Inspired Volunteer Engages Young Jews in Moldova

August 8, 2012

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Julia Shoymaru, 18, is Deputy Director of Haverim, a JDC young leadership program in Chisinau (Kishinev), Moldova. She is the group’s proudest advocate, because this is where she found her home, her identity, and her voice.

Every afternoon and weekend, she can be found volunteering at the local JDC-supported Jewish Community Center, leading after-school sessions, and engaging young and old in Jewish communal life.

The tremendous volunteer efforts of Julia and thousands of other individuals across the former Soviet Union ensure that JDC can reach the region’s neediest Jews and revitalize Jewish life every day.

Here, Julia shares her earliest Jewish memories in post-Communist Moldova and what inspires her relentless dedication to her community today.

JDC: As part of the first generation born in Moldova post Communism and restrictive anti-religious laws, what are your earliest memories of practicing Judaism?

JS: My family didn’t celebrate the Jewish holidays when I was growing up. I first encountered Judaism in 5th grade as a new student at our local Jewish school. There I learned about kashrut, where you put a mezuzah, and the miracle of Chanukah. I remember feeling the spirit of Purim for the first time when our older classmates threw a Purim party for us, with a concert and a show telling the holiday story.

I also remember my Bat Mitzvah, which I celebrated together with a group of other youngsters. We were overjoyed to be part of our community’s first joint celebration [of entry into young adulthood] in decades. All of our families came! It was very festive, and I really felt at home.

JDC: How did you get involved in Haverim and what kept you coming back?

JS: I came to Haverim by chance when a classmate invited me to one of the group’s first Shabbatons. I didn’t know where I was going, but when I got there I loved it.

I constantly wanted to go back and spend time with those great people, be involved, and to help out. So I began participating in the leaders’ school, seminars, and the youth club. Soon I led my first Shabbaton and was invited to work at the summer program. I thought, ‘If someone gives you an opportunity, why not take it?’—so I went.

JDC: What does Haverim mean to you today?

JS: Haverim has become my second home, because it’s where I spent almost all my time—even more than at my own house.

My first year working there I was in 12th grade and I couldn’t participate in everything because I was studying. But once I started university I went back every day, even weekends. Volunteering there didn’t feel like work; it was fun for me.

Haverim is important to me because I feel absolutely comfortable, happy, and very, very lucky there. It brings me so much joy. I met my best friends there, shared spirits who understand and love me.

JDC: What leadership development experiences were most important for your growth?

JS: My most important experience was my first time at the integration program for children with special needs. I was one of the group leaders. I was nervous initially but I learned a tremendous amount from the other volunteers and from the whole experience. As it turns out, practice is more important than theory!

Through JDC’s Metsuda young leadership development program, everything I had learned at school, weekend retreats, and the JCC came together. It taught me a lot about myself, my actions, and how I behave when I’m out of my element, too.

But at Haverim, where I’ve spent over 2 ½ years, from age 16 to 19, I actually grew up. I learned to think, lead, speak my mind, and converse with people different from me. I stopped being shy. And I learned to respond to situations and happenings when things didn’t go according to plan and to create engaging experiences that could bring joy to others.

JDC: Family retreats, and Shabbatons are central to your work in the community today. What do you think they offer to the kids and families?

JS: Jewish retreats are where I truly feel a warm family atmosphere and I think the kids and parents who attend feel it too. People chat, speak Yiddish, and come together. At one family retreat I watched a father bless his child for the first time on Shabbat. It was so moving!

There are so many touching moments like this that give you a chance to understand the importance of Jewish traditions, values, and the critical role of the family.

Our Shabbatons are always linked to Jewish holidays like Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah, and Pesach. Each one is unique, but they all share three days of fun, educational programming prepared by our professional team. These weekends are unforgettable.

JDC: What is a specific story that conveys what it feels like to be there?

JS: One memorable night at a family retreat, my fellow volunteers and I organized an impromptu gathering and we stayed up all night sharing family stories, singing songs, and drinking tea. It was wonderful!

So often I’ve found myself at those weekends talking with older people, listening to them share their life experiences—a real opportunity for me to learn from them. Some of those people have had me to their homes afterwards. People go from strangers to family.

Most importantly, when you see the retreats families at community events, you remember your times together, ask if they will make it to the next retreat, inquire about their families…. We build real ties and look toward the future together.

JDC: Your story epitomizes the importance of volunteerism for community development. What motivates you as a volunteer? And how do you motivate others to join you?

JS: The gratitude in a smile is the best gift a person can receive. When I see people in my programs have a great time it’s inspiring. When you see for whom and for what you’re working, it makes you want to do even more.

It’s emotional and hard to put into words. You have to feel it yourself.

I try to motivate others by example. I share my own story of how I got involved and that pulls people in.

JDC: What are your goals for your future? How is Jewish life a part of this vision?

JS: I’m currently studying Agro-Industrial Engineering at the Technical University in Chisinau. It’s a very different part of my life from my work at Haverim.

I dream about living abroad, in Europe or the US, because I feel there are many more professional opportunities for young people there than here.

And I dream about seeing Jewish life in other parts of the world. One thing I know for sure is if I go abroad I will certainly seek out Jewish communities and find what they do so I can participate just as actively as I do in my community today.

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