Shalom! Vitayu! Welcome!

May 18, 2011

Welcome to my journal about the recent JFNA Marketing Directors Mission to Israel (March 28-31) and Kiev, Ukraine (April 1-3).  It was my fifth mission to Israel and fourth to the Former Soviet Union. It was by far the most impactful trip I have ever been on in terms of the breadth of projects explored and the way they were presented.  Every site visit brought us face-to-face (and heart-to-heart) with beneficiaries, service providers and young pioneers in programs focused on rejuvenating the Zionistic spirit in Israel and rekindling Jewish life in the Ukraine.  Photographers and video cameramen were with us virtually every step of the way, documenting many of the stories.  

“Keeping the Promise” (Israel, March 28-31): 

Israel as a nation has gone from “surviving” to “thriving,” and our mission is clearly focused on making sure no one falls through the cracks of this dynamic, burgeoning society.  Our partner agencies are also working hard to seal some of the cracks – neglected areas across the country – by enlisting young pioneers to bolster communities where the most help is needed – a phenomenon called “New Zionism.”  In Israel, we made 16 site visits with a wide range of themes.  Here are some samples:

  • Social Welfare (Poverty, Unemployment, Children at Risk and Special Needs) – We met Or, a  troubled teen from Sderot, Israel, who has cooked up a new career at Cafe Yael thanks to the JDC’s Turning Point Program;
  • Education – We learned how an ORT Smart School just three miles from the Gaza border is teaching its students “not to hate” despite years of bombings (A few days later, a bus from that very school was blown up by a missile, critically injuring a 16-year-old student who later died);
  • Jewish Renewal – Our group walked the hills of a “sustainable” farm in Modi’in, where 40 young MASA participants are “cross-pollinating” their dreams of living off the land as “New Zionists,” cultivating friendships and discovering their Jewish identities;
  • Aliyah and Absorption – We welcomed 100 Ethiopian Olim to their promised land after traveling “2,000 Years in 4 Hours” from the deserts of Africa to modern Israeli society.

“Restoring Hope” (Kiev, Ukraine, April 1-3): 

The Jewish community in the Former Soviet Union is a fraction of what it once was, a result of wars and mass emigration over the past several decades.  The challenges of this small population are further complicated by a battered economy and ever-present anti-Semitism.  Our mission is two-fold:  1) delivering a wide range of welfare services to thousands of seniors, children-at-risk and their families through the Hesed system, and 2) providing numerous programs aimed at strengthening Jewish identity and providing exposure to Israel.  In Kiev, we made nine site visits with the following themes:

  • Social Welfare – We visited with Vlada, 12, and her brother, Yaroslav, 8, who live  in a hovel with their mother and grandmother in Zhitomer, Ukraine, yet are blossoming thanks to food programs, winter relief and cultural activities provided by the local Hesed Center;
  • Education – Our group spent time with students and teachers at the Kiev ORT Technology Lyceum, one of 56 schools in 48 countries to be chosen by Microsoft to join its small, exclusive international group of innovative Pathfinder Schools;
  • Israel Programs and Aliyah – We welcomed Shabbat with a dozen families at a JAFI retreat designed to counter their negative experiences about being Jewish with positive programming and exposure to exciting programs in Israel like Selah’h and MASA-Mir;
  • Jewish Renewal – We celebrated Havdallah with Hillel students in downtown Ukraine, reciting the Shabbat-ending prayers in six different languages and heard from a new generation of young adults that have found hope in Judaism and each other and want to remain in their homeland and build a future together.

Prior to the Israel leg of our mission, I had the opportunity to spend a day in our sister City Kiryat Bialik.   I visited bomb shelters that ourFederationfunded in the local schools and the city’s community center, met with local police who have utilized the van we donated during the Second Lebanon and spent time at the playground that was generously built by local donors.  I also had the honor of having lunch with the mayor, who shared his vision of growth for the city and our partnership.

