  There we met with Alla, head of the English Department, and the head of the school.  Or Avner is a K-11 ORT school with 400 students.  It is 20 years old and the largest state-sponsored Jewish school in Eastern Europe.  There are three buildings: a male yeshiva, a female yeshiva, and a school for those who are more secular.  Currently, all students are Jewish, but it is open to everyone.  English is taught for four hours a week for every grade.  Also, this summer will be the third English Immersion Camp; it is a three week day camp for the students of the school and also the project I'm working on while interning at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston.  While at the school, we also said hello to Havayah, a winter camp that brings together teens from Boston, Haifa, and Dnepro.

For lunch we went to JDC, but before we ate we saw Chessed, the social welfare arm.  Chessed runs programs like Yedid (a club for adults with special needs) and an 85 and older club.  The Yedid members gave us masks that they had been making for Purim.  When we went to the 85+ club, we were not allowed to leave until we had all danced with the club members; needless to say they were very excited and happy that we came to visit them (and they were all amazing dancers!).  After a brief tour of some of the other projects, we sat down to lunch and were joined by Natasha of the JVS Microloan Program.  She walked us through the process of applying for a loan, and then we got to see one of the enterprises: a Judaica shop (the only one in Dnepro).  The shop also housed sofrim (scribes) who showed us a newly finished ketuba (wedding contract) for a wedding taking place that night.  Natasha was proud to share that there has been a 0% default rate on the microloans.

The Women's Clinic was our next stop.  There we met with doctors who told us how Boston's Jewish community had helped the clinic, which is the only provider of pap smears, mammograms, and has greatly reduced the risk of death from cervical cancer.  As we left and thought that we couldn't possibly fit anything else into our schedule, we returned to the Menorah Center to meet with Dnepro Hillel staff.  We asked each other questions and learned about the similarities and differences between Hillel Dnepropetrovsk and the Hillels we were active in on our undergrad campuses.  Hillel Dnepropetrovsk does not feel pressured by the community to follow a certain Judaic path, but does not offer any religious programming (i.e. Shabbat Services) because they are in the same facility as the Synagogue.  The staff also let us know that Hillel Dnepropetrovsk is now 13 years old!

After a long, long day we thought it was finally time to eat dinner and call it a night, but instead had one last program to go to.  In celebration of Rosh Hodesh Adar (start of the month Adar) Chabad had an all women's event.  Since I have a Y chromosome I was obviously not allowed to attend, and being the only male in this group of seven students and two faculty members, I had my own adventure: going to the mall with Havayah.

I have not specifically addressed one person's question, but hope that I have at least in part answered a few of the questions we have received about the community.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

“Every Rabbi is a Tour Guide, But the Destination is Different”
Stated by Rabbi Alex Dukhovny

Actually written by Sami Stein
Edited by Matthew Feinberg

Wow, Day 3 was a seriously jam-packed, learning-filled day.  I want to explain everything that happened, but I do think this day was one of those, “you have to see it to believe it” kind of experiences.

On our first really cold, raw day, we began at Babi Yar, what we expected to be one of the most emotional visits. Babi Yar is the site of the most terrible mass killing in Ukraine, with 33,700 Jews murdered in 2 days, from Sept 19-20, 1941.  Our guide, while maybe not so experienced at English tours, emphasized remembering the dates and the numbers, so I know them well now.  Babi Yar was actually a massive grave, now a ravine, where the bodies of the dead (and many actually alive people) were buried, with only 3 survivors.  Over the next 2 years, a total of ~50,000 Jews were killed there, along with ~150,000 other people of various ethnicities (more info is here: http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Babi_Yar).  We visited two different monuments: the first was created by the Jewish community, and was erected in the early 90s in the shape of a menorah to recognize this as a place with special significance to Jews.  It was symbolic to be there, but honestly, it was hard to feel the emotion I was expecting because cars and trucks kept breaking up our group and we couldn’t see much beyond a small ravine covered in snow.  This was my first experience at a Holocaust-related site and I certainly was expecting to feel more connection.  After this we headed across to the street to the memorial erected by the Soviets in the ‘70s. It was massive and red, and while it originally showed no specific identification that ¼ of those murdered there were Jews, (with so many in 2 days), later plaques were added in Ukrainian and Yiddish to acknowledge that many of those who perished there were not just “average Soviet citizens”.  One interesting thing I did learn there was that the top of this monument, a sculpture of a woman holding a child, signified that many of those killed there were women and children (and elderly), because the men had already been drafted into the red  (Soviet) army.  And while so many died there, a new child is still the symbol of birth, representing new hope. 

