"Spring Break: Ukraine" may never make the MTV programming line-up, but for 13 students from Columbia University and Barnard College, it was a must-see – and must-do – experience. These students, members of Columbia/Barnard Hillel's Pizmon a cappella group, recently spent 10 days in the former Soviet republic for a spring break focused on music rather than mai tais. With Hillel professionals and students as their companions, they got an up-close-and-personal view of the Jewish communities in Kiev, Kharkov and Odessa while performing for audiences large and small.
A co-ed group, Pizmon has been a mainstay in the Columbia/Barnard Jewish community for 20 years and has made international travel a priority each year. Former destinations have included Argentina, Uruguay, Germany, Poland and Israel. Reports about the re-emergence of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union inspired Pizmon members to select Ukraine as their next stop.
"We wanted to bring Jewish liveliness to a place that we thought needed it," said Adam Baldachin, a Columbia senior who was one of the trip coordinators. "We would love [our performances] to add to them finding their own Judaism."
A busy schedule allowed the group to showcase their energizing music for a variety of audiences, such as a crowd of 3,000 at Kiev's Ukrainian Palace as part of a city-wide Purim festival and a concert for the archbishop of Kharkov. Their tour also included visits to senior centers run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, centers for at-risk children and homes of local Jewish residents, where their music provided a cultural bridge between their vastly different backgrounds. Rachel Levine, a Barnard sophomore who also coordinated the trip, recalled an especially poignant visit to a home where six young sisters lived with their grandmother in rather shabby conditions – but also with a cello and two pianos.
"It was really striking that they had close to nothing, but they really came alive when they played for us," Levine said. "It was special for us to perform for them and share our music, and a lot of [the families they visited] would return the presentation for us. It was a real exchange of culture."
The students also learned a lot about the Ukrainian Jewish community through their connections with the local Hillel professionals and student leaders. In addition to spending a Shabbat with the members of Kiev Hillel, the Pizmon group was accompanied by young Jewish adults throughout their trip who acted as tour guides and translators. Their enthusiasm for Jewish life in Ukraine proved to be moving for many of the American students, who, for the most part, were unfamiliar with the extent to which the community is working to rebuild and redefine their relationships with Judaism.
"Coming from America, we have a very egocentric perspective of Jewish life in the rest of the world. I think it's easy for us to think of Jews in the former Soviet Union as decimated from life there. It was enlightening and inspiring to see a huge Jewish community rebuild itself and find what's meaningful to them," Levine said.
"It was great to see a Hillel in action," agreed Baldachin. "The students are bursting with excitement about their Judaism and creativity. Many of the older Jews are looking for leaders in their communities, but the students are the ones who are creating it for themselves."
The trip didn't come cheap – Pizmon had to raise about $20,000 to make the journey – but members all agree that the experience was priceless.
"We all came back and are so excited about what we saw there," Levine said. "It rekindles your own passion for Judaism."