Special Moments in Kharkov

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.


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November 3, 2012 at 2:25 PM




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