And then we went on to learn about a ‘rebirth’ of sorts.  Rabbi Alex Dukhovny kept us on the edge of our seats as he enthusiastically explained how he went from being ashamed of being Jewish (even though his mother survived the Holocaust) to an engineer, to a Jewish tour guide, and ultimately to end up as the Chief Reform Rabbi of Ukraine (this is an old bio: http://ncsj.org/AuxPages/Dukhovnybio.shtml). He was truly inspired by the history of Reform Judaism in Europe, by his teachers, like Rabbi Ariel Stone the first (female) Reform Rabbi who came to the FSU, and of course, by fashion.  He eloquently explained how he fell in love with a Judaism that was “multi-colored,” like his tie.  Our visit with him was surprisingly the first time we focused on the map of Ukraine, as he explained to us about how the Progressive movement grew from 11 congregations to over 45 communities that run a youth group and hold summer camps.  He ended with a proud display of the newly minted Russian translation of the Plout Torah (with modern Reform commentaries). What a guy!

In response to Ira K.’s question about if I feel different as a Jew in Ukraine, the answer is Yes and No.  Speaking with Rabbi Dukhovny made me see a parallel enthusiasm for ‘multi-colored’ Judaism that I have. But on the other hand, I have no idea what life is like in a community where terrible massacres happened to my people minutes away.  It’s a hard question, and I appreciate thinking about it, but I think my answer is changing back and forth with each experience we have.
Next, we went back to Kiev Hillel and engaged in a session about Jewish Camping.  Now, you may think, who could they possibly get to lecture us about camping (6/7 attended or worked at Jewish overnight camp or day camp, and our professor studied it) ?! Exactly.  Instead, we had an incredibly productive exchange with other young adults who worked at or ran Jewish camps in Ukraine, including a Hillel camp, Progressive (Reform) camp, and a camp run by JAFI (Jewish Agency for Israel).  We talked about our ‘best practices’ and I think gave each other great ideas.  Some things I came away with was how much time and serious effort the counselors (madrichim) put in for theme-focused educational programming, and also, how short camps (8-10 days long) can allow for staff to have their own experiences, like at a Hillel camp.

We ended the evening at the Kiev Moishe House, run by 4 girls who (shout out to Dima!) sounded very enthusiastic about the community they were building.  We had great food and interesting conversation about the Young Adult community in Kiev and how they attract others.

HOWEVER, the night didn’t end there.  By 12:00am, as the first day of my 26th year began, I found myself on an 8-hr train from Kiev to Dnepropetrovsk sleeping in what we described as a 2x2 (shout out to Carol Carlson).  Yes, that’s right, we crammed 4 people into a space that is really the size of a bathroom- 2 beds on top, 2 on bottom.  Let’s just say rocking ourselves to sleep wasn’t so easy.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

“Even a Small Community Should be Heard” 
Stated by: Josef Zissels, Founder and Chairman of VAAD

Written just for you by Mary Horrocks, edited by Jenny Kirsch

First thing in the morning, we had the had the opportunity to meet with the head of the VAAD-Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of the Ukraine, Josef Zissels. VADD was founded in 1980s to restore traditional Jewish life and culture. Josef was born and raised in Kiev and was able to speak not only about his professional role organizing the contemporary Jewish community in the Ukraine, but also about his personal past living as a Jew under the Soviet regime.

We also spoke with Katya from the Kyiv Mohyla Academy and learned about Jewish Studies at the university level in the Ukraine. We heard about a Judaic Studies certificate program at the University which combines Jewish history of Ukraine/Europe in the Middle Ages, Yiddish language, text study, Jewish art of Eastern Europe, and classical Jewish text. We were interested to learn that the majority of students who participate in this program do not identify as Jewish. While studying at the certificate program, they are also completing their main undergraduate degrees in a variety of fields such as economics, philosophy, and mathematics. For many of them, it appears that Jewish Studies is an intellectual side interest instead of a personal or professional aspiration.

We also learned about the Lo Tishkakh program here in the Ukraine, where they are attempting to create a database of Jewish cemeteries and mass killing sites, as well as preserving Jewish cemeteries throughout the Ukraine. It's estimated that there are over 3000 Jewish cemeteries throughout this country, of various sizes and various states of (dis)repair. In one particular area that they are currently working, there are over 220 cemeteries.