All in all, the 2011 JFNA Marketing Directors Mission was a tremendous experience that helped the participants reconnect with our core mission of giving help and hope to thousands of Jews in Israel and our global family. I look forward to sharing these experiences in the weeks and months ahead.  I woulds also like to say “Todah Rabah” and “Spasiba” – that’s “Thank You” in Hebrew and Ukrainian – to the Federation leadership for giving the me the oppportunity to make this journey.  Here is an overview of the mission in chronological order:


ISRAEL DAY 1: MON, MAR 28, 2011 (3)

ISRAEL DAY 2: TUE, MAR 29, 2011 (5)

ISRAEL DAY 3: WED, MAR 30, 2011 (4)

ISRAEL DAY 4: THU, MAR 31, 2011 (4)

KIEV DAY 1: FRI, APR 1, 2011 (2)

KIEV DAY 2: SATURDAY, APR 2, 2011 (1)

KIEV DAY 3: SUNDAY, APR 3, 2011 (3)


Feature Story: Eyes Wide Open: JDC Helps Children at Risk Thrive in Most Challenging Conditions in FSU

April 3, 2011

Sometimes you see a flower in the desert and wonder: Who brought it here? How did this beautiful plant come to this place?  Yiddish Writer M. Rosenberg

ZHITOMER, UKRAINE, April 3, 2011, 1:30 p.m. – Their family tree is broken and their living conditions are as barren as winter branches, yet Vlada Odinetz, 12, and her brother, Yaroslav Velikiy, 8, are blossoming like desert flowers, thanks in great part from the Federation-funded JDC. 

Vlada’s father passed away in 2003 when she was four.  Her mother remarried and gave birth to Yaroslav, but the new father completely abandoned the family.  Due to the bad economy, their mother works “in the shade” (in a non-registered job) without insurance or a pension.  On top of that, their grandmother is out of work.  Her civil husband is an alcoholic who has caused constant conflicts in their home.  

Because of their financial troubles, the family was recently dispossessed from a government-owned flat for not paying their utilities and now lives in a dilapidated two-bedroom hovel with no utilities on the outskirts of Zhitomer, Ukraine.  To reach their home, one has to walk a broken cobblestone path strewn with chickens and wild dogs. 

Fortunately, a neighbor has tied up a much larger dog, but that doesn’t stop it from leaping against a poorly constructed fence toward the pathway to the home, where the three generations make their life – the grandmother in one tiny room; the mother and two children in a slightly larger one. 

Vlada and Yaroslav are two of more than 27,000 impoverished Jewish children and their families receiving critical assistance through JDC in the Former Soviet Union. Through a Jewish Family Services model, the children receive ongoing material help such as food, warm clothing and shoes.  They also participate in Jewish identity activities through the JDC’s Beiteinu program. 

“They are great kids,” said their grandma, 61-year-old Elena Krasnogolovetz, who takes care the home and children while their mother works. “They each have different skills.  Vlada is very creative.  They’re always busy.” 

That’s an understatement in Vlada’s case – there are many petals to this flower.  She loves school, reads a lot, plays piano, sings and publishes poems.  She spends time at the Hesed Day Center using the computer.  She wants to be an interior designer some day. 

“She is interested in everything,” said the proud grandma.   

Vlada has a big occasion coming up – her bat mitzvah – on May 15, 2011.  “It’s on Israel Independence Day!” she says proudly. 

Yaroslav is all boy.   He loves playing with his pet cat at home and visits the local Hesed for kids’ activities.  He is a good student with a good heart, said his grandma.  During the recent Purim holiday, he made some wood carvings and gave them to local elderly clients at the day center. 

“Their eyes are wide open to the whole world,” said Elena. 

May they continue to grow and blossom for the world to see as well.

Feature Story (Special from JDC): Hesed Provides Long List of Vital Services – and Dignity – to Elderly Residents of Zhitomer, Ukraine

April 3, 2011

ZHITOMER, UKRAINE – Perel Geller dreads the Ukrainian winter, when plunging temperatures and long months of snowfall compound her daily hardship. At the age of 80, she has gotten used to living alone in a tiny shack without utilities; but it is getting harder to endure the below-freezing gusts on her already demoralizing walks to a shared outhouse. Her only bit of relief is the winter assistance she receives from JDC’s Hesed network. 

