University of Michigan students pick potatoes for the winter at the collective Jewish farm in Konotop.
By Allison Goldstein
While most students were bringing their summers to a close, 15 University of Michigan Hillel students were just beginning our adventure. On August 22, along with our rabbi and program director, we departed on a 10-day service program to Ukraine. The project was sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which provides assistance to overseas Jewish communities, University of Michigan Hillel and Kharkov Hillel, with financial support from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Mandell L. and Madeleine H. Berman Foundation.
Ukraine is home to one of the largest Jewish populations outside of Israel, but the current number of active Jews is small due to the difficulty, and even danger, of dealing with anti-Semitism and the lack of Jewish resources. Thus, our primary goal was to connect with Ukrainian Jews who are rebuilding Jewish life following years of Nazi atrocities and Communist rule, to provide them support and a link to a larger, global Jewish community.
We flew into Kiev, and after a brief visit to Babi Yar, the site of tens of thousands of Jewish deaths during World War II, we boarded an overnight train bound for Kharkov, our main destination. Kharkov, the second largest city in Ukraine, consists of approximately 1.8 million people, 40,000 of whom are Jewish (down from 150,000 before WWII). It was upon our arrival in Kharkov that we got our first glimpse into the incredible revitalization of Jewish life taking place in Ukraine. At six in the morning, we were greeted with signs and roses by students from Kharkov Hillel and JCC Beit Dan, whose incredible warmth and enthusiasm, to our amazement, only seemed to grow throughout the week we spent together. These students, our peers, were so eager to connect with us and to celebrate a joy for being Jewish.
We visited many Jewish establishments, including Hillel, Hesed welfare centers and JCC Beit Dan. We took the time to play with children from broken homes whose development depended on the warmth and caring of Hesed workers, to repair apartments of elderly Jewish community members who relied on JDC’s assistance to meet their most basic needs for food, clothing, and medicine, and to celebrate with our peers. All the while we gained insight into the pride and pure zest for life that is such a prominent part of Ukrainian culture.
The Shabbat we spent at Kharkov Hillel was an unforgettable experience. Despite the lack of Jewish educational resources, these students knew the words to every song and blessing by heart, and in spite of the language barrier that existed for many, their enthusiasm and passion brought everyone together into what felt like one big family. This again held true in our visit to the small town of Konotop where, although the Jewish community was much older, the pure pleasure of their singing and dancing seemed like that of children.
For our University of Michigan Hillel group, the incredible time we spent in Ukraine opened our eyes to Jewish life outside of the United States and Israel, and made us think about what it means to be Jewish and about how much we take for granted living in a land of freedom. We are so thankful to have had the chance to meet so many wonderful people, and we are going to do everything we can to continue our connection with our Ukrainian peers and aid in their quest to strengthen their Jewish community.
Allison Goldstein is a sophomore at the University of Michigan.