My Ukrainian adventure begins

25 Aug

Hello from my apartment in the beautiful city center of Kiev, Ukraine, where I will be living for the next year. I have the privilege of spending the year as an American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Jewish Service Corps fellow. I am one of  25 fellows who will be stationed around the world, and one of 3 stationed in Ukraine (though the other two fellows are in Kharkov). If you are unfamiliar with the work of The Joint, I encourage you to take a look at their website and learn more.

Born as a collaboration of the United States Jewish Federation system, they have been the 9-1-1 of the Jewish world for 97 years. They played a critical role in aiding Holocaust victims, relocating Jews to Israel and out of harm’s way, and they now work in over 70 countries worldwide and give around $350 million dollars in various types of aid to diaspora communities and Israel. As the CEO Steve Schwager said when he spoke to our group at our orientation in New York earlier this month, “the JDC is one of the largest Jewish organizations that many American Jews have never heard of.” One particularly illustrative tool to understand just how large a role The Joint has had in the diaspora is the feature on the site “JDC Through The Years”. Rather eye opening if you have a minute to poke around.

As such a massive organization, with over 800 employees worldwide, the work of The Joint looks different in different places, one thing I find particularly interesting.  For example, in Israel, they pilot social programs,  but in Latin America they work with communities to shore up assets and develop plans for the future. Most relevantly, “In The former Soviet Union, home to the world’s poorest Jews, a network of JDC-supported Hesed welfare centers offer relief to 168,000 Jewish elderly in some 2,800 towns and villages, while Jewish Community Centers are fueling Jewish renewal for all ages across the region.”

Again, if you have a minute, take a look for yourself and learn about their work through history. Geek out a little bit.  It is in this context that I have come to Kiev, to learn and work and hopefully bring my energy and excitement for Jewish community building. I come on the coattails of two volunteers who worked here last year, and from what I hear did a pretty good job doing thing ranging from working with the elderly, to children, to hosting young adults for Shabbos dinner.

Okay, so enough context.  You get it; and what you don’t get you can Google.

I arrived to Kiev last Tuesday evening. As far as journeys around the world go, this 10 hour flight was a breeze.  After a short layover in Amsterdam and then another short flight I was greeted by two members of the JDC staff and some wonderful summer weather and very green scenery here in Kiev.

I was fortunate to arrive in time for Ukrainian Independence Day on Wednesday. In celebration we went to a large flower festival being held in honor of the day.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Each region of the city submits a sculpture, which are then put on display at the festival along with chotchskies, hand crafts and the standard festival fare. I was reminded of the Rose Festival in Portland, but with about 100,000 more people and far more women in stilettos. I guess the inclination to make large ornate sculptures with flowers is universal. We’re all not so different after all. After the flower festival we ventured to Independence square where more festivities flooded the streets which were closed to cars for the day. Finally the day closed with some pretty amazing fireworks which would give any Fourth of July display a run for its money.

The rest of the week was spent easing into the office and beginning to visit the incredible facilities and projects they operate here. Thursday night I had the opportunity to go with a few of my co-workers to one of the local synagogue to make Challah. Being that my so far non-existent Russian skills make me pretty much non functional here, I was excited to show off a little. They had a very impressive set up for the nearly 40 women who showed up to bake and socialize. I hope I can bring back some of their very functional system to PDX Challah for Hunger.

The next day we braided and baked it at the office in time for a kabbalat Shabbat Kiddush and learn they hold at the office each week. I was very blessed to spend my first Shabbat here at the home of my boss, where I was able to meet his family and some of their friends. His wife made one of the most delicious Shabbos meals I’ve had; complete with 2 kinds of quiche, lasagna, salad, caramelized onion tart, and a plumb pie to die for. I hope she can teach me some of her tricks while I am here.

Next week I begin my intensive Russian language studies, 3 hours every day, which will be intense but so very helpful to get oriented here. As I was told before I came, there is just no getting around the language barrier.  I also hope to continue meeting people in the community and getting a better idea of the work I will be doing. For now the plan is to post each Sunday, even if just a short something, but we will see if that will make sense. I’ll keep you posted!