Distributed once a year in advance of the season, JDC’s winter relief packages – warm blankets, clothing, and heating fuel – made the harsh winter months bearable for more than 27,000 impoverished Jews across the former Soviet Union last year; people like Perel whose well-being depends on services from JDC’s Hesed social welfare centers. A beneficiary of Hesed Shlomo in Zhitomir since 1997, today Perel also receives a food card with which to purchase groceries, medicines and medical consultations, as well as personal hygiene and laundry service, and she participates in local JDC-supported Day Center activities with other Jewish elderly. These vital acts of loving kindness (hesed) let Perel know she is not alone, especially after so many years of suffering. 

Born in July 1930, Perel endured repeated evacuations and much privation during World War II. Her father, a laborer, joined the Soviet Army when the war began, while Perel, her mother and her two siblings fled first to Stalingrad, then to the Volga region, and finally to Kyrgizia. There, 11-year-old Perel had to work with her mother on a collective farm to help support her family. Forced to share a tiny apartment lacking heat and utilities with other families, the Gellers were constantly sick. But despite physical and emotional hardship as well as the family’s repeated displacement during the war, Perel managed to save her mother’s Hebrew prayer books—relics she treasures to this day. 

When the Gellers returned to Zhitomir following its liberation in 1944 (where they were soon joined by Perel’s father) their home had been given to others and their family was reduced to living in a windowless, one-room apartment. The small stove they installed for cooking and a bit of heat caused them endless, terrible headaches. 

Overcoming tremendous obstacles, Perel completed medical school and worked for years as an obstetrician. But her siblings soon moved from Zhitomir, leaving her to care for their increasingly infirm parents. Since their death, Perel has been suffering from a variety of medical conditions all alone—save for Hesed. 

“Thanks to them, I can live in dignity, feeling I am part of a caring community that has not forgotten me.”

Journal Entry: Zhitomer Hesed Center Fulfills Its Meaning of ‘Loving-kindness’ In So Many Ways

April 3, 2011

ZHITOMER, UKRAINE, April 3, 2011 – To call the Hesed Center in Zhitomer, Ukraine a “lifeline” would be an understatement.

Hesed serves as the social services hub of this small town 100 miles west of Kiev, serving 3,000 Jews in 86 different villages, including a single recipient in one locale.  While economic conditions in the Ukraine overall are bleak, they are particularly brutal in communities outside of the main cities – and Zhitomer is no exception. 

“The social welfare system in the Ukraine is broken.  It’s inhuman in many cases,” said our tour guide Natalia. One harsh example of how bad things are is the fact that people have to provide their own medial supplies when they visit a hospital.    

“For years, the Soviets built rockets and a space program, but neglected the social welfare needs of the people,” she said. 

Reflecting these difficulties, social worker Sofia Zeitziva needed both hands to list what the Hesed center provides: 

  • Food Card Program – The days of the food box are over.  Now, clients have a debit card they can use to conveniently purchase the goods that they want.  And with every bag of groceries comes a major added value: dignity, being worthy to have exactly what they want, even though it might not be in the quantity they would like.  For the elderly clients who are unable to shop themselves or live far away from the limited number of grocery stores on the outskirts of Kiev, Hesed workers secure a list of their needs, buy the food for them and deliver it to their homes.
  • Medicine and Home Care – The medicine program in Zhitomer is crucial as many area residents developed cancer from the Chernobyl disaster 25 years ago.
  • Day Center – Elderly with limited mobility are picked up and brought to the Hesed day center.  Because most do not have access to running water, they are bathed there and have their laundry done. Eighty to 100 clients are served daily.
  • Winter Relief Fuel – This includes coal or wood for heating, warm clothing, blankets and boots for Hesed’s many impoverished clients.
  • Home Repairs – From appliances to water taps to water closets, the center provides repairs to the local community.
  • Jewish Cultural Programs – For decades, Jews in the Former Soviet Union were not allowed to explore their Jewish identity.  Hesed cultural programs help then reconnect – or connect for the first time- to their Jewish heritage.
  • Social and Hobby Clubs – A variety of programs are available, including chess, art and literature.
  • Community Programs – The local family club, for example, brings together three generations of Jews for theater programs, Shabbat services and camps.
  • Children at Risk – Hesed provides for basic needs such as food, medicine and warm clothing as well as disabled and special needs and early childhood intervention.  

