Ukraine bar mitzva

Journalist chronicles trip to former Soviet republic with her son and a World Jewish Relief delegation.

girl singing 88 248 (photo credit: Jake Libson)
girl singing 88 248
(photo credit: Jake Libson)
Jake had chosen to twin his bar mitzva last year with a boy from Ukraine and I had felt that the trip would be an opportunity for him to gain some insight into a country and a way of living different from his own We had been allocated roles in the Purimspiel as foreign visitors asked to impress King Ahasuerus, played by a boy who didn't seem too wowed by our offerings of British food and weather Jake's journey to 'the land of the shtetl' has made him acutely aware of what freedom means A trip to Ukraine doesn't exactly spring to mind as a typical destination for a mother-and-son bonding experience. Described by Vladimir Putin as a country "on the verge of bankruptcy," the issue of its gas supply is still an unresolved source of major tension with Russia. According to historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz, approximately 60 percent of Ukrainian Jews were killed during the Holocaust and those that did survive endured repression by the Soviet regime. However, this "land of the shtetl" was once the largest center of Jewish cultural and spiritual life (Ben G. Frank), a country which bore several leaders of the Zionist movement and some of the greatest Jewish writers after whom many of Israel's city streets are named. In spite of its outward lack of allure, in mid-March Jake, my 13-year-old son, and I headed off to Dnepropetrovsk in southeast Ukraine as part of a small delegation with the charity World Jewish Relief - the leading overseas aid arm of the UK Jewish community. Leaving the cozy confines of his typical north London teenage existence, Jake was to be the first young person to participate in WJR's inaugural "interactive" trip, getting involved with the Jewish community and its projects. Jake had chosen to twin his bar mitzva last year with a boy from Ukraine and I had felt that the trip would be an opportunity for him to gain some insight into a country and a way of living different from his own. "Visiting is integral to see what we do," explained Paul Stein, head of fund-raising and communications for WJR and co-traveler. "Then people are better placed to talk about what they've seen and learned to others." ALTHOUGH THE journey would certainly be "an experience that not many people my age will have gone through," Jake was unsure what to expect. What would he gain from it? Would it make him see himself differently, I wondered. The journey required some knowledge of Ukraine's turbulent past so that he could appreciate its present and imagine its future. But how can such a past be presented to a teenager so that he could understand the present? "On one level it's about... the power of imagination... In the 'now' driven world of contemporary culture, the past is often a difficult place of mystery and it takes imagination to be able to visualize," says Jeremy Leigh, travel writer and director of Jewish Journeys, a Jerusalem-based educational initiative that develops trips to places of Jewish interest. But he says that for most of the teenagers that he works with, the past is not a problem. The use of music, literature and photographs can all help make it tangible. With a Jewish population of 50,000-55,000, Dnepropetrovsk is the largest Jewish community in Ukraine after Kiev. According to WJR, 40% of the population are pensioners, many of whom struggle to survive on their government pension and require extra assistance. Children are another vulnerable group whose families have little money and little access to primary health care. Together the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and WJR provide welfare services for the community as well as programs to promote Jewish renewal in Ukraine. The JDC is responsible for carrying out WJR's particular projects as well as its own. Jewish community centers (JCC) help towards renewal and self sustainability and heseds (welfare centers) provide food, medication (there is no free state health care) and home care to those in need. The long-term aim of both organizations is that the Ukrainian Jewish community will eventually become self sufficient. Dnepropetrovsk had been a "closed city" until the early 1990s; there had been travel and residency restrictions as it had been home to some of the key centers of the nuclear, arms and space industries of the Soviet Union. The city opened after Ukrainian independence in 1991 and, according to Anya Birman, missions manager for the JDC and our translator, it suddenly became quite "exotic" for its residents as the face of the city altered; foreigners and businesspeople traveled in and out and "suddenly we saw different people." DRIVING FROM the airport, I wondered how Jake, with his Western eyes, would view his new