Several days into his stay in the Baltic state of Latvia, Aryeh Kalender faced a major challenge of living abroad: buying groceries at the popular supermarket Rimi.
“I remember walking through the store feeling intimidated,” he said in a Skype call from his apartment in Latvia’s capital, Riga.
“I prayed the only word I would need to use was ‘pauldies,’” which means “thank you” in Latvian, at the cash register. His prayer was answered, but the reality of his situation set in after he left the store.
“I started laughing,” he said. “I’m standing there thinking to myself: How did this happen?”
How does a University of Maryland graduate from Fairfax end up buying groceries in Riga? The short answer is that Kalender is in the middle of a year-long service mission organized by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
During interviews from Riga and elsewhere, Kalender, 25, reflected on what it has meant to be welcomed into Riga’s Jewish community since he arrived in September.
He called Latvia a “wonderful country with people who can be really warm when you bring them in.”
Latvia sits on the Baltic Sea with Russia across its eastern border, Estonia to the north and Lithuania to the south. Riga, has an estimated population of 700,000, similar to Seattle, including 14,000 Jews.
Riga, the largest city in the Baltics, is a mix-and-match hub of new and old. Trams, buses and cars navigate twisting roads and over bridges that cross rivers intersecting the city. Tours of the city show off modern high-rise buildings sitting within eyeshot of colorful historic buildings that make up Riga’s Old Town.
You’re “able to see something different anywhere you walk,” said Kalender.
Since arriving in Riga, Kalender has worked at the city’s Jewish Community Center as a teacher. Part of his job is developing educational programs and helping local Jewish teenagers gain leadership skills.
He described an activity where the teens role-played Jewish leaders throughout history.
“They took on personas of different leaders to understand [those leaders’] thoughts and decisions, and how big they were in their respective times,” he said.
Kalender added that he was impressed with the teens’ open mindedness.
“What has been impressive is how creative they are and willing to listen to different ideas and perspectives,” he said.
Sarah Eisenman, the New York City-based executive director of JDC’s Entwine global service program, said Kalender has a “perfect match of youth and camp background to give this community what it needs to develop teen programming,”
Kalender’s work with teens — he is a JDC-BBYO fellow, and a BBYO alum — comes as no surprise to his friends back in the United States. Maddie Gelfand worked as a camp counselor with Kalender at Camp Ramah in Palmer, Mass., and Kalender told her and other camp counselors about the trip last summer.
“After a couple of minutes, [the other counselors and I] thought: Of course he would do that. That is Aryeh. He’s goofy, spontaneous and does things like that,” she said.
The fact Kalender is working with teens makes it a natural fit, according to Gelfand, who said he has an ability to make “every normal moment important and every important moment just epic.”
She recalled one night when Kalender was teaching campers a song.
“He taught it with such intention and so adamantly, and our campers understood that, felt it, and accepted it upon themselves to make it amazing,” Gelfand said. “It ended up being a song that they taught to the rest of camp and was the peak of the best [song] session on the last night of camp that I have ever seen in my seven years of being at camp.”
When he is not working with teenagers, Kalender also teaches Hebrew and English to Jewish kindergarteners. Latvia’s predominant languages are Latvian and Russian.
He was impressed to learn that many of the children he was teaching already had a basic English vocabulary. This made overcoming his own language barrier slightly easier.
“I remember that first day struggling [to communicate],” Kalender said. “Each day, with the help of teachers and community members, I became more comfortable communicating with [the kindergarteners] even though we don’t necessarily have a language in common.”
Kalender said he could not have imagined himself living abroad doing this kind of work but is grateful for the learning experience.
“I’ve been part of [a Jewish community] my entire life, and I intend to be part of one for a long time, and having an opportunity to learn from one that is so different my own [which has] its own ideas on how things should run. … I saw it as an ultimate learning experience,” he said.
Kalender is scheduled to return home in late summer. He said he is not sure what he will do professionally but, for now, he enjoys “celebrating anniversaries [in Latvia] one month at a time.”