* * *

Our first stop in Zhitomer was the local supermarket.  We had a list of items requested by Perel Geller, 80, whose physical limitations prevent her from shopping.

Seed Oil, minced chicken, raisins, dates, sugar, buckwheat, smoked salmon, pasta, apples, tangerines 

It sounds like a nice list – a lot better than the standard food box – but the quantities were very limited.   In fact, a piece of smoked salmon that would normally comprise one main course here in the states – had to last her for four Shabbats. 

Nevertheless, shopping for Perel felt so good.  And checking out with the food card made the process seem so much less antiquated than the food box.  The best part was seeing Perel’s grateful smile when we hand-delivered the bags of food (See Perel’s storyfrom the JDC in my blog). 

* * * 

We also had a brief visit to the Zhitomer Hesed Day Center, which included a gathering of about 30 local elderly residents, who get together once or twice a month to socialize, eat and engage in recreational activities.  One look at this group, you can’t help but notice how much the women outnumber the men.  All were widows – that’s because the life expectancy in the Ukraine is 58 for men and 68 for women. 

After speaking with some of those gathered today, it is a wonder they made it past their childhoods. 

“I was born three weeks after the war started,” said Ludmilla Brandes, 69, referring to the time the Soviet army began fighting the Nazis in late June 1941.  She was with her family on a train, when her father, who had medical experience as a veterinarian, brought her and a twin sibling into the world as bombs exploded all around them. 

Her recollections prompted others to tell the same story.  Another woman was 15 when she was evacuated.  “I remember the cargo cars and open platform cars,” she said.  “The bombings never ceased.  People went crazy.” 

Yet another recalled another train ride in which an elderly grandfather covered a baby from the bombs and suffered splinter wounds that he died from two weeks later. 

These prompt and vivid recollections clearly indicate how these elderly participants were impacted by their childhood experiences.  But knowing they were in each other’s company able to spend leisurely time together was comforting and reassuring.  Their expressions of appreciation for Hesed came just as promptly as their early memories of the war. 

“This is like our second home,” said one woman.  “The people here really care about us.  Thanks to the assistance we get from our sponsors, we are able to survive.” 

* * * 

In another room, we mixed and mingled among 20 people of all ages working on art and literature projects of different kinds – some were cutting out figurines, others were painting glass, some were discussing poetry. 

I met Vycheslav, 55, a volunteer in charge of the literary studio for children.  He proudly showed me a collection of children’s poems written by local residents.  He not only works with children on their writing skills; he organizes Jewish cultural activities, such as holiday celebrations. 

How important is Hesed? 

“It is very important that the Jewish culture is developing here,” said Vycheslav.  “It was not possible a few years ago.  We are our own culture, different from Israel and we have to keep things relevant.” 

* * * 

This was my fourth visit to a Hesed Center during the past five years.  While the centers I visited in Odessa, Kharkov, Tblisi and Kiev are still operating, I am pained to hear that many have closed.  

As the JDC reports, the Hesed system is essential to thousands of lives, but it is a lifeline on life support. A multi-year erosion in the purchasing power of JDC’s welfare budget, increased per capita costs, and a decline in available funding have forced the system to tighten its eligibility criteria and pare down services.  So tens of thousands of elderly Jews who cannot afford to purchase adequate food and medicine, let alone home care, are now going without Hesed services—and even those still eligible are suffering in the current economic climate, with many of their basic needs unmet. 

Considering there are 160,000 destitute elderly in some 2,800 locations across 11 time zones in the FSU, this is a bitter pill to swallow. This is a dilemma that our donors absolutely need to hear about.

