The Purim Postmen at Minsk Hillel.
An international band of couriers, dubbed the “Purim Postmen,” brought joy to members of the Belarus Jewish community by delivering traditional Purim food packages (shalach manot) to friends and family in need.
Made possible by grants from the Charles & Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, Jane Weitzman and the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, 10 Emory University Hillel students joined forces with more than 30 Minsk Hillel students to carry out this Purim mitzvah.
The Emory students were selected for this mission by first demonstrated excellent leadership ability, maturity. They attended preparatory meetings, including lessons on the Jewry of the Former Soviet Union and Belarus in particular. In addition, their was a social element to their meetings to foster pre-trip group cohesion.
The “Purim Postmen” mainly conducted their activities through home visits- sitting with elderly Hesed clients, ghetto survivors, children with special needs and low-income-family-clients of the Jewish Family Outreach Service. They visited homes not only in Minsk, but also in the towns of Osipovichi, Vitebsk and Bobruisk. They arrived to each home with gift packages and humanitarian aid from World Jewish Relief.
In total, the group carried out more than 90 home visits, exceeding the goal of Minsk Hillel Director Maxim Yudin by 20.
However, visiting clients was not the only goal of the program. For Olga Tseitlina, the Jewish Renaissance Fellow at Hillel Minsk, the experience of Jewish cross-cultural exchange between the students is equally as important as delivering Purim packages. “The Emory students and the Minsk students did not only do home visits. They also tried to have fun together, to understand one another- how our life is here, and how their life is in the States. It is an experience of communicating and understanding and celebrating this holiday together,” she said.
For both Hillels, the “Purim Postmen” program was a good opportunity to assess future collaboration projects. “We hope that in the future our students will come to Emory to get some experience from them. And also we hope to send Emory diplomats to our summer camps, or regional seminars. This is the first step to strengthening the bond between our Hillels,” said Tseitlina.
For the American and Belarusian participants, each encounter was life-changing. While connecting with the young vibrant generation of Belarusian Jewry, many American students connected with their familial roots in the Pale of Settlement. In some cases, the students brought Purim to Jews who had never heard of Purim before. The Hillel Minsk participants were introduced to volunteerism, a concept almost entirely eradicated by the Soviet system. This mutual give-and-take is what really made Purim Project so irreplaceable and priceless.
The Purim Postmen project closed with a colossal Purim carnival for young Minsk Jews organized by Hillel Minsk. There were fire-throwers, Belarusian and Jewish folk-dance performances, and of course, a disco party. The new international friends rejoiced in the successful completion of their program and the friendships they had fostered in the process. The powerful experiences they shared together in just a week, they created memories and connections which will last a lifetime.
“When we were in Hillel on Shabbat with the Emory students we weren’t just talking about our Judaism and Jewishness, but actually practicing it together. Atlanta and Minsk students led prayers and made brachot together. This was an amazing time which we spent together and experienced real Jewish unity,” said Tseitlina. “Your native language isn’t important. What is important is that we are Jews and we can join together for Shabbat to pray.”