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The Cherkassy “Baby”: Peoplehood in Action

Michal Zur, our director for community connections, always claims that she has three community babies. All of them are reflections of Greater MetroWest’s unique approach of peoplehood in action. They are the rishonim (Israeli emissaries), Peoplehood Project, and the Cherkassy partnership.

In a few days another cohort of Israeli and American madrichim (counselors) will be trained in Israel and go together to serve at the family retreat of the Cherkassy community in the Ukraine. This is the 16th consecutive year that we are doing it. This year, for the first time, a community mission will join the madrichim in camp for a Shabbat experience

Here is what Michal says about her Cherkassy baby:

In the last 10 years I’ve been to Cherkassy three times. Every visit was a little different but they all had the same emotional and inspiring effect on me. We call it the “Cherkassy Magic.”

My last visit was this spring, with 20 Israelis and Americans, all participants of the second cohort of our Peoplehood Project. The plan was to spend a week in the Ukraine and then arrive in Israel for the Yom HaZikaron (Israel Memorial Day) commemoration and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) celebration.

Our visit started in Odessa, where we learned about work with of the JDC with the elderly and saw Beit Grand, their beautiful community center. We visited the ORT school and were impressed with their high level of Jewish education. We also learned about Tikva, a rescue aid and educational organization saving the lives of at-risk Jewish children and relieving the suffering of impoverished Jewish families in Odessa, Ukraine. JDC, JAFI, Tikva and ORT, all Federation overseas partners, have been key players in the revitalization of Jewish life in Odessa, reaching into the heart of the Jewish community to rebuild Jewish identity destroyed by decades of persecution and communist rule.

After spending a day in Kiev, we arrived in Cherkassy. The transition and difference between picturesque Odessa and modern Kiev to Cherkassy was dramatic. It is a relatively small town that seems to have been forgotten for a long time. I would like to share with you some of the special moments we had through the people we met along the way:

Dimitry (Dima) Spivakovsky is the Hesed (community center) director in Cherkassy. Dima’s warm welcome and the way he took care of us, made it all personal. They have no other visitors during the year and with very little means made us feel as one big mishpacha (family). We visited kindergartens, danced with the kids and painted their playground, met with Chabad people, and enjoyed Kabbalat Shabbat with the progressive community.

On Shabbat, Dima took us for a walk in town, making pre-WW II Jewish history come alive. When we got to the top of the hill, a beautiful spot overlooking the Deniper River and the town, he told us how the community of about 9,000 Jews simply vanished in a very short time. It got us all thinking about the meaning of the Holocaust in Greater MetroWest and Israel.

It connected to the group commemoration ceremony we had in Babi Yar two days earlier and to the Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) ceremony we saw in an ORT school in Odessa. It made me think of how fragile Jewish life can be in such places, not as a cliché but as a real threat. It made us admire the strength and dedication of the people we met in Cherkassy that were able to revive Jewish life and proudly celebrate their heritage.

Raisa is over 80 years old. She lives in Cherkassy in a small, run down house. When entering the yard we felt like we were thrown back to a 19th Century shtetl. Raisa worked as a teacher for many years, has no children, and lost her husband only few weeks ago. Since the average monthly pension in Ukraine is only about $150, Raisa needs help and is a Hesed client. We went to visit her on Friday afternoon, expecting to be the ones to bring hope and comfort to her. We found a beautiful old lady, holding her head up, telling us about the strong connection she has with her students, and teaching us some life lessons. Despite her loneliness, poor life conditions, and bad health, she continues to be optimistic and shows great love for Judaism. She truly inspired us.

Liza and Dima were very young kids when I first met them in Cherkassy summer camp in July 2005. When I returned to camp in the summer of 2008, Liza showed me a picture of us from three years ago. Last week, Liza and Dima were waiting for me at Hesed. Liza is graduating high school, Dima is already in college, and they remember the names of all their Israeli and American madrichim. They and their parents credit the camp for shaping and reviving their Jewish lives. They are so excited to meet this summer’s madrichim and are getting ready for the mission’s visit.

Matan Ovdati (z’l), from Moshav Patish, was killed five years ago on the border with Gaza on April 16, 2005. He was 20 years old. His mother, Hadassa, is working at the Merchavim day care center for seniors with Ille, one of the Israeli peoplehoodniks. (Merchavim is one of Greater MetroWest’s seven partner communities in Israel).

When Hadassa heard about Ille’s trip to the Ukraine and that the Americans were coming back with us to Israel, she asked if they would honor the family and take part in Yom Hazikaron ceremony in their moshav. Toby and Tanya represented the Greater MetroWest community at the ceremony, and after the ceremony went to Hadassa’s house to see Matan’s pictures and learn about him. The next day, we were standing at the military cemetery in Ofakim (another partner community), Israelis and Americans together, hearing the siren and salute firing.

Just few hours later, the mood changed and we got to share Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations with our American friends. Many of the Israelis said it was most meaningful for them to celebrate the two most Israeli days on the Jewish calendar with their American friends, especially after visiting Odessa and Cherkassy.

Katia, Yonit, Hal, Bat El, Ronit, Toby, Ille, Jerry, Dani, Charlie, David, Carol, Mira, Oranit, Stacy, Inbal, Michael, Ofer, Tanya, and Sigal are Peoplehood 2. They are a unique group of committed, passionate, enthusiastic, loud and smart people. I am so proud of them for the journey they’ve made in the past two years, questioning and developing a sense of community, leadership, Jewish identity and…yes, Peoplehood.

In few weeks we will end this group’s formal program and move to the next stage, which is implementing their “Negev Game” project and involving them in our committees both in Israel and in New Jersey. At the same time, we are already busy brainstorming and planning for Peoplehood 3 while maintaining the engagement and energy of groups 1 and 2.

To view lot pictures, visit the Hesed website.

Peoplehood discussions in Odessa (we LOVE talking!)

Peoplehood discussions in Odessa (we LOVE talking!)

Ofer playing soccer with Tikva orphans in Odessa

Ofer playing soccer with Tikva orphans in Odessa

Peoplehood members in Cherkassy Hesed

Peoplehood members in Cherkassy Hesed

Inspiring encounter with Raisa

Inspiring encounter with Raisa

With Dmitry Spivakovsky

With Dmitry Spivakovsky

Dinner with Rabbi Beksht, head of Tikva Odessa
Dinner with Rabbi Beksht, head of Tikva Odessa

 

 

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