Trip to Siberia Underscores Value of JDC for Dedicated Volunteer

Cheryl Fishbein stands in Birobidzhan, Russia, on the JDC Ambassadors trip she organized.
Cheryl Fishbein stands in Birobidzhan, Russia, on the JDC Ambassadors trip she organized. photo: Courtesy of Cheryl Fishbein

There she was, dressed in full Russian attire, wrapped in a long fur coat as if being hugged by a big grizzly bear, standing in front of a sign — one side of it written in Russian, the other side written in Yiddish.  She was by the gateway to one of Siberia’s most interesting cities, Birobidzhan.

I looked up from the picture, and saw the same woman sitting across from me.  I was talking to Cheryl Fishbein, whose energy and personality filled up the room as she answered my questions about her experiences with JDC.

Fishbein, a JDC Ambassadors Steering Committee member and Jewish activist, has been involved with JDC for years.  Originally from Brooklyn, Fishbein grew up with a keen understanding of the work JDC does.  She remembers her father, a Holocaust survivor, telling her that he received a food package while in a concentration camp at the end of World War II, and how much it meant.

She has helped plan and staff numerous JDC trips, reaching all corners of the earth.  While all her travel experiences were meaningful, one trip in particular stands out among the rest: the trip to Birobidzhan. 

“People think I’m crazy,” she laughed as she scrolled through more pictures.  “I know people who will go visit in August.  I make fun of them for that.  If you are going to see the conditions in which people really live in Siberia, you should go in the winter.”

In late January of 2011—the most brutally cold time of year—Fishbein led a JDC mission to Russia and the Far East with her husband, Phil Schatten, a member of the JDC Board.  Calling this mission one of her “pride and joys,” she and about 15 other people, of all different ages and backgrounds, traveled through the “cold nothingness” of Siberia.

Between the nine-month winter season, the poverty, and the haunting history, Birobidzhan is full of extremes.  Created by Stalin in the 1930s, Birobidzhan was built on a “Jewish pioneering spirit.”  It was originally meant to be a place to isolate all the Jews.  Stalin drew many Jews into the area through propaganda, advertising it as a “socialist Jewish utopia,” or a homeland for the Jews—and those who were in that socialist mindset followed.  Yet while Stalin’s resettlement of the Jews failed at making any sort of a homeland, there still to this day remains a strong Jewish feel throughout the city.  

“Isn’t this amazing?” she asked while showing a picture of a small, wooden, one story building.  It pictured the synagogue that serves as the religious center for the Jews that are left in the area.  “You travel to what feels like the edge of the earth—and look at what’s there!  They think like us, talk like us, are teachers and professionals, just like Jews everywhere.” 

Fishbein admitted that out of all the places that she has ever traveled to, the poverty that she encountered in Birobidzhan was the worst.  It is the reason she feels so strongly about continuing the work JDC does in outlying cities like Birobidzhan, where Jews have no one else to turn to.

“There were 4 to 5 kids living in two rooms.” She showed a picture of a family that she had visited while in Birobidzhan.  “They had no hot water and were living in 40-below-degree weather.”  After meeting that family, and seeing the condition of the city, Fishbein’s faith in JDC’s work grew stronger.

JDC is currently providing care for the needy elderly and children of Birobidzhan.  They are bringing supplies and basic needs to the poor, and helping the Jewish community to blossom.  Other JDC missions to Birobidzhan and Siberia are being planned for 2014.

It is the idea of one big whole and supportive Jewish community that continues to inspire and motivate Fishbein. 

Looking past the long hours traveling, the vicious weather, and the fear that something dangerous could happen, it is that extreme sense of responsibility that Fishbein feels she owes to the community that motivates her to travel to the ends of the earth. 

“We are small.  We have to take care of our own,” she explained when asked about the importance of giving to a Jewish cause. 

“It is an opportunity to say thank you to the community,” she said.  “I am enriched by the goodness it brings to the world.  In the end, I feel that I get back more than I give."

Join Cheryl on her next trip as she leads a JDC mission to explore the Jewish communities of Mongolia and Siberia (January 31- February 11, 2014) http://www.jdc.org/get-involved/travel-with-jdc/mongolia-and-siberia.html

Meet Cheryl at JDC’s Global Symposium on October 15th  http://www.jdc.org/get-involved/events/2013/oct-symposium.html 

Come with JDC on a mission to Shanghai and Birobidzan (September 12-18, 2014). More information can be found at jdc.org/ambassadors

This post was written by JDC Ambassadors intern Carrie Jablansky.

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