When West Meets East: A Powerful Trip to St. Petersburg
Written by: Gary Fayman (alumni of Inside Jewish St. Petersburg in partnership with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles)
It’s almost 9pm. Fatigue consumes me. The plane is quiet, and almost everyone is asleep. As I get up to stretch, I look out the window. The breathtaking sunset glistens over the light blue ocean below. Looking toward the approaching skyline, it suddenly hits me: I’m clearly on the other side of the world. I sit down, amazed and excited. A minute later, the flight attendants announce we’re about to land. It now all felt real: We were about to land in St. Petersburg.
Landing in Russia was a huge “fish out of water experience” trying to navigate the daunting language barrier as I passed through immigration. Once I passed through customs and retrieved my luggage, however, the tension was gone. I joined the group as we met our tour guide and waited for the bus, all of us very aware that we were about to embark on an adventure of a lifetime. I, for one, was not disappointed.
Over the next week, we learned, we engaged, we felt, and we celebrated. The experience was the perfect combination of sightseeing and service work. From the Hermitage Museum and Peterhof Palace to riverboat tours and the endless sunlight of summer nights, I was deeply impacted. Experiencing Russian culture was spectacular. The locals were kind and it felt good to practice my limited Russian. While the tourist portion of the trip couldn’t have been more incredible, it wasn’t the only reason I came.
I frequently think back to the partner sites we visited and activities we participated in, witnessing the impact of JDC with the partnership of my home community, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. We gardened in the rain to create a beautiful and better tomorrow for children, we participated in a Lehava (a young adult leadership development platform) member’s project, and traveled through a pitch-black tunnel to experience life as a blind person. However, the most meaningful part of the trip occurred when I met Irina.
When I heard that the Russian government only provided $200 per month for homebound elderly, I was stunned. How could someone survive on so little? These are people who need food, medication, medical attention, and sometimes around-the-clock care. Frankly, this was horrifying. I’m so thankful that our assignment prior to heading to Irina’s home was to stop at a local supermarket and shop for her. We were given a list with her requests, and we had fun picking out cheeses, yogurts, and vegetables, all while trying to decipher the Russian labels. Irina’s apartment was a short walk away. We arrived at a dilapidated building with an overwhelming odor in one of the poorer neighborhoods of St. Petersburg. After emerging from the elevator, the apartment door opened, and we were greeted by the friendliest, most charming woman I’ve ever met.
We shuffled through Irina’s tiny apartment and sat in her living room as she told us her story. Irina was a former English teacher and spoke the language quite well. Her parents had recently died, and she returned to Russia from Hungary to take care of them. Recently, Irina suffered a fall that left her homebound and practically immobile. Even walking from one end of her small apartment to the other was painful. At only 64 years old, Irina was limited, stuck, and depressed. Her only child, a son, lived in Hungary. She hadn’t seen him in a few years and though she couldn’t afford to visit him, they talk daily and remain quite close. When we presented Irina with the food we purchased, she was so humbled. Our hearts were heavy, but Irina told us not to be sad. After taking a group photo, I told Irina that we would stay in touch. She made me promise to do so, and she also made me promise to keep up with my Russian studies as I spoke it relatively well. I smiled, hugged her, and then followed my group downstairs.
The rest of the trip was truly incredible. On the final night, most of the group stayed awake, bonding over the shared experience before catching our 6:00AM flight back to the US. An international flight gives you a lot of time to process your thoughts, and I remember wishing the trip hadn’t ended. I was jealous of some of my new friends who either extended their stays or embarked on their own adventures throughout Europe. As we landed at LAX, I couldn’t help but feel that I had to go back. There was more to see, do, and learn. I now had two local friends in St. Petersburg that I could hang out with whenever I came back. I knew that this was not the end.
Six months later, I still remember this trip fondly. I gave up a lot to go. Yet, it was all worth it. As I write this, the impact this trip had is almost indescribable. It’s as if it was meant to be. My friends and colleagues have been asking me for months to host a gathering to talk about my experiences. My work has only just begun. Now, it’s your turn to embark on a journey of your own. See the world and explore new cultures. Remember that every action you take has an impact on others and that every person has a story to tell. To paraphrase television producer Norman Lear, even this YOU get to experience.