My First Week in St. Petersburg!

Touchdown St. Petersburg -- my new home for the next six weeks!

It’s hard to believe that I’m finally in the field but I couldn’t be more excited to begin my journey in Russia!

I find it amazing coming from sunny southern California, the fact that St. Petersburg at this time of the year gets on average 7 hours of sunlight a day! The sun rises at 10:00am and sets at 5:00pm.

Monastery near my hotel

World Famous Mariinsky Theatre [opened in 1860]

On my first day, I was joined by Lisa Dorfman, JDC-St. Petersburg missions coordinator (and my wonderful gatekeeper to this beautiful city) who met me at my hotel to teach me how to get to the nearest subway stop.

Our first stop was the local JCC called YESOD. They had an entire day devoted to volunteerism and I was asked to speak.

I was assigned an hour-long session and was pleasantly surprised at the turnout of attendees.

I presented on JDC-Ethiopia and my personal experience working in East Africa for thirteen months. At the end of my talk there were many thought provoking questions: What has this experience done to me and for me? How has my experience affected my outlook on life? How has it affected me? What will I be doing in the future? How can they get involved?

Volunteer Fair at YESOD in St. Petersburg (42 organizations showed up, only 1 Jewish)

Entrance to YESOD

I shared my dream of building a hospital for $10 million and a woman came up at the end asking for a bank account to transfer some money to the fund. I was taken aback that my story could have such an impact.

Numerous people waited to speak with me after my session to ask if they can volunteer and how they can get involved. The crowd's reaction was very motivating; I’m looking forward to sharing my experiences with more people around the world as this year progresses.

The following is a link to an article one of the participants wrote about the fair and if you scroll down there is a short piece on my talk. naydetsya-vsegda/

Here’s the translation thanks to another incredible JDC staffer here, Dasha!

 “'At the volunteer fair there were a lot lectures and one of them was from Shaun Goldstone, from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee - the largest international Jewish humanitarian organization. He was a young man, spoke about volunteering in extreme locations such as Haiti after the earthquake and Ethiopia after suffering from famine and dealing with such poverty. Shaun graduated from university with a degree in molecular biology and helped [a doctor] treat Ethiopian children suffering from tuberculosis and other spine diseases, build water wells and schools [in the countryside] and to make life in the country better in general. These volunteer experiences changed his life extremely. Shaun says with a smile: "I have a dream to raise $10 million and build a hospital and treat children locally, at this point I'm at $10,000 but I will not give up."'

After YESOD, Lisa and I had the pleasure of visiting Tatiana Shirbakova. She’s 80 years old and lived through the holocaust. She has no living family and is all alone in a small apartment that once belonged to her grandparents but is now shared with other local Russians. Tatiana worked for the Library of the Russian Academy of Sciences for 30 years in the department of rare books and manuscripts. Twice a month she gets picked up to attend a JDC sponsored welfare program -- she said it’s one of her favorite things she does. I plan on attending one of the sessions with her before I leave.

Tatiana Shirbakova

Our next stop was the Grand Choral Synagogue (the second largest synagogue in Europe) where we listened to Klezmer music. It was majestic!

Grand Choral Synagogue (consecrated in 1893)

Monday started out with me giving a talk to ten regional Hesed directors about my experience in Ethiopia and on the importance of volunteering. Heseds are JDC's local support centers for elderly and at-risk individuals throughout the former Soviet Union.

Lisa posed the following question to me: "In America, volunteering is as natural as breathing. How do we ‘plant’ volunteering in the places where this idea has been unknown so far or somehow marred over the course of time."

At first I was surprised at the fact that in Russia, volunteering is not part of the culture and society -- it’s a relatively new concept. After discussing this with the regional directors, I was exposed to the broader mission of how they plan to incorporate future volunteers as they can become huge assets in the field.

Additionally, I met with numerous other organizations in order to understand  how the Jewish community looks in this part of the world. One organization is called Adain Lo, which was started locally. It runs a network of Jewish kindergartens, Sunday schools, summer camps and other educational, social and volunteer programs.

Last Friday, I was given the opportunity to speak at JDC’s local office about my experiences with the organization. I thoroughly enjoyed spending the day exchanging personal stories with numerous staff about Ethiopia, Haiti, New York, and of course hearing about St. Petersburg and the FSU from their points of view. It is remarkable witnessing JDC’s work here up-close and meeting the incredible people responsible for carrying out its mission. As numerous people told me before I arrived - Duby, the local country director has already been both a wonderful mentor and valuable resource and has truly taken me under his wing.

From a cultural point of view, I've already seen the opera La Traviata, gone to an art exhibition of a local Jewish painter from the 19th century, been to the astonishing Hermitage and St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and last week I booked my ticket to see Tchaikovsky's ballet called The Sleeping Beauty.

It’s such a privilege and honor to be here.

This was only my first week...I’m so thrilled and excited for what lies ahead!

A few more photos below!

The Hermitage (established in 1764) - houses the largest collection of paintings in the world! 

Inside the Hermitage

The Church on Spilled Blood

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