Ezra Moses

Shavuot: Georgian Style

Posted: June 17, 2014

The Young Jewish Club (YJC) of Tbilisi, Georgia celebrated the holiday of Shavuot. Shavuot is the holiday where Jews rejoice in the receiving of the Torah from Mount Sinai by studying Jewish texts and rituals, and commemorate the beginning of the harvest season in late spring. YJC was able to celebrate both aspects by going camping in the Bojormi National Park and studying ancient Jewish texts there.

We arrived on Friday for a shabbaton with the theme of Shavuot. The first thing we did after our arrival was set up camp, which was interrupted by heavy rains. Finding good wood for a fire after the rain was difficult as most was soaked and not usable to start a fire. Finally, the campsite was ready and we were able to start preparing for Shabbat.

Although most of the time spent at the campsite it rained, and at one point even hailed, the group of participants never let their smiles down. We went on a few hikes through the park and explored some of the sensational landscapes Georgia has to offer.

We came back to the campsite for bonfires, singing Hebrew and Jewish as well as regular campfire songs. The group played many games and prepared food over the campfire, and had a study session on the Ten Commandments, and Havdallah.

Before we left the Bojormi National Park we went on one last hike to the top of a mountain and got a beautiful view of the park. All the participants had a wonderful time and cannot wait until the next camping trip.

 

 

Tbilisi Youth Celebrate Lag Ba’Omer

Posted: May 19, 2014

On May 18, 2014, the Young Jewish Club of Tbilisi went to a campsite near the city to celebrate Lag Ba’Omer. Lag Ba’Omer is the 33rd day between Passover and Shavuot, as a explained by one of the group’s leaders, and signifies the day that many of Rabbi Akiva’s students stopped dying of an illness during the time of war between the Jews and the Romans. During those 33 days it is traditional to mourn, as told, and one of those ways is not to be festive.

As a contrast though, on Lag Ba’Omer we are supposed to be happy so we dance, listen to music, play games, eat lots of food and have large bonfires. Participants from our group did just this by leading song sessions, teaching new games that simulated a battle between the Jews and the Romans, played a few rounds of capture the flag, and had a large bonfire similar to those in Israel today.

At the end of the day we went on a short hike. Only the group leader knew exactly where we were going but when we arrived we saw some the most magnificent landscapes in the country with only nature all around. There the group took many pictures, and said the blessing for seeing a beautiful sight.

 

 

Welcome to Lugansk, Ukraine

Posted: January 9, 2014

The following text was written by Vadim Yarylchenko and translated from its original Russian by Ezra Moses 

The Jewish community of Lugansk, Ukraine, has many partcipants between the ages of 12-16. “Hesed Ner,” the community center, has a teen club for them. Every Sunday we have programs for them between 2-5:00 pm, as well, we gather to celebrate Shabbat and all the Jewish holidays.

We have over 40 participants in our teen club, which is managed by Natalie Sitnikova, who invests a lot of time in developing strong Jewish programming for this age group. Our focus has been developing teen leadership and the values of volunteerism and community involvement, which has helped us win grants to further our development as a group. Our successes have been incredible as our teenagers have become ever more active and conscientious of the entire Jewish community in Lugansk. They are now much more interested in the development not just of the teen club but of the community as a whole. The significance is massive as the members are coming to plan the programs of the club, the major events, how we celebrate holidays, and the planning of seminars.

We want to note two programs that the teenagers have not just been involved in but have taken the leading roles in since last year called “EcoTorah” and “Active.”

In the project “EcoTorah” participants discover for themselves the world, how they can protect the world, study Jewish texts on this subject, and, of course, volunteer programming. The participants went on three seminars with tents and a four-night camp, in which 60 people from all of Lugansk joined them to learn about Judaism and Ecology.

Our other project “Active” was run by our Madrichim (leaders) and motivated members in the community. The result was a lot of strong volunteer based programs. At the end of the project our volunteer leaders ran a seminar for teenagers from Lugansk in a nearby town. At the seminar of 50 people, they shared their experiences and exchanged ideas for future development. The seminar was full of leadership based activities and programs on Jewish culture and traditions.

