When I heard that my dad was traveling back to Ukraine without his usual partner in crime (my mom), I jumped on the opportunity. My father, Barry Kahan, is a JDC Board member, and has been involved with the organization for most of my adult life. Not only was this an opportunity to travel somewhere together, but it would allow me to see firsthand the work that he takes part in, as well as what drives him to do it. I would also have the chance to spend time with the people he’s built a special bond with over the past few years — both the ones I’ve met when they’ve traveled to the States to visit our family and the ones I hear about constantly.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I boarded the plane. All I knew was to bring warm clothes and expect to be on our feet all day. So I was surprised when, as soon as we landed in Odessa, we were taken to the Ballet at the Opera House. Romeo & Juliet in Ukraine! Afterwards, we met the rest of our group for a dinner. I didn’t know it yet, but it was the beginning of a transformative week.
The first day was when I felt my spark! We visited Hesed Shareey Tzion — the local care center for elderly Jews — and were led into a room where seniors were dancing along with a choir. The energy was infectious: I put my jacket down, started clapping and joined. If I’d been nervous about the trip, I wasn’t anymore; I felt my body relax as we danced and circled around together as a group. A really nice man came up to me and, after realizing I was only going to step on his toes, twirled me and dipped me. I was surprised by how comfortable and confident this group of strangers made me feel.
Within a day, maybe less, the group felt like a family. I’d come on the trip to spend time with my dad, and I did — on the bus, walking through museums, JCCs, synagogues — but I also found myself joining other groups. At the end of the day we would share our experiences with each other and reflect on what we’d learned. There were so many aspects to discuss: Some were educating, some heartbreaking, some inspiring and motivating.
I finally understood why my dad was so “addicted” to his work. It was this sense of extended family, a family that existed on the other side of the world yet ready to welcome me and where I could feel completely supported and comfortable. How could you not want to do your part to nurture and support that family? JDC calls its care centers Heseds, which is Hebrew for the Jewish value of “loving kindness”, and that was the theme of the week. Love and kindness were present all around us, throughout the entire week. I am so grateful for everyone who made it possible.
The end of the mission was what my dad was most excited about, and so naturally I was looking forward to it, too. We got to attend the three-day Active Jewish Teens (AJT) Conference where around 500 teens gathered together from all over the former Soviet Union to learn about each other, share their own stories about how they discovered their Jewish identity, and make plans to help within their own Jewish communities. The entire AJT experience was energizing, to say the least. Walking into a room packed with kids who were so excited to be Jewish together was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I asked the JDC co-chair If I could join her on stage just to be up there while she was speaking and feel the incredible vibes!
I finally understood why my dad was so “addicted” to his work.
My most meaningful experience at the AJT conference hit closer to home. On the second night, we broke out into groups after Shabbat and my dad was one of the speakers. In front of twelve kids, he talked about his own story, how he’d grown up Jewish, and how he became the successful leader he is today. I’ve heard his stories dozens of time, but as I sat there in Ukraine, watching these kids listening to him, rapt, I saw his story through new eyes. These kids hadn’t grown up Jewish. Many of them knew more about Jewish life than their parents; they were the teachers. I understood how powerful a Jewish role model my dad had been for me for my entire life, and how fortunate I am to have had him as my dad, supporting me and believing in me.
I was proud to share him with those 12 kids.
It’s easy to take our parents for granted. But for a few days, I got to see another part of the world through my dad’s eyes, and my dad through the eyes of others. Among the many memories I’ll carry with me from my trip, that’s what I’ll cherish the most.