Returning to Their Roots with the Global Jewish Service Corps

September 17, 2015


When Karin Goitman of Cincinnati, Ohio, told her Ukrainian-born parents she would spend a year in Ukraine, they were a bit surprised.

After all, neither of them had visited the country since they left in 1990.

“For them to have somebody going back is like, ‘OK…,’” said the 22-year-old college graduate. “But they understand it’s for a year. I think they think it’s pretty cool.”

Goitman is going to Kharkiv as a JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps fellow — a prestigious fellowship program that sends young Jewish adults to address Jewish and humanitarian needs in communities around the world — and is part of a cohort of Russian-speakers with family ties to the former Soviet Union volunteering in that part of the world.

“I think speaking Russian will connect me better than most others,” she said. “I definitely feel a connection and I’m sure the more I learn, the greater the connection I will feel to Ukraine and its Jewish community.”

Marina Klimchuck moved from Ukraine to Germany when she was a child and spent the last several years in Israel. Her family history inspired her decision to pursue a master’s degree in migration studies at Tel Aviv University. Now, the 26-year-old is returning to the former Soviet Union as a JSC Fellow where she will work with the Jewish community of Tbilisi, Georgia.

“There’s an element of me that wants to reconnect with my roots,” said Klimchuck. “Though they are in Georgia, I share with some of them a language and culture. It’s something that’s strong and I want to explore it further.”

In the former Soviet Union, Georgia is perceived as an exotic country thanks to its dramatic landscape and unique culture. Her mother’s first association when she heard her daughter was going to Georgia was with the Georgian watermelon vendors of her hometown in Ukraine, who loudly advertised their produce in broken Russian at the marketplace. For her, that imagery was part of the attraction.

“I wouldn’t go to Ukraine, Belarus, or Moldova because I already know it,” Klimchuck said. ”I’m going there because it’s different — yet familiar at the same time.”

Goitman and Klimchuck are both JDC-BBYO Fellows, too.

Each year, a select number of Jewish Service Corps Fellows are chosen to use their expertise in teen engagement as JDC-BBYO Fellows. Together with local teen and community leaders, these fellows create and develop peer-led Jewish programming for teens in their communities. Fellows additionally engage teens in international BBYO programming, leading delegations from their community to BBYO International Convention and other global experiences. The fellows enrich Jewish life overseas by capitalizing upon BBYO’s expertise in the field of teen programming and leadership development and by facilitating meaningful connections between Jewish teens from across the globe, creating a truly international Jewish teen movement.

Over the next year, Goitman and Klimchuck will immerse themselves in the local culture and Jewish communities. Goitman is going to Ukraine during a particularly challenging time. Over the part two years, the country has been rocked by conflict and economic strife that has left thousands dead and more than 1 million displaced. JDC has been on the front lines working with a Jewish community in growing need of food, medicine, and other basic necessities.

“I’m sure there’ll be moments when it’ll be hard,” Goitman said. “That’s also the exciting part — to be there at a time like this.”

Luckily, she won’t be alone for long. Her mother plans to visit her soon — the first time she’ll be back in her country of birth since she left.

“My mom left Ukraine when she was 22, and now I’m 22 and I’m going there,” said Goitman. “We’re both excited.”

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