As Young Leadership Committee member Morris Singer described for us last month, this past June, CJP and JCRC ran a Young Leaders Service Mission to Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine with participants from Boston, Haifa and Dnepropetrovsk, including several members of the Boston-Haifa Connection’s Young Leadership Committee. Today, Lena Bronshtein and the other participants from Haifa relay some impressions from their perspectives, and Lena shares her thoughts on returning to the place where she was born.
Mission participants at the Big Brother, Big Sister organization. Photo credit: Morris Singer
By Lena Bronshtein
The local community in Dnepropetrovsk is amazing. It has miraculously built itself up over the past 20 years and has become a social support system that takes care of every needy individual. From being a Jew behind closed doors, the Jewish community is now being celebrated through institutes that have been established, including the magnificent “Golden Word” Synagogue, which was built in the center of the city, and the huge “Menorah” structure that comprises seven buildings and is intended to house within it all Jewish businesses in the city. This reminds us of one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The Jewish community is a sight for sore eyes; it is attracting people who want to connect to their roots, even if they are not Jewish according to Jewish law. These people are learning the ways of Judaism and becoming Jews in their souls. We must not forget, of course, that this was all made possible through the help of Rabbi Kamonitski, who came with nothing on “shlichut” by Chabad to establish and strengthen the Jewish community in the city. Today, the Jewish community exists thanks to him. Many projects within the community are being led by the CJP under one umbrella called “Kehilla Projects.” Many projects are being run for the benefit of the community in cooperation with both Boston and Haifa.
By going on this delegation, we aspired to achieve several important objectives:
1. To understand the ways of the local community and the place of Young Leadership within it.
2. To get closer to the local community and to the youth within the community in order to develop a future connection.
3. To become an integral part of the Boston delegation and make them understand the importance of the triangular intercommunity framework.
4. To examine our Jewish identity.
Returning to Dnepropetrovsk, My Hometown
There are experiences in person’s life that shake up his emotional and intellectual world and give inspiration and renewed strength to continue to work in all areas.
I experienced this upon returning to my hometown of Dnepropetrovsk in the Ukraine (the picture to the left is of me in my 1st grade classroom). Every person who makes aliyah leaves behind memories that accompany him wherever he goes. Some repress these memories, and some return to them in order to draw inspiration from them and enrich their lives with colors from the past.
I experienced a great deal during this visit and I would like to express my thanks to all those from Haifa who took part in the delegation – Rebecca, Tomer, Tal and Gilad. Without you, the experience would not have been complete. I am proud to see that the delegation members were so deeply affected by what they saw and experienced. Every Jew during his lifetime must get to know Jewish communities in the Diaspora in order to appreciate what he has at home and the support he receives from the outside, and, of course, also to strengthen his personal pride of belonging to a strong Jewish nation such as ours.
I would like to share the following reflections from the other Haifaiim who went on the mission to Dnepropetrovsk:
Rebecca Hecht Weistuch, Chair of the Volunteer Committee
Rebecca prepares and serves falafel during a volunteer day at a children’s JCC camp.
“It is very inspiring to see how leaders, regular people, rise up and take responsibility for Jewish communities in faraway countries, entering into painful and difficult situations in order to help out their brethren. Their belief and mutual responsibility are very strong and inspiring. For me, my Jewish identity is stronger today than it was in the past: it now has a greater spiritual truth and much more significance for me than my materialistic daily life. The head of the JDC said the following in the Commonwealth of Independent States where we had met: “We don’t choose to be Jews; we can try and hide from this identity, but our Judaism is not a choice, it is a fact. And we are committed to be mutually responsible to each other within Jewish communities in Israel and to our brethren living in the Diaspora.”
Tomer Udi, Co-Coordinator of the “Social Seal” project
“The visit to Dnepropetrovsk was a very emotional experience for me, affecting how I felt about my Jewish identity and highlighting the importance of the State of Israel, as well as the necessity to establish strong ties with the Diaspora. There were several emotional climaxes when we felt genuinely proud to be Jewish Israelis. The visit to the “Beit Hanna” women’s college or the “Beit Baruch” senior citizens home clarified the importance of the Jewish community and the commitment and common fate of the Jewish nation. This fate did not pass over one of the Christian translators who confessed to me that she wished she were Jewish.
Without a doubt, two of the most memorable experiences for me were helping to clean up the old Jewish cemetery and the visit to “Matzava” – the only memorial site remaining of the cemetery in which 90,000 Jews were buried. These experiences connected me to the place and to the people I had met; none of us left without shedding a tear. Also, as an Israeli Jew from Haifa of Sephardic origin like myself, who had never felt the suffering of Jews living the Diaspora, it was easy to connect to the place and to the people who are light years away from me – their Jewish heritage is my heritage. In the photo on the right, I am in the background working to clean up the cemetary.
Gilad Saadoun, Co-Chair of the “Entrepreneurs in Jeans” Committee
“Aside from being astounded by the religious community, my heart was crushed after seeing several cases of community members living on welfare, particularly the elderly. It was amazing to see how people survive on contributions of a mere ₪100 and it was very emotional to understand that they would not accept even this tiny amount to help them sustain their lives had they not been Jewish.
In my opinion, there is tremendous importance in our visit within the framework of the delegation of Jews from Boston and Haifa (I am pictured on the left in this photograph, next to Barnet Kessel who co-chaired the mission from Boston). Each side brings its own cultural values. During the many hours of activities, I also learned a great deal about the community from Boston and about the activities going on in Haifa. Moreover, I hope that exposing the young adults in Dnepropetrovsk to Young Leadership members who visited there will provide them with the motivation to start to take action and form a similar group within their own community.”
Tal Lemer, Co-Coordinator of the “Social Seal” project
“I think that my Jewish identity received a serious impetus during the delegation’s visit, even though I define myself as being a conservative Jew – I am familiar with and celebrate the Jewish holidays and celebrations, etc. This was the first time I was introduced to a mikveh and all its implications. The most significant activities for me are volunteer activities. Without a doubt, when there is an objective, all differences and obstacles are removed, as well as language barriers.”
Tal and Cyndi Stone, Director of Donor Relations & Stewardship at CJP, paint outside of Beit Hanna.
Lena Bronshtein is the Haifa coordinator of the Dnepropetrovsk project and a member of the “Entrepreneurs in Jeans” Committee.