Feature Stories

Passover Inspires Volunteerism in Belarus

Simon G., 18, is one of hundreds of grassroots volunteers leading Seders in JDC-supported centers throughout the former Soviet Union this Passover.
Simon G., 18, is one of hundreds of grassroots volunteers leading Seders in JDC-supported centers throughout the former Soviet Union this Passover.

“I remember our family receiving support from the Jewish community when I was three or four years old. Now I finally get the chance to give back,” says Marina L., who at 17 years old is leading her first Seder—a community holiday celebration for children and families at the Minsk Jewish Campus.

Marina is an only child. She shares a rundown two-room flat in Minsk, Belarus with her parents, both of whom are disabled and struggle to subsist on a monthly pension. The Jewish community has been this family’s lifeline since Marina was a young girl. In addition to providing her with basic food and medicines, JDC has enabled Marina to attend Jewish camp, participate in Hillel activities, and attend myriad programs at the local JDC-supported Jewish Community Center (JCC).

“Every trip, every event organized by the Jewish community, has been unforgettable for me … full of vivid impressions and memories,” she said.

Marina joined the Passover volunteer program at the Campus, where she was participating in a JDC-supported young leadership development program.“Years of involvement [in my community] have allowed me to deepen my knowledge of Jewish traditions and the history of Pesach. Now I’ve learned how to carry out Pesach Seders and I’m ready to practice my skills.”

Marina is among hundreds of young Jews throughout the former Soviet Union who have volunteered to lead their communities in one of the most important Jewish rituals. Each Seder brings together at least 50 participants of all ages and offers a unique opportunity for Jews to connect to one another and the global Jewish community.

Developing young people from the community to lead Jewish holiday and other activities is just one facet of the Jewish cultural renaissance JDC is helping bring about in Belarus. At the epicenter of these activities is the “one-stop” JDC-supported Minsk Jewish Campus, which houses a Hesed welfare center, a JCC, Hillel, the Jewish Family Outreach Service, and more.

For Marina, the campus has become a second home. And while this will be her first Seder, she knows she can count on many of her peers who are veteran volunteers to help her make this year’s event a success.

At age 18 Simon G. is already a seasoned volunteer. He has trained for three years at the Madrich (counselor) school and lent his time as a volunteer madrich to different JCC activities, day camps, family camps, and other informal education programs.

“From year to year our community grows and develops … more and more people participate in different programs and clubs,” says Simon, who’s watched his community transform since he first attended the local JCC at age eight. “Sharing Jewish tradition is very important to me. It’s not just my duty to the community; it’s my obligation to my ancestors.”

For Simon, this Jewish responsibility is personal – and related to Passover. “I wouldn’t be who I am today without the experiences I’ve had here [at the JCC], all the knowledge and practice of our traditions and rituals,” he said. “I’ve learned to say proudly that I’m Jewish, not to be shy and not to be afraid of anything or anyone. Pesach encapsulates this feeling for me because it is about the escape from slavery… it is an adventure. I love to tell stories and I’m thrilled to share all that I’ve learned with others.”

Tags for this story: Disabilities, Jewish Holiday Celebrations, Youth / Young Adults

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