Journal Entry: Should They Stay or Go? Hillel Havdallah Sheds Light on Future of Young Adults in FSU

April 2, 2011

I’ll be by your side when night time it runs on
And the children they ride high
I’ll be standing on the sun
Burn into the light, burn into the sun…
Matisyahu, “Darkness Into Light”

KIEV, UKRAINE, April 2, 7 p.m. – As the sun was setting Saturday evening, we left our hotel and began our trek through the streets of downtown Kiev to celebrate Havdallah with the local chapter of Hillel. This was a particularly meaningful visit for me. I had met with Hillel students on my other three trips to the former Soviet Union – in Odessa, Ukraine in 2006, Kharkov, Ukraine in 2007 and Tblisi, Georgia in 2008.  During all three visits, I encountered – and was somewhat taken aback by – a bright-eyed young generation with a fervent desire to establish roots in their cities and help rebuild their Jewish communities despite dire economic conditions and threats of anti-Semitism.  

Twenty years removed from oppressive Communist rule, these young adults have choices now, and they are choosing to stay put, rather than make aliyah or immigrate to other countries as in years past.  With every pace I took through this cool evening in Kiev, the curiosity within me grew as I sought the light of a new week – and answers to my burning questions about this fascinating generation of Jews. 

Why do they want to stay? Do they really have a future? How does this impact JAFI and its mission of aliyah, not to mention the spiritual call of Klal Yisrael? 

* * * 

By the time we arrived at Hillel, the sun had completely set. We were greeted by two students in a doorway to the side of a small storefront. The stairwell leading up to the Hillel headquarters was nearly pitch black and, through the light of our cell phones, we were able to reach the third floor, where more students greeted us.  

About 15 Hillel participants were on hand, including three volunteers visiting from the U.S. and Hillel chapter leaders from Azerbaijan and Belarus, who would be traveling the next day to a conference in Paris.  The mood was light and we would be greeted with hugs, kisses and high fives. 

After introductions – I made sure to tell them it was I who brought the unseasonably warmer climate all the way from Florida – we joined together in a Havdallah service that was unlike anything I ever experienced.  We formed a circle.  A candle was lit.  We recited prayers and sang Shavua Tov in Hebrew, English, Ukranian, Yiddish, Russian and Azerbaijani.  The candle was extinguished in a cup of wine.  And, as the darkness returned, we held hands as the light from the street cast our unified shadow on the wall. For one precious moment in time, we were one. 

* * * 

The Kiev Hillel chapter draws about 80 young adults, ages 18 to 26, per week to its various activities – social gatherings, holiday and Shabbat celebrations and seminars, according to Program Coordinator Olga Bard, 24.  Its database has more than 800 contacts from 30 different area universities.  

Not all Hillel members are students; many remain long after they are out of school to keep the social and/or spiritual connection. And not all are Jewish; many join because they hear good things about the group and want to volunteer helping with the elderly or cleaning gravesites.  One student discovered her grandmother was Jewish two years after she got involved.  Olga, in fact, was told she was Jewish when her father told her at the age of 17. 

“Our parents and grandparents didn’t want us to know because it was hard to be a Jew in Soviet times,” said the Kiev native. “We don’t check documents when you enter Hillel. We do have programs only for Jews like Taglit Birthright Israel or camps or seminars, but persons interested in Jewish tradition, holidays or way of life we also welcome. We believe that if we tell the world we are normal, we won’t have anti-Semitic things happen.” 

But anti-Semitic things do happen, but they are generally limited to incidents of speech and not violence in Kiev. 

“The Ukraine is a multi-national country.  Jews have lived here for centuries,” she elaborated.  “We don’t experience (anti-Semitism) on a government level.  But there are still anti-Semitic thoughts among people of the Ukraine, which is abusive, of course, but I never experienced anything more. One time, in school, my schoolmate called me a derogatory name in Polish but I didn’t react to it.  I thought he is not normal, but it was not something physical.”