Check out our video slideshow from EcoTorah at this link http://vimeo.com/59568011

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This year, we are trying to connect Jewish teen clubs throughout Ukraine to each other through seminars and retreats and to BBYO international. Every week, I will be showcasing a different community and their teen club. Help us strengthen the Jewish world by connecting Jewish teens to one another. Learn more by clicking on the following link.

http://www.jdcentwine.org/cause/762

 

 

 

A Special Weekend

Posted: December 26, 2013

For me a good work week includes overseeing and advising the continued development of Jewish teen programs in Ukraine. But to see three of those programs in action; that is incredible. And to be able to show off our successes to the presidents of International BBYO, Michaela Brown and Mika Stein; that is special.

We started off the weekend in Kharkov. The presidents planned a short program for teenagers for Shabbat while the teenagers from Kharkov planned icebreakers and led kabbalat Shabbat. It was a great cultural exchange between the two groups and it made the teens in Kharkov feel closer to the teens of BBYO and the global Jewish community.

Next stop: Poltava. Immediately after Shabbat ended, we jumped onto a bus and arrived at Hesed Nefesh, which serves as the community center in Poltava. The presidents were welcomed with a Russian song called “Mayo Serdtze” – “My Heart.” The spirit felt during havdallah was palpable, as 20 Jews from around the world met in the small city of Poltava as a proud and united Jewish people. Here is the Instagram video of the song played to the BBYO presidents http://instagram.com/p/iO5IbPMVwr/

In the morning, we travelled from Poltava to Sumy to see the Sunday School, and different activities for children and teenagers. Then as we were in the synagogue the teenagers started breaking out into Israeli dances. When the teen program began and the presidents were able to present about BBYO and their experiences we all started to sing Hinei Ma Tov Uma Nayim Shevet Achim Gam Yachad – How Beautiful It Is As Brethren to Sit Together.

It really was a moment of pleasantness that must get replicated more and more often. As Lera, a 14 year-old from Sumy, stated so eloquently, “What you have in your hometowns, in the United States, as groups of Jewish teenagers, sounds really similar to what we have here in Sumy. It makes me proud to be a Jew.”

The physical distance between Jewish communities is of zero importance because wherever we are the song rings true: How beautiful it is for us to be together as the Jewish people.

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This year, we are trying to connect Jewish teen clubs, like those in Kharkov, Poltava, and Sumy, throughout Ukraine to each other through seminars and retreats and to BBYO international. Every week, I will be showcasing a different community and their teen club. Help us strengthen the Jewish world by connecting Jewish teens to one another. Learn more by clicking on the following link.

http://www.jdcentwine.org/cause/762

 

 

 

Not Just Odessa Mamas but Odessa Teenagers

Posted: December 19, 2013

One of the things I love about my work is getting to sit down with new people and hearing their Jewish stories and connections to the Jewish world and their communities. This week I got to sit down with a 16 year-old from Odessa named Amalia. Amalia is from Odessa, Ukraine who speaks perfect English and will be joining me and a few other teenagers from Ukraine at BBYO’s International Convention in Dallas, Texas in February.

I met Amalia on Sunday, at Beit Grand, the JCC in Odessa for a program led by a few participants of Metsuda (a Ukraine-wide young adult leadership program). The program was for the active teenagers at Beit Grand and was based on how people spend their time. Each of the 17 participants estimated how many hours they spend doing different activities per week (school, sleep, hanging out with friends, on the computer, etc.) and the average total of hours was almost twice that of amount of hours actually in a week. We discussed how it is possible for us to use our time so that we can maximize our life priorities.

I returned to Beit Grand on Tuesday to meet with Amalia to discuss going to International Convention. I walked into the youth room and it was full of teenagers playing board games with one another. I was stupefied. Most of these teenagers were just here two days before for another program and here they are again.

Amalia explained that on Sundays the teenagers come for a discussion program, on Tuesdays they come back for board games night and on Fridays they come for Shabbat. Upwards of 20 teenagers are meeting at Beit Grand three times a week for teen based programs. Ask any Jewish youth group leaders of any Jewish organization in North America, I think they would agree that this is one of the most successful teen programs.

