“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.