The relatively low level of anti-Semitism in Kiev and the better economic prospects that the urban center brings is giving Olga’s peers hope for their future here. In the last two years, only 10 made aliyah, many fewer than in years past.  Most now choose to participate in Israel programs or visit as a tourist.  The key word, Olga says, is “choice.” 

“Kiev, Kharkov and the big cities have opportunities if you are trying to get them,” she noted. “If you are coming from a small town, it’s hard to develop yourself.  If they can’t make it here, they might move.” 

Olga said many current and past Hillel participants into their thirties believe it is important to find a husband or wife who is Jewish.  She proudly pointed out that there have been 17 marriages, resulting in five children. 

“Young people are trying to build their life here and want to show people you can be a Jew wherever you are,” she beamed. 

Olga, who joined Hillel in 2003 and has a master’s degree in history, strives to make sure each participant’s choice to get involved with Hillel is a good one. 

“Hillel is a place where you can find out whether you are a Jew and what it means to you,” she said.  “We provide traditional ways of ceremonies and holidays, Shabbat, Havdallah. If person decides he or she needs more, they usually go to a synagogue. For us, it is mission accomplished, because we know the person already strongly believes he or she is Jewish and it is meaningful for them.  It’s hard to lose each person, but we’re glad to know they are following it.” 

“The goal of Hillel is to renovate Jewish life,” she stressed. “For 75 years, our parents and grandparents did not observe or celebrate Jewish traditions and law. We’re telling our parents and grandparents what they should do.  It’s a weird situation for Jewish tradition because they are supposed to teach us.  Here it is vice versa.” 

* * * 

The resurgence among younger Jews in Kiev is unfortunately not the case in Azerbaijan, which boasts the only living shtetl in the FSU – Krasnaya Sloboda. 

Ilana Azimbekora, 28, is the Hillel coordinator in that southern republic, where about 100 people participate in programs every month and the database tops out at about 600.   Because of Azerbaijan’s predominantly Muslim population, Jews cannot be as public about their activities.

“There are issues with anti-Semitism,” said Ilana, whose father is Muslim and mother is Jewish.  “It’s a very different political situation.  There is a lot of pressure on minorities.” 

So much pressure than Ilana herself boldly went on television earlier in the week to make a statement against the constant threat of terrorism, saying she had to do so as the representative of the only registered Jewish youth organization in the country. 

“People in the community said I was too brave. They said they may be hunting me!” she noted.   

Ilana said she was compelled to do what she did after a recent anti-Semitic incident that took place during Purim.  About 250 young people were celebrating the holiday at a local night club.  A group of non-Jewish people were trying to get in to celebrate a national holiday. 

“It ended up in a fight,” she recalled.  “The people trying to get into the club were yelling, ‘What are you Jews doing here in our country?’” The Jewish group ended up in a physical confrontation with security. 

“These acts are cheap,” said Ilana, undeterred. 

She is hopeful, based on the government’s efforts to support minorities, noting the current president is helping to rebuild a synagogue for her native Kafkazi community. But she knows it’s not the ideal situation politically and fears the Jewish community as a whole is not organized enough to stay strong. 

Ilana plans to make aliyah with her husband, whom she met at Hillel, and three-year-old daughter.  She said it was their personal choice (there’s that word again), insisting it has nothing to do with the issues in her native country.  

“It feels okay in Azerbaijan and I love my ancestors, but I’ve read enough to believe Israel is the place to go,” she reasoned.  It was not a bittersweet decision.  She simply doesn’t want to regret not going to Israel, where she has family.   

“For me, Israel is the ultimate destination,” she said, mentioning it is best for her daughter.  “I’m thinking about our future.” 

* * *

After my discussions with Olga and Ilana, I concluded (at this point) that the future of the Jewish community in the FSU is simply a matter of personal choice, which will inevitably be swayed by the winds of politics and economics.

I posed the issue to our tour guide Natalia, who is not Jewish, but knows our rich history in the Ukraine since the 9th century and talks about our culture in very endearing terms.  While anti-Semitism still exists on the grass roots level, the government is much more supportive of the Jewish community.  For example, the president of the Ukraine conducted a menorah lighting ceremony this past Chanukah.  On Passover, you can purchase matzo in the supermarket. “This was unheard of before.” 

