Eight Hillel lay leaders from the United States got an up-close-and-personal view of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union (FSU) last week at facilities for senior citizens and children, synagogues and Hillel centers in Kiev and Odessa, Ukraine. At these locations and more, participants in Hillel's 2005 Lay Leadership Mission to Ukraine saw firsthand the difference that Hillel students are making in their Jewish communities.
"For some people, it's a revelation that Jews are still in the FSU, let alone thriving Jewish communities," said Karen Moss, the co-chair of Hillel's FSU committee." "The mission was an eye-opening experience in terms of Hillel's significant role in Jewish renewal in the FSU."
Chaired by Karen Moss and Neil Moss, the former chairman of Hillel's Board of Directors, the mission group joined Hillel students throughout the week as they delivered food packages to the elderly and volunteered at a program for children at risk. Participants visited historical sites, such as Golda Meir's birthplace in Kiev, and restored synagogues in both cities, and they observed Kabbalat Shabbat with students in Odessa. They also enjoyed boat rides on the Black Sea and Dnieper River, where they joined local business leaders and young Jewish professionals to celebrate the success of the Kiev Hillel Business Club, the first of its kind among Hillels in the FSU.
The lay leaders also met with the American ambassador to Ukraine, John Herbst, at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, where they encouraged Herbst and his colleagues to monitor reports of anti-Semitism throughout the country and promote ethnic and religious tolerance.
In addition to spending considerable time with students, participants also had the opportunity to meet several Hillel professionals from all over the FSU, such as Anna Purinson, Hillel regional director for Russia; Yosef Akselrud, Hillel regional director for Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova; and the directors of the Hillels in Minsk, Kishinev, Kharkov and Simferopol.
Based on the success of both this mission and the one to South America in March, Rubin and Rubel hope to run similar programs annually so more Hillel supporters from the United States can get a fresh perspective on the importance Hillel holds in these Jewish communities.