My dad tells me that when he was a kid in Kiev and went with his grandmother to get matzah for Passover at today's Brodsky synagogue, there were policemen on either side of the distribution line keeping an angry eye out for young people. He remembers one of them telling him to scram before he got himself more problems than he'd know what to do with. And despite being a Jew, he managed to make it through the Russian army, get into university, and find his first job so he could start a family.
But when my dad returned to that very same place 24 years after emigrating from Ukraine, and saw young people spilling out of the synagogue where a lively Rosh Hashanah service was under way (with similar-looking guards now posted to ensure their safety rather than jeopardize it), he couldn't believe his eyes. It's true, Jewish life is thriving in today's Kiev: Three synagogues actively sustain communities of varying religiosity, while numerous others can be spotted around the city, adding to its overall beauty. There's a Jewish Community Center that has educational, creative, and social programs for Jews of all ages who are interested in learning about Jewish traditions. Supported by JDC, it welcomes children to a Jewish kindergarten, families to camping and holiday programs, and the elderly to a day center where Yiddish songs make the heart swell with joy.
When I paid a visit to the local Hillel house, I was blown away by the contagious enthusiasm and energy of the group of young adults who had come together to brainstorm about ways to reach out and get even more young people involved in non-denominational Shabbat celebrations and other programs. Clearly, they're shaping their own future in a place where Jewish life was nearly obliterated under Nazism and Communism, and further weakened by massive waves of emigration. What's more, when we traveled about 100 km outside the capital to Belaya Tserkov—the much smaller city where I was born—we saw remarkable examples of Jewish life there, too. This town once had a very large Jewish community because it was just beyond the line of settlement permitted by the czar. And despite today’s modest Jewish population figures, we paid a visit there to a local Jewish day school that is better-maintained than most of the buildings I'd seen until then.
The school has some 130 students from kindergarten through grade 11, 70% of them Jewish and 30% enrolled because the standard of education is so solid. The kids here learn Hebrew, Israel's history, and Jewish traditions. In fact, this school is the center of the community, and it’s where parents, grandparents, and children come together to celebrate every major Jewish holiday. While there, we got to watch a classroom full of 5th graders learn about the symbols of Rosh Hashanah—in Ukrainian! For my dad, hearing Hebrew being translated into Ukrainian and repeated back by 10-year-olds was something beyond belief. For me, seeing kids learning the same traditions I once studied in an American-style Jewish day school on the other side of the world reassured me that there is indeed a new kind of hope at work here in Ukraine.
Based in New York, Zhanna Veyts is part of JDC’s Global Marketing and Communications Team and has just returned from a two-week visit to Georgia and Ukraine.
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