Yet she still sees the challenges faced by the local Jewish community and feels that the economy will ultimately be the deciding factor. 

“My heart breaks to see young people leaving,” she said.  “But people have a choice. That’s something they never had.  Some leave for spiritual reasons, to become part of the nation (of Israel), others for economic reasons.  I can’t blame them.  But I understand many want to stay here.  It is a conflicting mission.  Both are absolutely important.”

Unfortunately, Natalia is not optimistic about the Ukrainian economy:  “There is a major brain drain and labor drain.  Conditions are not making it possible to advance yourself.”  

It appears that in most major metropolitan centers like Kiev and Kharkov, the trend for young Jews is to stay – for now. 

That poses an interesting dilemma for our service organizations – JAFI and the JDC.  Most of JDC’s resources are geared to helping children at risk and the elderly whose only choice is remaining in the FSU. JAFI focuses primarily on aliyah and identity programs leading toward the goal of relocation.  “Jewish renewal” is also part of both organizations’ mission, but are they prepared fully to support the increasing numbers of those who wish to remain? That’s a question that will have to be answered.  In the meantime, if there is any hope for a Jewish future in the FSU, it exists in the bright eyes of Olga and the many others who now choose to be “pioneers” in communities that once flourished for centuries – places that many of us can claim as our origins. 

Will they be able to bring the next few generations of Ukrainian Jews from darkness to light?

Feature Story: ORT School in Kiev Combines the Best of Ukrainian, Israeli and English Speaking Worlds

April 1, 2011

KIEV, UKRAINE, April 1, 3 p.m. – The walls are talking at the Kiev ORT Technology Lyceum – and they’re trilingual. 

There’s the list of scholastic achievements of students on the bulletin board near the main lobby, made possible through curriculum provided by the Ukrainian Ministry of Education.  Nearby are the photos of students celebrating Jewish holidays and customs, courtesy of Hebrew and cultural programs from the Israeli Ministry of Education.  And then there’s that shiny certificate in English from Microsoft, a result of World ORT’s efforts to put the school on the cutting edge of technology education. 

The ORT Kiev Technology Lyceum, which has 258 students, grades 5 through 12, has become the only school in Ukraine to be chosen by Microsoft to join its small, exclusive international group of innovative Pathfinder Schools. 

It was one of 56 schools selected recently from 114 applicants in 48 countries to join the Microsoft Partners in Learning Innovative Schools Program, a ten-year, $500 million commitment by the company to help schools and teachers use technology to advance teaching and learning more effectively, according to an announcement on the World ORT web site. 

“The fact that this Lyceum is the only school in Ukraine chosen for this role is further recognition of ORT’s leading position in education in that country,” Shelley B. Fagel, National President of ORT America, stated in the press release.  

She said American donors are committed to implementing innovative technologies and modern educational practices at ORT schools throughout the CIS and Baltic States.  “This is yet another prime example of how our donors’ dollars are helping to foster excellence, no matter how great the challenges.” 

Despite ongoing funding challenges – which have resulted in teachers being poorly paid, the end to free hot lunches and school bus service – the ORT Kiev Technology Lyceum has consistently managed to raise its educational standards, increase student enrollment and retain skilled staff despite the lure of higher pay at the city’s other private schools, the announcement noted. 

Microsoft’s acceptance letter states:  “The ORT Kiev Technology Lyceum has demonstrated strong school leadership with a proven record of innovation and successful change implementation, and a vision for learning that has already started the school on the road to reform and improvement.” 

ORT Programs at Jewish schools in Ukraine are carried out as the joint projects with the Israeli Government, the Jewish Agency and the local education authorities. The relationship between ORT and the Ukrainian Ministry of Education has resulted in the adoption of ORT teaching strategies at several state schools, especially in the area of technological subjects. 

