These days, students in the former Soviet Union have countless options on how to spend their summer break.
Hillel students participate in beit midrash session at Hillel Russia's summer seminar.
So when 420 students from across the FSU chose to attend Hillel regional seminars in August 2009, the news made quite a splash.
“This is the largest number of students we’ve ever had participate in student seminars in the former Soviet Union,” said Hillel’s Associate Vice President, International Division, Aaron Goldberg. “It’s a powerful statement that hundreds of students chose to spend their free time exploring their Jewish identity with Hillel rather than opting for other social opportunities.”
One of the two seminars offered this summer was organized by Hillel CASE, which operates in Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Uzbekistan. Over 300 student leaders from across the region gathered for five days in Crimea, Ukraine, making this the largest seminar in Hillel FSU’s history. Structured around the creation of a mock Jewish state, the seminar gave students the opportunity to learn about Israeli society and build leadership skills.
Hillel CASE regional director Yosef Akselrud was struck by the level of the students’ engagement in the program.
“It was quite remarkable how engaged students became in the theme of the seminar – participating in the activities of different ministries, campaigning for seats in the Knesset (Israeli parliament),and coming up with entrepreneurial ideas to earn money,” said Akselrud. “They took real ownership over the event.”
This enthusiasm was echoed by participants inspired by their seminar experience.
“This is one of the best events and seminars that I’ve been to,” said Olga Ginzburg, a student from Kharkov, Ukraine. “The emotions and positive energy we received here will enable me to change my Jewish community for the better.”
The summer’s second seminar was organized by Hillel Russia. 120 students and young adults from across Russia traveled to Odessa, Ukraine and spent five days exploring the unique contributions of Odessa’s Jewish community to Jewish culture, literature, and humor.
This was the first year in which students paid significant fees to participate in these experiences and Anna Pivovarova, Hillel Russia’s Educational Director, noted that students’ investment of both time and money reveals a positive trend.
“The participation fees are a sign that students are willing to pay for high-quality programs,” said Pivovarova. “Also, many parts of the programs were optional, and I was pleased to see so many students choose Jewish learning option over a trip to the beach.”
Indeed, a typical day at the seminar offered students a wide menu of options—Jewish learning workshops, text study, theater and dance workshops, and tours of Odessa’s Jewish sights and museums. This choice extended into Shabbat, as for the first time Hillel Russia’s seminar offered three Kabbalat Shabbat options – traditional, Reform, and text study.
Elena Bespalova, a student from St.Petersburg, was struck by this breadth of options. “The seminar was so much fun that I did not want to waste time sleeping. All five days were filled with events and activities, emotions and new information about this special city and its residents – the days just flew by in the burst of inspiration.”
This was Hillel Russia’s first seminar in Odessa and the new theme and location fueled student interest. “All activities – from the city tour to Beit-Midrash, from theater night to Jewish humor workshops – were unique and prepared just for this seminar, specifically for our participants,” said Elena Krulevich, a madricha at the seminar. “I think this is why it was such a success.”
Krulevich remains optimistic about the long-term impact of the students’ summer choice. “A few weeks have passed since the end of the seminar but we’ve seen that participants are staying in touch, meeting with another other for walks and in the cafes, coming to Shabbat and other activities at Hillel. The seminar was a great way to start off the New Year.”