The End of the Journey

It's 9:30 am at Kiev Airport as I await my connecting flight home to JFK. I've been awake now for over 27 straight hours. Having a 7:00 am flight from Odessa, I chose, instead of getting up very early to catch an Uber to the airport, to instead simply skip sleeping altogether, in the hope that would put me in a better position to sleep for most of my 11 am flight out of Kiev and begin to get my body back on schedule (not that I ever fully adjusted in the first place). Sometimes a trip feels like it went by very quickly; sometimes it seems to take forever. As I end my journey to Ukraine, I feel as though I have been away from home for a long time, and that it all flew by way too fast. It'

I Have Never Been More Grateful to Forget Something

On a minor sidenote to my trip, right after landing at the airport in Odessa a few days ago, I realized I had accidentally left my camel hair sports jacket in the wardrobe of my hotel room in Kiev. I was disappointed, and I had originally bemoaned that I wouldn't get it back.  But then I reconsidered. I emailed the staff at the Kiev JDC office and asked if they could make arrangements to pick up the coat and give it to a client who needed it. This afternoon, Diana at the JDC sent me a photo of that client, along with his appreciation. I have never been more grateful to forget something.

Beit Grand Is Indeed a Magical Place

My last stop on my JDC Odessa itinerary today, and indeed for my entire Ukrainian journey, was back at the Beit Grand JCC, Odessa's newest Jewish Community Center, built nine years ago. Inna introduced me to Maryna London, the JCC's Program Director, who oriented me to the JCC's entrance. Above the lobby hangs a beautiful sculpture, known as Jacob's Ladder, the image of which has become a symbol of Beit Grand.  Directly below the sculpture, in what might otherwise appear to be a area in need of repair on the tile floor, is a large circle made of Jerusalem stone. Maryna explained that a legend has developed about the JCC.  If you stand on the circle, close your eyes, raise your hands, turn ar

Hesed Comes in All Shapes and Sizes (and Ages)

This morning, I was picked up at my hotel in Odessa by Inna Vdovichenko of the JDC Odessa office.  The JDC had planned a full day of activity for me on my final day in Ukraine. After a visit to the Odessa Holocaust Memorial, Inna took me to Odessa's Holocaust museum, run with great caring by volunteer Director, Pavel Kozenko, and to Migdal-Shorashim, the Jewish Museum of Odessa,  a small space that packs into it rich stories of Jewish families of Odessa. Much of this helped to frame a greater understanding of Odessa during the Holocaust, with the city's Jewish population of 600,000 before an occupation by nazi and Romanian troops reduced to less than 90,000 after the city's liberation.  Amon

A Synagogue Held Up By History

On the way home from Obodivka, Dmitriy and I resolved to make one more stop. We would be driving through the neighboring town of Bershad, and the helpful article I had read about Obodivka noted that there was an old synagogue still existing in Bershad.   As there wasn't a synagogue to see in Obodivka, we agreed to drive around in the hope that I could at least see a shul from that era and in that region. Amazingly, the article, written in 2012, not only listed the name of the then leader of the Bershad Jewish community but also listed his phone number, indicating that he - Yafim being his name - spoke only Yiddish ("Iddish" the article said) and Russian. Inasmuch as I only know about two doz

Naomi, Charlie, and the Road to Obodivka

While I have met with many Federation-related partners on this trip, and I've enjoyed evenings at the ballet, the operetta theatre, and an international violin festival gala concert, the centerpiece of my journey was always going to be today. As I have heard the story told (and I already apologize to my relatives for any details I get wrong, but that's the thing with family lore), Charlie was a teenager who delivered milk in the village of Obodivka to the home of a young girl named Naomi. They did not know each other well, but he quiety admired her. When Charlie was 19, his brother, Frank, who had already moved to America, invited Charlie to join him there in the fur business. In 1913, Cha

The Wandering Jew, Just Like at Home

In the two weeks before I left for my trip to Ukraine, I spent five high holiday services in five different Upper Fairfield County congregations. While I do that, at least in some part, because of my professional role in our Jewish community, the truth is that I also do it because I love the variety, I find meaning in all different kinds of services, and I consider it part of my own Jewish journey. It came as no surprise to me then that I found myself doing the same thing over Shabbat in Odessa, enjoying services in two very different congregations. On Friday night, I went back to Shirat Ha-yam, where earlier in the afternoon I had met Rabbi Yuliya Gris.  Shirat Ha-yam is described as a prog

In Fairfield County we have the Kesher Project, in the FSU we have Project Kesher

Housed at B'nai Israel and serving the community, Upper Fairfield County has the Kesher Project, a program that "kindles the light of Judaism in developmentally challenged adults," under the dedicated leadership of Rhea Farbman. On the other side of the world, in the Former Soviet Union - including Ukraine, and for Russian speakers now living in Israel, our Federation has also supported Project Kesher, with a misssion to "give women and girls the tools to challenge themselves and their society." With my experience prior to this day having been limited to hearing Project Kesher's ten minute presentation before our allocations committee, but having today spent many hours with staff, participan