Yana Drozdovski question pertained to the current relationship between Ukraine and Israel. Josef (from VAAD) said that while  the Ukraine was once in romantic love/infatuation with Israel after the fall of the Soviet Union, the honeymoon period has faded and the community and communal structures have had to adapt to this shift. Not every political decision Israel makes now is automatically seen to be in the best interest of the Jewish community in the Ukraine, and furthermore, the Ukrainian Jewish community is growing to encompass and increasing number of Ukrainian Jews returning from Israel after making aliyah. It is estimated that up to 10% of the population in the upcoming few years will consist of those that have returned to Europe, but now hold Israeli passports.

That evening, some of us went to a ballet performance of Anna Karenina at the Kiev Opera House. We were able to rent opera glasses which was great to see the amazing choreography, and for spying on those in the richer gallery seats. Others in our group went to a large underground mall and food court for some exploring. A nice older gentleman helped them order delicious pancakes, and they managed to independently return to the hotel without getting lost!

Well, that's another (belated) missive from the Ukraine. The weather continues to hold up and we have not lost any digits to frost bite. Though we do all look like eskimos in the photos. I hope you're looking forward to the slideshow.

Monday, February 20, 2012

“The Windows Opened and the Wind Gushed In”
Osik Akselrud
Written by: Julia Smirnova
Edited by: Sami Stein
The seven Hornstein students (Matthew Feinberg, Hannah Gutterman, Mary Horrocks, Jenny Kirsch, Monica Pevzner,  Sami Stein and myself), Amy Sales, Rise Singer and Victor Vitkin were all bundled up, definitely prepared for colder weather, as they we were greeted by Dasha Privalko, our guide, at the Kiev airport.  FYI, it is not as crazy cold as everyone thinks!
Our day started with a visit to the Brodsy synagogue to have lunch, our first meal together in Ukraine.  It was complete with assorted picked vegetables, curry rice salad and baked potatoes with salmon; followed, of course, by hot tea/coffee and dessert.  We ate at the King David Soup Kitchen which is in the basement of the synagogue.  Now I imagine you’re all picturing a rugged little cafeteria with a line of food for poor senior citizens to pick from.  This however, is no ordinary soup kitchen.  At times it operates as a kosher cafĂ© and during certain hours of the day it is open for senior citizens to come for a hot homemade lunch.  The dining hall sits 40.  It had two beautiful chandeliers that are impossible to miss.  There is a hostess and waiters.  It is clean and cozy and each dish was served with a ding from the kitchen.
It was surreal to walk around the synagogue, which is over 100 years old.  Over the decades since it was built, it was occupied by various community groups as a place to gather, used as a potato storage unit and most notably for many years it operated as a puppet theater house.  It is a beautiful building and it is nice that it now serves its original purpose as a gathering house for the Jews in Kiev.
In the evening we had the pleasure of meeting Osik Akselrud the Director of Hillel CASE.  He is also the executive director of United Jewish Communities in Ukraine and sit as Chairman of the various Limmud conferences in FSU.  He says that wearing these various hats in the Jewish communal world of Ukraine has been an organic development since many of the Hillel members are groomed in Hillel to continue to play an active role in Jewish life in Ukraine.  Osik shared wonderful stories about his journey and growth in the Jewish life in Hillel.  He started Hillel from scratch with several enthusiastic students (including Dasha our guide) and has grown it exponentially.  When he first started the job, his focus was primarily on developing the adequate Jewish programming to introduce Jewish education and culture to Jewish students.  Most of these students had no prior knowledge or experience in Jewish rituals (i.e. holiday celebrations and Jewish texts).  Over the years his job responsibilities have evolved to focus on the long-term future and financial stability of the FSU Hillel organization.  He is extremely charismatic and is described as a father figure to the young Jewish community in Ukraine.  He is warm, welcoming, and encouraging.
Osik was joined by Sasha Oleinikova the regional coordinator, Rita the program coordinator of Kiev Hillel and Hillel activist Ilya.  This is a wonderful opportunity to address Melissa Goraj’s question about how the new generation of Jewish students (born after 1991) expresses their Jewish identity in contrast to the group of young adults that are now ages 25-35.  Well Melissa, what I have learned is that the student culture has evolved from one which used to be the recipient of Jewish programming in Hillel to an activist culture in which students feel the urge to pass on their knowledge to the incoming class.   Students are encouraged to have an entrepreneurial spirit and Hillel is an outlet for their innovations.  Find out more here (http://www.hillel-case.org/projectseng.html#3).  The Hillel staff foresees that students will continue to do Jewish even after they have aged out of Hillel.
Our evening concluded with an activity in Hillel.  We learned and sang a nigun.  It was a calm and meditating way to end our first day in Ukraine.