 They have teen madrichim that plan a good portion of the programs and the one local Shabbaton per year. Beit Grand is not just a meeting place for them but also a Jewish home for them.

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This year, we are trying to connect Jewish teen clubs, like the one in Odessa, throughout Ukraine to each other through seminars and retreats and to BBYO international. Every week, I will be showcasing a different community and their teen club. Help us strengthen the Jewish world by connecting Jewish teens to one another. Learn more by clicking on the following link.

http://www.jdcentwine.org/cause/762

 

 

 

 

Kirovograd's First

Posted: December 12, 2013

The following was written by Elizaveta Bulgacheva and translated by Ezra Moses

On November 29, 2013, at Kirovograd’s Hesed Community Center there was a celebration for Chanukkah. The organizers of this program were from our brand new teen club and this was their first program.

The program was called “Jewish Family Restaurant” which was attended by the elderly poor in the community: grandmothers and grandfathers of 65 years and older. Before the program we ordered the food for a meal and sufganiot, all of which we prepared nicely with drinks for our fellow Jews. Then we organized the room and tables, and on every table we put a chanukiah.

We played music for the audience from the 1960s to the 1980s as well as special Chanukkah music which everyone enjoyed.

Every table had their own waiters, a teenager, that helped get everything the clients wanted. Each client was free to choose from our menu what food they would like and ordered it through their waiter. The orders were then taken to the kitchen where the food was prepared by others teenage volunteers.

Besides the delicious food, the teen club prepared the entire program including the music, Chanukkah sing-a-long, and the prizes that all the clients got at the end of the program.

At the beginning of the evening program we brought in Chanukkah with the lighting of the candles together. Afterwards, we had a 9 year-old from the community sing a song about the holiday. As the night continued, one of the guests told a story about Moses and started singing songs in Yiddish.

 The most unexpected thing was that the guests also prepared something for the end of the program. They brought all of the volunteers Chanukkah gelt.

As the participants were leaving the doors a few said some really moving words:

“The program was very original and unique. Unlike normal, you thought of a whole menu. Please invite us for future events and holidays.”

“Thank you so much! We had an amazing evening. The teenagers were so smart and cute. We really hope that this will not be the last holiday we spend together!”

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This year, we are trying to connect Jewish teen clubs, like the one in Kirovograd, throughout Ukraine to each other through seminars and retreats and to BBYO international. Every week, I will be showcasing a different community and their teen club. Help us strengthen the Jewish world by connecting Jewish teens to one another. Learn more by clicking on the following link.

http://www.jdcentwine.org/cause/762

 

 

Why It All Matters

Posted: December 6, 2013

This week significant changes have happened in Ukraine's Jewish communities. They might not be seen by the entire community but the impact will be lasting and strenghen the future of Ukrainian Jewry. And where has it all begun? With teenagers and their motivation to transform their Jewish communities.

Let's start with Sumy, Ukraine: Their teenage madrichim (leaders) planned a community Hanukkah event called “Hanukkah Casino.” The teenagers ran stations for different Jewish board games, dreidl competitions, Hanukkah memory games, a counter to buy tickets, and a counter to exchange tickets for prizes. The program was attended by 50 community members of all ages, but run by the teenagers.

In Kharkov, the teenage madrichim took a large step towards the ultimate goal of programs being completely thought up and run by themselves. While talking about this week’s program the madrichim took the lead completely. They thought up the idea of the program (a scavenger hunt throughout the JCC) and starting planning each station. In fact, they planned the entire program themselves with minimal alterations made due to logistics. We cannot wait to see how it will go!

(Picture from last week's Hannukah program - making decorations for the entire Jewish Youth Club Association)

Our newest addition of teen madrichim came this week out of Dnepropetrovsk, a city with the largest Jewish business center in the world. Constantine Kanivets, the youth director of the JCC, had three teenagers that wanted to start a teen club, and this week they had their first meeting to plan and talk about its future. They have their first event later this month and they could not be more excited to invite all their friends to see what is going on.

