Chicago Students helps Kiev Hillel Write a New Page in Ukraine's Jewish History
April 18, 2005Comments (0)
| E-mail this to a friend"Imagine, we were singing in the streets," said Vlad Kuperman, a University of Illinois, Chicago student originally from Zhitomir, Ukraine. Kuperman immigrated to the United States with his family when he was 12 and to his native country for the first time as a participant in Purim Project, a weeklong student mission to Ukraine in March 2005.
The program was established in 1996 by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and is supported by The Hillels of Illinois and the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. The Purim Project presents the opportunity for Jewish college students in America to emotionally and physically experience the cultural heritage of Judaism in Ukraine, connect with the global Jewish community, enhance Jewish leadership skills and support the revival of Jewish identity in the former Soviet Union after years of oppression.
The group was composed of 22 students from universities in Chicago and Kiev, devoted to tzedek (social justice), leadership and self-exploration. Participants served lunch at Hesed's soup kitchen, packaged food baskets, entertained patrons of the day centers, taught Hebrew and went with caseworkers as they made their home visits to the poor Jewish elderly.
"Every day was unique because we were unique," said Zhenya Trofoimova, a student at International Solomon University in Kiev.
"We saw the elderly peoples' eyes light up when they recognized Hebrew and Yiddish songs," said Abby Schneider, a junior at Northwestern University. "We held the hands that reached out to us when we danced the hora, and we tasted the dozens of hamantaschen offered to us whenever we walked into or out of a day center or private home. Together we brought happiness and celebration to the Jewish people of Ukraine. Together we helped further the revival of Judaism in the FSU."
The renaissance of Judaism is something that generations of Ukrainian Jews have been hoping for. For several decades, Jews in the USSR were forced to hide their religion. That is why Victoria Ulyanov, a sophomore at Northwestern originally from Kiev, felt surprised to see Ukrainian students know more about Jewish traditions than she has experienced since her family moved to the United States. Osik Akselrud, the Kiev Hillel director, has made sure that the Kiev Hillel is at the forefront of this renaissance.
In 1941, more than 40,000 Jews were killed at Babi Yar, a wooded ravine in Kiev. Almost every Kiev Jew, including those on the trip, lost family members in the massacre. While visiting the ravine, we shared a moment of silence, lit candles and honored the victims and survivors.
Hours later, group members visited the great-great-grandchildren of the survivors at Sunflower JCC, a Jewish preschool. There we spent time singing and dancing with the children, painting pictures of Mordechai and Queen Esther and forming a bridge between generations.
It wasn't only the children who laughed as we shared Purim stories. At a huge, modern nightclub, Chicago students - flaunting newly acquired Russian vocabulary - showed off our Purimschpiel, a short skit telling the story of Queen Esther. There, 200 college students got a good laugh, too, because they could not understand a word of the "Russian" being spoken.
The Purim celebration turned into a festive Shabbat when students went to shtetlach Chernigov and Cherkassy, small communities outside Kiev. In these communities, we led Kabbalat Shabbat and Havdalah for the youth club and visited a Jewish preschool. By the end of the week, Chicago and Kiev students alike had formed strong, vibrant relationships.
"I learned more in this week than I have learned all of my life. We are all Jewish. That means we all care," said Zisa Levin, a junior a Hebrew Theological College in Chicago. "Your love is so warm and so energetic."
According to chaperone Misha Zilbermint, the senior JCSC fellow at Hillels Around Chicago, "the project is a learning process on different levels. Each participant takes what they need and will use that to express their Jewish identity in the future."
Sasha Olennikova, a student at ISU and the leader of the Kiev group, was thankful for "the experiences and ideas" she got from the Chicago students and is happy to have "learned how to improve the life of the community."
Upon returning from Ukraine, our Chicago group made a meaningful donation to JUF/JF to ensure further support of the Jewish community in Kiev. Along with the federation, we are confident that Kiev Hillel will continue to engage students and help them write a new page in the history of Jewish Ukraine. We are committed to making sure that happens and will continue to strengthen the bridges we made.
Abby Schneider is a junior at Northwestern University.