From the American Joint Distribution Committee's website
Young Adults in Ukraine Inspire College Students from Michigan
From August 22-31, 2005, 15 students from University of Michigan Hillel traveled to Kiev, Kharkov, Sumy, and Konotop, Ukraine, where they joined their peers from Kharkov Hillel and the Jewish Youth Association to paint apartments of elderly Jews in need and to refurbish Jewish community facilities. Below, Sol, a Senior at the University of Michigan, reflects on his experience:
It may have been our group’s 6th rendition of the Yiddish classic Tumbalalika that week, but we were still singing it just as loudly, clapping and dancing hand-in-hand with the elderly with the same exuberance and energy as the first five times.
Although our group — comprised of 15 students and two staff members from University of Michigan Hillel — may have arrived in the Ukraine with the lofty vision of inspiring and educating the local Jewish community, what we soon realized was that the locals would become our teachers.
Over the course of our ten day stay in Ukraine as part of a service program sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), Michigan Hillel, and Kharkov Hillel, and financially supported by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Mandell L. and Madeleine H. Berman Foundation, and others, we witnessed something that exceeded all of our expectations: the revival of a Jewish community, whose core is a group of young, bright, and promising individuals. Personally, as a child of Russian immigrants to the United States, it was immensely valuable for me to see this group of individuals that are not only leading their local communities in rebuilding, but led us, active students at University of Michigan, on a journey through Ukrainian-Jewish history past and present.
This educational and inspirational journey was one full of emotion: from saying Kaddish (Mourner’s prayer) for the hundreds of thousands of Jews massacred by Nazis in 1941 at Babi Yar to reading from a Torah for the first time since its arrival over five years ago at the revived Jewish community of Konotop.
Yet, the highs and lows of emotion we felt throughout this journey were fitting for a Jewish community that has suffered through so much, yet amazingly persevered to this day. This once vibrant Jewish community has suffered through mass murder at the hands of the Nazis along with repression under Soviet rule. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Ukrainian independence of 1991, the Jewish community has experienced an oft-turbulent path to revival. We were lucky to get a glimpse of that revival: hearing a student a Capella group sing Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem, interacting with kids at a special needs program at the brand-new JDC sponsored JCC, and picking potatoes for charity at a Jewish cooperative farm.
While it is clear that these young Ukrainians left a lasting impact on us, it is also for certain that our being there, the simple notion that 15 young Americans would travel all the way to Ukraine just to show support for its budding community, meant a lot. Regardless of what one may consider the best future of Ukrainian Jewry — whether it be mass immigration to Israel or a steadfast commitment to rebuilding their community locally from the ground up — it would be erroneous to consider their community dead. Witnessing a newly reopened and refurbished synagogue, a boisterous and smile-laden Shabbat service and dinner, and even a young and rising Jewish Ukrainian rapper, one thing is more crystal-clear than Ukrainian vodka: this community is alive. Alive and dancing.