After spending a week in Ukraine, a Yeshiva University student who lives in Silver Spring said she now understands that while Jews may have varying levels of observance and background, they are all part of the same community.
Ora Schneck, a sophomore at the New York campus, recently returned from YU’s service mission to Ukraine, in which she got to know the Jewish community in Kharkov. She, along with 19 other students, delivered food packages they had prepared, visited the elderly and taught in the local Jewish school.
“It was more about getting to know and building relations with people who are about our age and older,” Schneck said of her trip. She spent much of the time at The Wohl Center, the Jewish community center for Kharkov. This is where all Jewish events, classes and get-togethers are held, she explained.
“The center feels like a family,” she said. “We were really easily welcomed.”
Despite the language barrier, everyone got along very well, noted Schneck. “We all had common ground and mainly through religion.”
Even that was different. While Schneck is Orthodox, the Jews she met weren’t very observant, she said. But they had a strong sense of Jewish community and togetherness.
Many of the older Jews “are still very much affected by communism and the Soviet Union,” she explained, adding that while her parents taught her about Judaism, the young people teach their elders in Kharkov.
She described the area as relatively poor, with most people living in small homes that were “really, really cramped.” She didn’t get into political discussions and didn’t see any of the uprisings going on in Kiev, which is about a 10-hour drive away.
She was surprised to learn that many of her peers were studying engineering, which to her was an impressive career, but to them was considered “low.” She also was surprised that the Ukrainians weren’t awed by America and didn’t hope to live there someday.
“There is a huge feeling of community,” and young people believe they should stay in their homeland to help their elders, she surmised. The young people she met said they encountered anti-Semitism, but not very much.
The idea behind the trip is for students to learn communal responsibility, explained Aliza Abrams, director of YU’s Department of Jewish Service Learning. “We want our students to recognize that they are citizens of the world and have a responsibility to help and have a relationship with Jews all over the world.”
The YU partnered with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee for the trip, which ran from Jan. 12 to 19.