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Ukraine: Kharkov (or Kharkiv)

From Kiev I flew to Kharkov, which was one of my rougher travel days to this point. It was a very early flight and I had to pay extra because my carry-on was too heavy, and was just in a grumpy mood upon arrival. But I was met by Anna who works in Missions for JDC and she was amazing and full of energy. A shout out also to Andrew the JSC Fellow (Jewish Service Corp), they both made sure I wasn’t walking alone, had everything I needed, and basically took care of me the entire time!

Kharkov is somewhat of a university town. In the first few days, I had the pleasure of joining four Hebrew Union College first year Rabbinical students. They had spent a few days in different parts of the country leading seders within Progressive Jewish communities. It was really nice to join others in touring, it also added a completely different lens to everything I was encountering. We had incredibly interesting conversations around why they chose to go to Rabbinical school, what they are learning, their viewpoint towards Judaism, innovation, and more.

Much of why I think it’s taken me so long to post these blogs is because of the amount I was able to process in having deep conversations with both the students and Andrew and Anna. I’ll sum up some of what we saw, and some of the big questions I considered while in Kharkov.

Moishe House

We visited and had a charoset making challenge with local young people. (Okay, I made it into a challenge, it was just a way for us to cook together.) Here is an explanation about charoset. Moishe House explanation here, they exist around the world. (Detroiters there is one downtown and one in Royal Oak). Anyway, we would end up coming back to the Moishe House a few days later to work with a volunteer committee to do some painting in their house. We would also see a few of the residents and young people multiple times throughout the week. It seems like the people who are involved, are really involved.

Hearing about the “why” young people want to be involved is interesting to me. Often these young people have maybe one parent that is Jewish, in some cases one grandparent that is Jewish. But they find themselves identifying and wanting to explore their Jewish background. The spectrum of what this means is quite large and really hard to explain.

JCC, Chesed, and more

We visited so many places during these few days. The JCC in Kharkov is really the hub of activities. In many ways it functions fairly similarly to some JCCs in the states. Inside one building is a day care/kindergarten, a concert hall with events, elderly care and day programs, sport classes (we peaked in on a breakdancing class), Hebrew lessons/school, and much more.

We were able to stop into many of the classrooms and events going on during the day. It’s a bustling and lively place and staff always share that kids who came to the programs have grown up and are now sending their kids. Really showing the impact of making the connection to Judaism young, and in creating a consistency within the community.

Young Adults

In Kharkov I probably spent the most time with young adults, teens to college age and young professionals. We spent time with a program called Metsudah which is leadership training across FSU countries and participants grow an idea and then launch it. It’s been around a long time so participants have gone on to create a “post-Metsudah” group to be able to stay connected. We were hosted in a space that a local guy created and rents out to Jewish groups, small groups, businesses, and more. It is somewhat of a small co-working space with the intention to gather people with innovative ideas together. We heard about some of the programs that young people have launched on their own. Ranging from raising funds to create and celebrate birthdays for those in need, to a fashion show with items designed and modeled by kids with special needs.

Something to remember. While some of the above ideas are not novel in the grand scheme - I know of similar types of programs at home, I often am reminded that volunteerism and the idea of “giving back” is not such a wide spread concept in this part of the world. In the Jewish community many of these people have only been recipients of programs, often people don’t have time, money, or a way to get involved or volunteer, they are really trying to just get their basic needs met. To me the fact that young people are beginning to be involved in a very real way is meaningful.

Change takes time

When we think about the FSU post-Communism, it’s not that long. I’ve been thinking a lot about how often when we make donations, or work in a non-profit we want to see results, we want to show impact, and we want to see the change we are making. However, what I was able to really grasp in Kharkov was this idea of how – sometimes painstakingly – long change takes. The young people today, different than their parents, actually grew up with some sense of Jewish connection. These same young people are creating events and programs and want to engage in Judaism. I can physically see that given the opportunities and some continued connection, engagement, and education they may go on to raise Jewish children and build what was once so lost.

What is Jewish?

I am not going to answer this question. I had lots of conversations around this topic, and spending time with the Rabbinical students also pushed me on this. Often in these communities Jewish is defined by having at least one Jewish grandparent. The opportunities to explore Judaism are fairly limited. Despite a varying degree of programming in the community, there are limited opportunities to see diversity in Judaism. What I mean by diversity is in the way that one is Jewish, diversity in commitment to practice, in belief, in traditions, etc. If they are dissatisfied by a synagogue experience, or an interaction with a Rabbi or other community leader, there are very few other options where they can go to "be Jewish". Jewish is also typically, led by someone else. So there are some very impressive people who are able to lead a service or share a story from the Torah, but more often people need someone to tell them what to do. Holidays are celebrated at community events, not so much in the home.

What my rambling is trying to say, is that it’s complicated. That we in the states have such a freedom, and such a plethora of options in how we are Jewish, and what that means to us. We can have and choose nearly every nuance to how we interact with Judaism. It brings me back to an initial questions I asked this year, around what is Jewish peoplehood and despite all these difference what connects us? Basically I have a lot to question, think, say, and learn about this. So if you are ever up for a conversation, give me a shout!

Seders x Four.

Okay, so I had a lot of seders this year. They were all the same in that they were a seder, the table looked like a seder table, had a seder plate, we drank wine (or juice), and ate matzoh. For some, the seder they had during the week of the holiday (not on the typical seder nights), was the only one they would have. In some cases, like joining the one with all staff and organizations that work in the JCC, it’s an opportunity to come together as a community. This one as were others were done in an interactive way, teaching some stuff along the way. In another cases, the seder was combined with a laser tag event. I’m still not sure of the connection, but I can tell you that playing laser tag when most of your teammates only speak Russian, is quite hilarious. (Plus if you’ve ever played any game involving technology with me, you know I’m already going to have silly questions, and doubts.) It was fun, our team won, I am still unsure if I actually got anyone out.

Some highlights:

There is a very cool park in Kharkov, it’s basically a small amusement park that is a public park, so you can walk through it at any time and it’s open with rides, and benches, it looks like a very mini Disney World, but how cool to have it open and accessible (it does cost go on rides and such).

My hotel. As I tried to explain it to someone, their reply was, it just sounds Soviet. So yes, it was. Everything was sort of dark, not dingy but dark. Apparently it’s the hotel that the mayor either works or lives in, unclear which one, or maybe both. So there was serious security – the only smile I got the entire time was when the security guy was likely asking my why I was there, and I smiled, and he gave me a mocking grin back. If you ever want a fun story, ask me to describe this place. Granted I was also weird since it was Passover, I wouldn’t eat much at their breakfast and instead took hard boiled eggs in my pockets, and two to three cups of hot water to make mashed potatoes or soup with!

Okay, I definitely missed a few things in this wrap up, but as you can see there is a lot to see/say, but yes there is even more to say about Ukraine, because Odessa is up next. You tired of reading? Too bad. But don’t miss Odessa, it’s really wonderful.

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