But why does all this matter?

When the teenager in Sumy gets to plan a program that is attended by the entire community they are no longer participants. They are leaders, their connections to the community becomes stronger, and we ignite a flame within them that they will always want to improve the community. It becomes their community.

I video-conferenced into the meeting with the Dnepropetrovsk madrichim with the madrichim from Kharkov. The most important part was that these teenagers got to see and learn from each other about the values of communal involvement. They got to see that they are not the only ones delving into Jewish life. When the leaders of both teen clubs lit the Hanukkah candles together over Skype – we got a small glimpse of what the future of a unified Jewish Ukraine and Jewish world will look like.

That is why it matters.

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This year, we are trying to connect Jewish teen clubs throughout Ukraine to each other through seminars and retreats and to BBYO international. Every week, I will be showcasing a different community and their teen club. Help us strengthen the Jewish world by connecting Jewish teens to one another. Learn more by clicking on the following link.

http://www.jdcentwine.org/cause/762

 

 

Starting a Trend

Posted: December 1, 2013

Arik Einstein Z’L an influential Israeli musician passed away suddenly last week. I remember at a young age while studying at Solomon Schechter Academy, in Montreal, a song he wrote about idealism and working together entitled “Ani V-Ata” ­– You and I: “Together, we can change the world / together, others will follow / others have said this before me / it does not matter, together, we can change the world.|

Two weeks ago, I travelled to Poltava, Ukraine, to speak at a seminar for Ukrainian youth directors about teen programs, how to empower teenagers to take on initiatives and local programs, and about a partnership with BBYO. I was invited to speak by Alla Magas, the youth director at Beit Dan, Kharkov’s JCC. Alla and I have been working tirelessly to help develop teen clubs throughout Ukraine.

I am always impressed by the devotion of staff members in Jewish communities. People that work for non-profits are known for working long hours and are devoted past their remuneration. These youth directors, from large and small cities throughout Ukraine, heard the call about forming strong teen programs in their communities. Those communities that did not have teen programs declared that they would now start them. Those communities that did have teen programs announced that it was time to empower their teenagers to become teen leaders.

The best example, occurred the next day. The youth director from Sumy, a city of approximately 300,000 people, organized their first Teen Shabbat event. With only one day of planning, they put together a small but significant program.

By Sunday, they already had their first teen madrichim (leaders) meeting.

Alla and I might be the faces in Ukraine but JDC and its partner BBYO are leading together to change the world. And yes, like Einstein famously sang, together, with us, others are following.  

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This year, we are trying to connect Jewish teenagers, like those in Sumy, in Ukraine to each other through seminars and retreats and to BBYO international. Every week, I will be showcasing a different community and their teen club. Help us strengthen the Jewish world by connecting Jewish teens to one another. Learn more by clicking on the following link.

 

 

Kharkov's Teen Club Videos

Posted: November 20, 2013

At the beginning of November Kharkov's Jewish teenagers took part in a BBYO program called Global Shabbat. They videotaped some of their favorite moments of the program.

Two of our incredible teen madrichim (leaders) Stanislav and Violetta then put together this wonderful video montage of the past three years of teen activities at Beit Dan, Kharkov, Ukraine's Jewish Cultural Center.

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This year, we are trying to connect Jewish teenagers, like those in Kharkov, in Ukraine to each other through seminars and retreats and to BBYO international. Every week, I will be showcasing a different community and their teen club. Help us strengthen the Jewish world by connecting Jewish teens to one another. Learn more by clicking on the following link.

http://www.jdcentwine.org/cause/762


 

 

A Dream of Teen Shabbatons

Posted: November 14, 2013

Ella attended a family shabbaton two weeks with the Jewish community from Poltava. Ella goes to many programs in her community ranging from teen programs, Sunday school, and Shabbat activities that are funded by both the local Hesed and the Progressive Jewish congregation Beth Am Poltava.

Ella is also a fantastic basketball player. She arrived at the shabbaton late because her basketball team beat the second best team in Ukraine for her age. Actually she beat the second best team. The final score was 60-30, and she had 40 points.