surroundings. Bare trees lined the pothole ridden roads, on which "you don't drive more than five seconds without a bump," he observed. Drab, gray concrete communist style tower blocks still remain, and trams rattled unconvincingly through the wide streets next to swanky SUVs, a sign of relative new wealth. For many years eastern Ukraine produced much iron, steel and coal and for a time "Dnepropetrovsk was the economic capital of Ukraine," explained Amir Ben-Zvi, JDC representative for eastern Ukraine. Casinos seem to appear on every street corner, often conveniently located next to a bank. McDonalds and billboards advertising clothes, perfumes and electronic equipment are evident, despite this being a country where the impact of the global recession is severe. Salaries have been frozen or cut, food prices are increasing rapidly and three banks have closed. Some 350,000-500,000 Jews live in Ukraine out of a total population of 48 million, Stein explained at a short briefing before our visit to Dnepropetrovsk's JCC. In 1941 the Nazis invaded and killings occurred on a massive scale; in Dnepropetrovsk alone 11,000 Jews were killed in a day. Although many Jews left following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Jewish life has since been revitalized. But the current economic crisis has brought new challenges to the area. Decreasing demand for its main exports has resulted in factory closures and growing unemployment. According to Ben-Zvi, anti-Semitism is always present, lurking "under the surface." He cited an incident where Jews had been spat at in the street, but an overriding concern is that blame for the crisis may be directed at the Jews as some had been factory owners forced to shut their doors. With this bleak history in mind we were completely unprepared for the immense sense of celebration as we entered the JCC, located inside the grounds of the one remaining synagogue (there used to be 42). It was Purim and the entire building was buzzing with preparations. We had been allocated roles in the Purimspiel as foreign visitors asked to impress King Ahasuerus, played by a boy who didn't seem too wowed by our offerings of British food and weather. We helped the children choose their costumes, and before we knew it Jake, managing to abandon any teenage awkwardness, and I were participating in a rendition of "Hallelujah" with an exceptional vocal group. The following morning we were taken to a large, well-stocked Spar supermarket where we shopped for 84-year-old Rosa Altman and her daughter, Irina, using a Smartcard, a means tested system which has replaced the traditional food package. This revolutionary program has transformed lives, providing dignity to the 6,000 people it serves. Set up for those in need of extra assistance the card tries "to substitute the state system because [what's received] is not very much," Birman explained. "When the pilot plan was launched in late 2005, it took off." BEFORE SHOPPING, users can go to an ATM in the store to check the amount on their card (money is transferred at the beginning of the month). The supermarket chain, which has 14 stores, provides an extra 5% discount on the purchases. A record of what has been bought is then immediately transferred to the bank and the hesed. There are only three items prohibited - pork, tobacco and alcohol - and any attempt to buy them (and there have been) are blocked at the cash register. Speaking in a combination of broken Yiddish and Ukrainian during our home visit, Altman's deep gratitude toward the workers at the hesed was repeated by many of the people we met. A former accountant, Altman is now practically housebound and receives help with laundry, cooking, cleaning and shopping. Irina lay in a bed behind a curtain throughout our visit to her small, dark, cluttered three-room apartment. Suffering from severe mental health problems, she does not speak to anyone apart from her mother and spends most of her time in bed. Altman recalled how, growing up in a religious family, the holidays were difficult to celebrate, remembering that "we were afraid. They were very hard years and we just tried to survive how we could." After singing a nigun and opening her mishloah manot she insisted that we join her in her Purim meal. PURIM WAS also in full swing in the next apartment that we visited. The bleak exterior of the building looked identical to Altman's block, including the same dark, damp stairwell, but we walked into an atmosphere of happiness and the sound of an accordion playing. Gathered around a table groaning with freshly made hamentashen and homemade wine were a dozen older members of the community in appropriate Purim attire, a group who meet regularly. Suddenly Jake was surrounded by 12 grandparents, encouraging him to eat and take part in a game of forfeits. In the shtetl where she had lived as a child, said one of the women, Purim had to be celebrated covertly