Tenth-graders Denis, Sasha, Melissa and Alina are shining examples of the successful trifecta of general education, Jewish learning and technology.  Alina, in fact, is fluent in English, Ukrainian and Hebrew.  Sasha and Melissa are already leaning toward technology for their careers while Denis wants to be a translator ­- he recently won the first stage of the local Computer Olympics. 

All are aware of their Jewish roots and the holidays and customs that define them as Jews.   In Sasha’s case, “I tell my parents about these traditions.” 

Many of the school’s students will eventually travel to Israel on programs like Limud, MASA and NALA.  Some will go to Israel for good.  But wherever these “pathfinders” land, they will have a well-rounded education – along with a few languages – to help them be successful wherever they are.

Journal Entry: “There, but for the grace of G-d, go I” – “Warm Home” Visit Turns Into Family Gathering

April 1, 2011

KIEV, UKRAINE, April 1, 1 p.m. – Our first stop in Kiev was lunch with Amir Ben-Zvi, JDC’s chief representative in Kiev.  I met Amir in October 2008 during a mission to Tblisi, Georgia to survey the conditions of the Jewish community just six weeks after the war with Russia.  Amir had been an integral part of the rescue effort in Georgia, risking his life to infiltrate areas the Russians had invaded to make sure every Jew was located and brought out of harm’s way. 

When it comes to helping others, Amir is not one to stay on the sidelines.  And that’s exactly the direction he gave us for our three-day visit to Kiev. “Don’t sit and take notes and snap pictures,” he stressed.  ”You have to become part of the community and experience what their lives are all about.” 

And that’s just what I did on our first site visit to a JDC “warm home” in Kiev.  Here, Garold, well into his 80s, hosted eight of his elderly friends, brought together by the local Hesed center, one of 35 welfare centers in the Ukraine, covering 1,500 cities and towns.  The local center serves 1,200 seniors.  

The program was developed by JDC in the former Soviet Union to aid and help alleviate the loneliness plaguing so many Jewish elderly. Throughout the region, small groups of elderly Hesed clients are regularly hosted by those who have volunteered their homes, with participants benefiting from nutritious meals as well as much-needed social contact. 

Special activities for the Jewish holidays and other programs with Jewish content reinforce the clients’ sense of belonging to a caring Jewish community. The program has been adopted by ESHEL in Israel, where it is of special help to non-Hebrew speaking immigrants; it has also been implemented in Jewish communities in Romania and the Baltic countries. 

Garold and his friends are all in their 70s and 80s.  Their children and grandchildren are all grown up – many have moved to Israel.  And here I was, melding into this “warm home” and feeling comfortable within minutes. 

Visiting the elders in Kiev was particularly meaningful for me. After all, my ancestors came to America from the Pale of the Settlement.  It reminded me of the phrase, “There, but for the grace of G-d, go I” and how, with a different twist of history, any one of these elders could have very well been my grandfather, grandmother, uncle or aunt.  

Amir’s instructions began to take on a whole new meaning. Whether we are related or not – and despite being separated by oceans, age or language – we all felt like family, connected in some cosmic way through our Jewish identity and culture.  Certainly by the volume of food, which the local Hesed worker kept bringing and bringing – hot tea, fruit, candy, cookies and cakes.  

After we all introduced ourselves, Garold recited some of his very own poetry, then grabbed his guitar and began singing with everyone joining in for “Aveinu Sholom Aleichem.”  After more singing, Felix, a local historian, filled us in on the strong Jewish heritage in the Ukraine that dates back to the 8th century. 

The group talked at length about the freedom they gained in 1991 after decades of political and religious repression under Communist rule. For them, the true feeling of freedom has been fleeting, to say the least.  They like to be discreet about their “warm home” get-togethers so as to not draw the attention of their non-Jewish neighbors.  Felix talked about not having enough cab fare one time and the cab driver making a comment about Jews being cheap. 

Nevertheless, the freedom that they do have is far better than the oppression they felt for nearly three-quarters of their lives.   Most, importantly, it gives them the opportunity to spend time with each other. 

As one put it, “It’s like being with my relatives.  We’re like a family.” 

For a little over 45 minutes, I was a part of that family – and will continue to be long after this trip.