The shabbaton was a wonderful weekend where we celebrated b’nei mitzvah of two teenagers, Alexei and Anna, concurrently with a teenager in the twin Reform congregation Beth Am in Palo Alto, California. The theme of the weekend was Chanukah and how we can bring Chanukah back home.

We had many programs just as teenagers that were based on Chanukah including a dreidl competition, an acted out version of the story of Chanukah, and a discussion on what the real meaning of Chanukah was. The amount of knowledge and understanding that Ella had about the holiday was surprising, as Poltava does not have a Jewish day school or many Jewish organizations but her understanding, and many others, of the holiday was no less than Jews anywhere else in the world.

In our last group session, Ella made an announcement. She loved the weekend, but she would have loved it more, if it was just teenagers. And then she continued, “Let’s have shabbatons only for teenagers, with Kharkov, and Kiev, and Odessa, and Dnepropetrovsk, and every other city in Ukraine.”

Let’s make Ella’s dream a reality.

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This year, we are trying to connect Jewish teenagers, like Ella, in Ukraine to each other through seminars and retreats and to BBYO international. Every week, I will be showcasing a different community and their teen club. Help us strengthen the Jewish world by connecting Jewish teens to one another. Learn more by clicking on the following link.

http://www.jdcentwine.org/cause/762

 

 

 

Kharkov's Milestone

Posted: November 7, 2013

This week the teen club at Beit Dan, Kharkov’s JCC, had a milestone, one that we hope to see more of throughout Ukraine. Organized by two volunteer leaders of the Jewish Youth Association we initiated our first teen board, or as we call them teen madrichim.

What is a madrich? From the Hebrew root derekh which means direction, a madrich is a leader that shows the way. And that is just what these four teen leaders want to do.

Over the past two years, as the teen club has been built and developed in Kharkov, teenagers have engaged and been inspired by Jewish traditions, culture, and community. When asked why they now want to be leaders, their answers were simple: “we love community, and we want to add to it,” “we want to learn to create and develop programs too,” and “we’ve seen other leaders, and have been inspired, now we want to inspire.”

This process of empowering teenagers is a test for everyone involved. For the teenagers it is a test to see how much they are willing to be initiators rather than observers. For the volunteer leaders they will be learning how to pass on the knowledge that they have accumulated over the years to the next generaion. And for the community, as a whole, it is an experiment of training leaders in their adolescent years to think about major issues.

Before the meeting ended, I mentioned a small project that I wanted to do. Simple – make a video of the four teen leaders saying Shabbat Shalom to our partner organization, BBYO. Their answer was less simple, “Why just the four of us?” They wanted this Friday’s program to be the entire club making a 3 minute video, about who we are and what we do, and share it with BBYO.

I think we are already passing the test.

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This year, we are trying to connect Jewish teenagers, like those in Kharkov, in Ukraine to each other through seminars and retreats and to BBYO international. Every week, I will be showcasing a different community and their teen club. Help us strengthen the Jewish world by connecting Jewish teens to one another. Learn more by clicking on the following link.

http://www.jdcentwine.org/cause/762


 

 

Ukrainian Teen Programs: Odessa

Posted: October 31, 2013

By Alisa, 14, of Odessa - translated by Hannah Miranda Miller

Last week, I attended a shabbaton hosted by Odessa’s JCC, Beit Grand for teenagers in Derekh – the youth club. The shabbaton’s theme, loosely based on Harry Potter, “the magic of knowledge” was held at a hotel, appropriately named Snow Queen.

Everything was, indeed, magical. We were sorted into three Hogwarts styled houses, each one with a specific Jewish focus like history and culture. My house focused on Jewish traditions.

(Just like in Harry Potter, the sorting hat chose a group for each of us when we arrived at the Shabbaton and mine was "Grisherin", which focused on Jewish traditions)

The new information and the knowledge that came with it served us well in the magical games we played throughout the shabbaton.  Every new holiday or tradition our group learned had to be drawn on large posters which helped us learn the material. Most importantly, it was fun and interesting!

