By Melanie Kantor
When I signed up for the Pesach Project, a program that brings students from American Hillels to Hillels in the former Soviet Union, I thought I was going to teach Jews in Ukraine how to be Jewish. Because most of the students had known they were Jewish for only 10 years at most, and neither their parents nor their grandparents had been allowed to practice Judaism for decades, I thought that surely I would be bringing them the gift of Judaism.
Instead, I found that the students my own age in Kharkov, Ukraine already lead vibrant Jewish lives. In only seven years of existence, the Hillel in Kharkov has created a Jewish community more educated and enthusiastic than any Jewish community I have encountered in America. In Kharkov, I found that it is my Jewish identity that needed nurturing.
For a week, seven of my peers from Georgetown University's Hillel and I teamed up with 40 students from Kharkov Hillel to bring Passover to Jews of all ages throughout the city. Much of our time was spent visiting the homes of the Jewish elderly in Kharkov who receive aid from Hesed, a Jewish welfare agency funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). Many of the elderly couples we visited live on the 10th story of run-down apartment buildings with non-working elevators, and volunteers from Hesed are their only contact with the outside world.
Through the translations of my Ukrainian friend Sasha, I learned that this generation of 60- to 80-year-olds was prohibited from practicing Judaism their entire lives until the fall of the Soviet Union. One woman's only Jewish memory was of her mother's smuggling matzah home in a pillowcase from an underground matzah bakery.
Amazingly, many of the people we visited had participated in a Seder, and some went to Shabbat services when their health permitted. When asked how they had learned about Judaism, they told us it was their children and grandchildren who had brought it to them.
The rebirth of Judaism in the former Soviet Union is awe-inspiring. While the oldest generation was raised without Judaism, the youngest generation attends kindergarten at the Jewish Community Center of Kharkov, also funded by the JDC. Their parents bring them to music and art lessons at the JCC, where the teenagers have access to a music production studio and Internet cafe.
My generation in Kharkov not only knows the Shabbat service as well as I do, but also lives a Jewish life more expansive than my own. Judaism is incorporated into every aspect of their lives. My friends from Kharkov Hillel have created more than just a thriving religious and social center; they have also formed a Jewish performance community of some of the most talented vocal, dance and theater groups I have ever encountered.
At Havdalah services, standing in a circle with 40 of my newest friends, I learned the meaning of Jewish community. Although I am an American and my new friends are Ukrainians, we are all part of the Jewish community united by our faith, our traditions and our eagerness to reach out to one another. Kharkov taught me that my Jewish family extends beyond all boundaries.
For more information about the Pesach Project, contact Avi Rubel, the assistant director of Hillel's International Division, at email@example.com.
Melanie Kantor is a sophomore at Georgetown University.