We hit the ground running in Georgia, maybe more like an in depth walking tour, but either way Tbilisi is a beautiful and cool city. Seamlessly intersecting with mountains and a bit of a mix of old and new architecture.
The visit started at the Chesed building which provides different services and programs to the Jewish community. On each of the four floors in the building we witnessed different aspects of Jewish life in Tbilisi. From the preschool children singing songs, the singing group who performed beautiful music for us, to the senior meeting group who shared some smiles and then showcased their handmade jewelry and artwork. The building is bursting with activity and clearly an important part of the Jewish community.
In addition to the community in Tbilisi we also visited with the Jewish community in Gori. We again visited their Chesed center where we ate a very large delicious meal, and were entertained by children who danced Georgian dances and even attempted to teach us how.
Participating in home visits in Gori was special in that we visited families of the children who performed for us, they each receive varying assistance from JDC and the local Jewish community.
While each of us had a different experience, it was an opportunity to get to know local families, and hear what life is like for them. The home my group visited was a single mother who has four children, her teenage daughter lives with her and her son who has two young kids of his own was also there. The mother and daughter share a bedroom that doubled as a living room to receive us. The gratitude for the help that she receives comes across strong, she continued to thank us as she walked us out.
While it can be a challenge and struggle to communicate during these visits because of translators and language barriers, it’s always amazing to me that it can be pretty easy to find ways to connect with people. Hand signals, smiles, and pointing goes pretty far. Despite coming from different places, the experience can leave a lasting impression on both the visitor and the recipient.
One of my new friends and fellow participant, Roey Shoshan, shared his own story after our visit that to me really embodies the importance of these visits and the lasting impact they can leave. Roey grew up in Petach Tikva in Israel. As we walked up to the rundown apartment building in Gori, he mentioned that it brings back memories for him, in that he grew up in a similar looking building. He remembered being on the receiving end of a visit from his community’s partnership region of Houston, Texas. He remembers it being an important moment in his childhood, one that inspired a slight obsession with America, the NBA, and where his dreams of coming to the states began. It opened his eyes to the idea that there were Jews outside of Israel. That Jews take care of one another in the different parts of the world. He went on to be a counselor at summer camp in the States and now has been in Atlanta, Georgia for 8 years and currently is the Director of the Hillel at University of Georgia.
I wanted to share his story because I think it brings some of these visits full circle. While visiting seniors brings joy of connection and community, visiting families and especially young children can be powerful. Just the idea that these young kids see there are Jews who are traveling around the world, there are people out in the world that are like them, that they can look up to or aspire to be, is important. Of course it’s not always perfect in that we often only have a few minutes, and the conversations seem awkward and disjointed, those connections are important.
It always goes both ways. These visits impact everyone involved, remind us of stories we may not always hear, allow others to feel seen, and allows us to understand the people who we are providing aid and help to, and better understand ourselves as part of a global Jewish community. The next day, another visit showed us this impact, as we stopped by a group of Jewish teens who were having a two day camp outing. These outings with other Jewish teens are the only opportunities these kids have to be around other Jews their age and be in a Jewish environment. Even though a quick visit, time for an ice breaker and conversation there is still an impact. Plus a good reminder of the importance of summer camp.
We hit Shabbat, and I was ready, each time this year I’ve been able to sit in a synagogue in a new country, it seems to ground me. It’s the weekly reminder to stop and reflect, to breathe and chill, be in the moment a bit more. We shared a Shabbat meal with a few local young people as well.
On our final day in Tbilisi as a group, we picked up a few families who are served by Jewish Family services and children who were not able to go to camp this summer, and went to the mountains. Spending a day in the sun, barbecuing, playing some soccer, and sitting through a cool drum circle lesson was a perfect ending to the trip. It encompassed many aspects of Georgia, mountains and large amounts of food, interacting with the local Jewish community and more.
We also visited some monasteries, a cool ethnography museum, bath houses, and did much more but obviously if I shared every moment this post would be even longer. Georgia really has it all. Mountains and water. Getting out of the city we saw beautiful view points of snow-capped mountains. For me the breath of fresh air you get in a mountain area is refreshing. Mountains and crazy driving, that’s basically a preview of what my time in Georgia would look like post trip, but more on that in the next post.