(This is me (on the far right) with members of my group explaining the rites of passage that a Jewish girl will go through in her lifetime-from naming ceremony to bat mitzvah to chuppah)

At times we were assigned secret missions via SMS to obtain extra points for our house. The funniest and strangest mission was to steal all the madrichim’s (staff members’) toothbrushes.  At the end of the shabbaton points were counted. Unfortunately, my house did not win – Jewish culture did, focusing on different Jewish artists, musicians and films.

(This is me learning about rules of modest dress according to traditional Judaism)

Of course we also celebrated Shabbat! Like a family, we gathered around a table – girls said the prayer over the candles and boys over wine and challah. The next night, we bid farewell to the Shabbat Queen over Havdallah.

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This year, we are trying to connect Jewish teenagers, like those in Odessa, in Ukraine to each other through seminars and retreats and to BBYO international. Every week, I will be showcasing a different community and their teen club. Help us strengthen the Jewish world by connecting Jewish teens to one another. Learn more by clicking on the following link.

http://www.jdcentwine.org/cause/762

 

 

 

Ukrainian Teen Programs: Poltava

Posted: October 25, 2013

Poltava is a beautiful city in Eastern Ukraine with a population of 350,000. There was a time when the Jewish population of Poltava was 40 percent of the city. Walking through Poltava, you feel that you are in a Jewish city. Many buildings look and feel like they are Jewish, and if you stare at it long enough, you will find hidden Stars of David or start recognizing them as synagogues.

Today, there are about 1500 Jews in the local Hesed’s (Jewish community center) database, and they believe there are at least 3000 Jews in the city, if not more.

Every week at the Hesed, they have Shabbat programming that attract a couple dozen young adults and teenagers. This week I got to know them more personally by spending the weekend in Poltava. We sang and danced during Kabalat Shabbat, had Shabbat dinner, and an Oneg Shabbat for the young adults afterwards.

I talked to a few of the teenagers, after Kabbalat Shabbat about activities that they like doing. One girl, named Anna, said that she loves playing basketball. A few of the other teenagers said that they too enjoy playing basketball. This is a novelty, at least for me. I find it hard to put together a pickup game of basketball, but in Poltava it was quite easy to organize. We agreed that on Sunday after Sunday School we would go play basketball. Another girl, named Ella, was by far the best on the court sinking nearly all her shots.

There are 18 Jewish teenagers in the database at the Hesed. Every week they have programs on Sundays that attract minimally 12 of the teenagers to the program. This week they did skits about the weekly Torah portion and had a full discussion amongst them on the importance of family.

These teenagers love the Jewish community. They spend their entire weekends at the community center, their summers’ at Jewish family summer camps, and the infrequent family shabbaton.

This year, we are trying to connect Jewish teenagers, like those in Poltava, in Ukraine to each other through seminars and retreats and to BBYO international. Every week, I will be showcasing a different community and their teen club. Help us strengthen the Jewish world by connecting Jewish teens to one another. Learn more by clicking on the following link.

http://www.jdcentwine.org/cause/762

 

 

Lag B'Omer in Kharkov, Ukraine (with horses!)

Posted: May 7, 2013

The local youth director and I were shocked when we got to the horse stable. There, in the back, we saw an Israeli flag.

The director of the stable is an Israeli that moved back to Kharkov.

In all, my participants had a great time relaxing, playing games, sports and, of course, horseback riding.

(I actually did not get onto a horse, I opted for a beer instead and there's no drinking and riding).

We were there the entire day. It was incredibly beautiful outside. Great way to spend Lag B'Omer.

 

 

Anna's Story

Posted: November 27, 2012

Walking into a room, at the Jewish Community Center (JCC), you would never know that Anna has changed so much in just four years. Right now, she is a leader in the Jewish community. Not only that, she is also a lay leader, something that is not the norm in the current structure of the city’s community. In the coming weeks she will be organizing different groups and being a hostess at an upcoming Shabbat dinner at the JCC. But it was not always like this for Anna.

Anna was a dancer growing up. She worked at night clubs and spent a few months in Turkey living what was a luxurious lifestyle. Every day, along with her colleagues and friends, she was served fancy foods, picked up by personal drivers, protected by bodyguards, and relaxed by the beach. She loved her life, and looks back on it fondly. She was beautiful and she lived from one moment to the next without much concerns.