to ensure that non-Jews did not know what was happening. Anya described a big table with food placed in the center of the settlement and her escape to Russia in 1938. It was here, as a young child, that she met her husband as they lived in a shared apartment with many other families seeking safety. During lunch at the hesed, Birman spoke about her experience of life after communism. She was 17 when the Berlin Wall came down. "I was on the cusp of adulthood. At the time the big debate between my friends and me was whether we would stay here in Ukraine or leave and go to Israel; it was the question on everyone's lips." Anya decided to stay, feeling that she had a responsibility to be a part of the Jewish community and ensure a strong Jewish life for future generations in Dnepropetrovsk. "I love Israel but my family is here... and as Jews we can now look forward to the future." She recalled being bundled off to a special annual dinner at her grandparents where all the family was present. There was no explanation as to what this dinner was and why it was significant. It was only in later years - in fact once she joined the JDC - that she understood the occasion to be Seder night. Although she knew she was Jewish, any form of practice had been forbidden. She sees the contrast between her own upbringing and that of her 11-year-old daughter who feels none of the constraints that Birman had growing up in communist Ukraine. She wears her Jewish identity with pride and likes the fact that her mother works for the JDC. She is keen to help those less fortunate than herself and often gives Birman items of her own to donate to the hesed. Birman is convinced that a thriving Diaspora is beneficial to Israel; an opinion echoed by Sharon, Ben-Zvi's wife, who also works for the Joint. As an Israeli, she grew up believing that all Jews from the former Soviet Union should make aliya. However, from her experience of living and working in Ukraine for the last three years, she now sees the situation differently. Birman agrees. "Almost every Jew living in the former Soviet Union today, including myself, maintains a tight connection to Israel through relatives or friends who made aliya. We feel obliged to educate our non-Jewish environment about the reality of the country to combat the anti-Israel Soviet stereotypes, which are still shared by so many." HAVING SEEN community welfare and sustainability in action, we ended our journey at Metsuda: a community leadership program. Eighty applicants between 18 and 27 are closely observed throughout the week's course, but only 30 are selected to continue. Held at Lesnoy, a countryside retreat in the forest 65 to 70 kilometers outside the city, the course is now in its seventh year. We arrived to tinny music playing on outside loudspeakers, a throwback to former communist days, but inside the atmosphere was less Soviet and more reminiscent of my time, at 18, on Machon Lemadrichei Hutz La'aretz, a leadership course in Jerusalem. "Metsuda is important mainly because we 'catch' active potential leaders from their communities and enroll them into volunteerism and leadership in a way that will engage them with community life, before they disappear into their private lives forever,' says Ben-Zvi. "It builds up their Jewish and self-identity, providing them with the tools and energy to take action in the community. In addition, in a place lacking in youth movements, Metsuda has become the place for youth from all over the region, where they can be attached to something bigger than the ordinary, where they can... meet people like them who want to change the world they live in." Dasha, 20, a Metsuda graduate and session leader, agrees. "The program literally cultivates the future of the community." Katya, 26, another trainer and course graduate, started a youth club in Kharkov which now has 500 active participants. Set up as part of Metsuda's community project - the second stage in the qualifying process - she feels "people should give back" to their communities by volunteering and that fund-raising is a necessity. Jewish renewal, she believes, is one of the main challenges facing young Ukrainian Jews. Jake's journey to "the land of the shtetl" has made him acutely aware of what freedom means. Having heard stories from people "who had to hide their Judaism made me feel fortunate that I experience religious freedom as they could not." Although a keen member of his youth movement, he feels that "the experience has expanded my Jewish identity. I've learned that Jewish suffering isn't just about the Holocaust... that there are other aspects of oppression." As I write this there is news of fresh unrest in Ukraine and concern regarding the country's stability. But Jake is full of positive youthful attitude. He witnessed the spectrum of a community committed to addressing its current problems while daring to be optimistic about its uncertain future.