Grateful for a Gray and Gloomy Morning

As I got into my Uber this morning to head to Babi Yar, I was grateful for the gray and gloomy weather. For many local residents, Babi Yar is nothing but a park adorned with monuments, and, when the weather is nice, I am told that those visiting the site might witness people riding bicycles and walking dogs, children playing soccer, and even the occasional wedding. This all belies the reality that 76 years and 7 days ago, the Jews of Kiev were ordered to gather all their belongings and march five miles from their homes to report to Babi Yar, on the premise that they would be relocated. When they arrived, the nazis took their valuables, stripped them of their clothing, and men, women, and chi

For Twenty Years I've Been Telling a Story About Her, But Today I Met Her

For the past twenty years, one of my favorite artifacts in my office has been a sample JDC food package. On the side of the relatively small box is a list of the dry goods, flour, salt, and so on, that were delivered by the JDC on a monthly basis to Hesed clients in the Former Soviet Union. And for those twenty years, I've told the stories of what for me were nameless and faceless senior adults, living in third or fourth or fifth floor walk-ups, homebound and relying on the JDC - and on our financial support - for their daily sustenance. Over those twenty years, the JDC's system has changed. They no longer provide food packages but instead debit cards for food and medicine. And, over thos

A Joint Meeting

After seeing the JCC Halom's program space, I had the opportunity to go up to its very top floor, where the regional offices of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee are located. Also known as the JDC or "the Joint," this global organization, which is supported by our Federation's annual campaign, works in nearly 70 countries around the globe "to alleviate hunger and hardship, rescue Jews in danger, create lasting connections to Jewish life, and provide immediate relief for victims of natural and man-made disasters." I was honored to meet with Daniel Gershkovitz, the JDC's lead staff person in the Kiev region, a geographically large area (Upper Fairfield County is tiny, in compari

I Was Young When I Ran a JCC, But I Didn't Design It

I started out my morning today with a visit to Kiev's new JCC Halom, the city's first Jewish Community Center. (Interesting enough my morning began with a slight change of plans that was a reminder that I was in a different part of the world, but I won't elaborate on that.) The JCC Halom was launched just over a year ago, and I was pleased to be greeted by its director, Anna Bondar.  What couldn't help but immediately strike me was that Anna is very young.  I would later find out that she was chosen as the JCC Director at age 29, the very same age at which I was hired to be the JCC Director in Harrisburg in 1998.  I felt a kinship. But, unlike Anna's situation, I was taking over a JCC that h

The Jewish Day School That Everyone Wants To Go To

This afternoon, I was fortunate to be invited for a visit to Kiev's ORT School. World ORT is well known for providing high quality Jewish education and vocational training throughout the world, serving over 300,000 students in 37 countries, and the ORT School in Kiev is a prime example of ORT doing what it does best. I was amazed to find a thriving school of over 1,000 students between grades 1 and 11 (with 11th grade, currently, being the highest grade in Ukrainian schools, although that is apparently set to change soon), and 1,200 students if the kindergarten is included in the totals. While the school's curriculum includes Hebrew, Jewish studies, and Israeli history, I was fascinated to s

More Than Just a Synagogue

After our visit to Anatevka, Yossy Azman was anxious to show me his synagogue, right in the heart of Kiev. The Brodsky Synagogue, originally known as the Choral Synagogue, was built in 1898, and spent almost five decades as a puppet theatre before returning to use as a synagogue in 1992. On the car ride there, Yossy told me the very interesting (and troubling) situation of a 1,000 torahs that were confiscated by the government during Communist rule.  Eleven of those torahs were recently returned to the synagogue, with great celebration.  But, even though the Prime Minister of Ukraine is himself Jewish, the government will not return the rest of the torahs.  The circumstance, at least as Yoss

Anatevka, Dear Little Village, Little Town of Mine

One of the trips I have been most excited to take came on the first morning of my visit to Ukraine.  I was picked up this morning at my hotel by Yossy Azman, the son of Rabbi Moshe Azman, Chief Rabbi of Ukraine.  Rabbi Moshe had planned to pick me up, but was called to Israel at the last moment for a meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu.  Rabbi Moshe and I hope to meet tomorrow.  (The flight from Kiev to Israel is only three hours.) When I first decided to travel to Ukraine, I googled "Where was Anatevka supposed to be?" knowing that the Anatevka in "Fiddler on the Roof" is a fictional location.  It was then that I was surprised to learn of the Anatevka Project, the brainchild of Rabbi Azman to b

Landed in Kiev

This evening, I landed in Kiev for the beginning of my Ukrainian journey.  While I am anticipating an emotional week, the flight here was, gratefully, uneventful. I had read the day before my flight that Ukrainian International Airlines, which I flew, was one of the worst international airlines in the world; but, other than the lack of any inflight entertainment (which I don't really need on a midnight flight anyway) and any meal services (I had brought along some power bars, which was more than enough), the ride was just fine.  For the price, I'd do it again. And for anyone wondering if I would be one of the few Jews on the flight, in fact my guess is that more than 75% of the flight were m

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