One evening, at a night club in Kharkov, she caught the eye of Jenya. Jenya, whose grandfather was a rabbi with many cousins having made aliyah in the 1990s, fell in love with Anna. He began taking Anna to the JCC for Shabbat and different events. Anna was scared off in this new setting. “How come everyone is so nice? Why do they all hug and kiss me? I just met them.” It was an uncomfortable experience for her to say the least. One day, Jenya told her about Metsuda, a Jewish leadership program in Ukraine and the former Soviet Union (FSU) for young adults. The participants of the program have to create their own projects and try to attract Jews to different facets of the community. Jenya had already completed the program and was at the time a madrich – group leader.

Anna was jealous. She went home and told her mom about Metsuda. She finally asked her mom “Why can’t I be Jewish?”

Her mom’s response was “but you are.”

Anna was twenty-two years old when she found out her dad was Jewish. This is a common theme in the FSU. She called her grandmother to confirm this news. Her grandmother denied it. Another common theme in the FSU as people tried to hide this part of their identity for so long which leaves many finally admitting it on their death beds. Anna then called her great-aunt who said “of course we are.”

Anna graduated Metsuda two years ago. Last year, she was a madricha and has now helped form the board for post-Metsuda which is creating the framework for what Jewish life will be like for those that have completed the program. This is a volunteer position that Anna has fully embraced, as have others in Kiev, Odessa, Lviv and other cities throughout Ukraine. Where this program goes will influence the future of Jewish communities throughout the FSU.

Two years ago, Anna married Jenya and one day they will start a beautiful Jewish family. Jenya and Anna returned to the Metsuda seminar this week to watch two graduating participants enter the chuppah to start their own Jewish lives together too.

Anna is just one example of why the Joint Distribution Committee is here. The wedding at the Metsuda seminar is just a second. There are thousands of more examples of people rediscovering their Jewish identity. It is a wonderful time to be in Ukraine.

 

 

 

Special Moments in Kharkov

Posted: November 3, 2012

October 31, 2012

The little things matter. The big things can wait.

That is the sentiment I felt just the other day when asked by a student at the local Jewish day school, Sha’alavim, if I could teach him how to put on tefillin – the leather straps used during morning prayer services. Since my first visit to the school, I have joined the students for tfillot – prayers – every morning I have been there. On my first day, I put on my tefillin and quickly realized that I was the only person performing the ritual. But I felt that it was not the time for me to teach or to instruct students to abide by this commandment. Yet, within two weeks of becoming active within the school’s daily services a small action unintentionally influenced another person.

I will soon write about the larger programs and activities that I am involved in the Kharkov community, but right now it is moments like these where my role in enriching the lives of others inspires me.

Working at Sha’alavim I have the opportunity to teach both Hebrew and a class on traditions. Respect for teachers here is much more pronounced than any school I ever attended. When I, or any other teacher, walk into the class all the students rise as if I am the president of the United States. I find it exciting to teach these subjects which were neither taught nor studied in this country for so many years. This generation of students will be the first generation to have an opportunity to study the teachings of our great books and history, and it excites me to be part of this process.

Three days a week I volunteer in the Hesed program through the Jewish Community Center. Hesed is a program that ensures relief for all Jews that need assistance that the government may not be able to support. The Jewish community makes an effort to reach every household that is vulnerable. The task is large. It deals with the elderly that do not have the pensions that they were assured through the Soviet Union, families in abject poverty, and people with disabilities. I’ve gone on missions to households to see the work that is done and have seen the incredible graciousness and joie-de-vivre these people have even when affected by the harshest circumstances. Among them are incredibly impressive people like a young wheelchair-bound man who has learned English by himself through books. He speaks it flawlessly and is so excited just to share his newly-acquired skill. Another elderly woman, a child survivor of the Shoah, is still friends with her childhood teacher who hid her for the duration of the war.

