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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.

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