This is all wonderful work, but my main task is working with three other groups. There are two groups with mental disabilities – one for young adults and another for children. The third group is with people with physical disabilities. With this group I’ve gone on an excursion that included horseback riding and a green house. My job is somewhat limited in these groups because of the language barrier but by no means is it stunted. I have made good relations with everyone that I’ve worked with. One girl in the children’s group and I played soccer together. I taught her how to kick the ball with the side of her foot and not the front. The whole time, she was smiling and laughing. As I said, the small things are what count.

I also spend a good portion of my time working with the youth and teen clubs at the JCC. The youth club has a longer institutional history and a great staff, and therefore it runs smoothly and has a large following. My role with the group is to be an informal Jewish educator. I give divrei torah – speeches on the weekly section of the torah – and talk more broadly with many of the participants about Jewish rituals and teachings. The teen club that was initiated last year with the previous fellow is about to have its first program. We’re attempting to have it for teenagers with programs made by teenagers. Our opening program is going to be a Beit Kafe – Coffee House – with creative writing and poetry readings. We are very excited to start these programs and add to the creative spirit of such an integral part of the community. As with everything else I do there is obviously a language barrier that can make my job as a community builder tougher, but I have been welcomed with such open hands and smiling faces by all members of the community even those that speak just as much English as I do Russian. We find activities, like a salsa class that I have joined, that are not talking intensive but nonetheless force us out of our comfort zones to try to communicate. I am entirely gracious for these acts of friendliness and openness.

As I said, it is the small things. I have been here for such a short time that it is only the small things that I have to count, but if it was only influencing people on that personal level then I think my year would be a success nonetheless.

 

 

 

What I've Learned About Eastern European Jewry After Two Weeks

Posted: October 16, 2012

October 11, 2012

Today, I went to the Holocaust museum in Kharkov, Ukraine. The Jewish population here, before the war, was about 150,000. Now, the highest estimate of people with a Jewish grandparent is 50,000. Jews were moved to a ghetto in 1941 but believed they were going to live. They brought with them everyday materials; cutlery, plates, prayer shawls but were eventually slaughtered at a ravine called Drobitsky Yar just within the city limits.

But this is not a story of the Shoah that I want to share. No, this is not even a story of death and dying or of a community that is no longer with us. This is a story about perseverance, life and living.

I’ve heard so often throughout my life about how after being at the brink of annihilation Jews have rebuilt themselves to become a new nation. We’ve created new institutions throughout the world, moved old ones, and re-found our essence in the establishment of the State of Israel. But many of us have forgotten about Jews who remain in Eastern Europe. More and more Jews every year go through the concentration camps, and visit the horrors of the Shoah. There are more trips to Eastern Europe through Jewish organizations then one could have fathomed just a short fifteen to twenty years ago. We take pictures of monuments that memorialize those Jews that perished. We enter synagogues that have not felt the presence of Jews since the Aktzia that gathered them together before they were burned, shot or sent to an extermination camp. Rarely do we ponder, are there Jews left in these places? What do they do? Do they live actively Jewish lives? Are they proud of their heritage?

I’ve only been here for two weeks but this is not the Ukraine or the Eastern Europe your bubbe and zaide remember. Jewish life exists here. In Kharkov, there are two Jewish Community Centers, an active synagogue, two Jewish day schools, a vibrant Hillel, Jewish youth clubs, an Israeli cultural center and much more. They are centered at reviving Jewish life, giving options for how to live Jewishly, offering assistance to the needy, and programming of all varieties to Jews of all ages. Jews are in business running some of the most successful restaurants and stores, in education working hard to ensure continued Jewish pride, and in politics like the mayor of Kharkov.

When studying Eastern European Jewry it is impossible to ignore the six brutally painful years of the Shoah, but we so often forget about how Jews lived in this region for hundreds of years, had good times, and had some not so good times. They celebrated the beginning of life, and each milestone they reached, and sadly mourned the deaths of loves ones too. Just like Jews lived here then, they are living here now. Next time you think about or travel to Eastern Europe do not only think of the Shoah, but think about and say hi to your cousins that are here and are actively proud Jews. 

 

 

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Ezra Moses
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