There are many ways to serve mankind. I choose to do so by being there. Where? Anywhere there are Jewish communities in need. It’s one thing, and a terrific thing, to be involved with raising money, funding projects, building community centers, but its another, and my favorite thing, to be there, to connect with, learn from, and give love to those you are “serving.” But to be there, you have to go there, and I do so with JDC Entwine, the young adult movement of the venerable humanitarian organization, The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
The “being there” bug first bit me President’s weekend, 1998. I was fourteen and with my Dad on a trip in Sofia, Bulgaria. We were greeted by a local Jewish community leader who took us on a tour of the Jewish Community Center. We joined an after-school program led by a 20-something who welcomed us in English with a heavy New York accent. I was astounded—who was this guy? Turns out he was a JDC Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow from Long Island volunteering for the year. No Bulgarian roots nor had he ever studied Bulgarian. I realized, I wanted to BE this guy.
Become him I did, in 2006, when I became a JSC Fellow and was asked to serve in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, a country known for both its post-Soviet socio-political challenges and what some say is ‘a last dictatorship in Europe.’ Other individuals were offered the position before me and passed. But I, a recent Islamic Studies major with no Russian-language background, remembered my revered Bulgarian forbearer and accepted the challenge without hesitation.What was supposed to be one year wound up being a year-and-a-half, and even that felt like too little.
It was total immersion into a community resembling vintage 70s Soviet Union and I loved it. As a “Jewish Content” specialist I got to live, learn, and laugh with Jews of all ages—kids in JDC-funded daycare and summer camps, young families, and babushkas (grandmothers)—all eager to accept attention as well as any tidbits of our collective heritage I had to offer. I spent time at a camp for special needs teens who were learning to be more self-sufficient. I made blintzes with a 15 -year-old boy and his mom, and we couldn’t communicate except by smiles and yummy-sounds as we rolled out the blinis.
I spent a good deal of time at Community Centers or “Heseds” for elderly Jews, cooking, singing, dancing, kibitzing, with multiple adorable babushkas and was so taken by them I paid tribute by starting a blog where I’d post photos along with the story of each “Babushka of the Month.” For example, Malka [above] was born in Berezino, 70 kilometers from Minsk. When WWII started, she was evacuated to the Urals with her mother while her father served in the Soviet army. Her father was never heard from again. Malka grew up sickly, and close to her mother: “We were like sisters or best friends. I wanted to remember how she did everything, from her gefilte fish recipe to her bedtime lullabies.” I cherish the memory of hearing Malka leading her fellow babushkas in the Borisov Hesed choir in songs taught to her by her mother.
The biggest downside was a ubiquitous dish known as “herring under a fur coat” a layered conglomeration of herring, potatoes, canned peas, mayonnaise, beets, mayonnaise, and mayonnaise, that followed me at every turn.
Since Belarus, I’ve been on, and led, numerous trips with JDC Entwine, to Ukraine, Moldova, Russia, Georgia, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania, Poland, and most recently, Latvia. The moments I look forward to most on each experience are at the JDC “Warm Homes,” where elderly Jews, often Holocaust survivors, convene once a week for food, song and camaraderie. What a treat to spend time with them, share stories, sing songs, and, in what’s become a personal tradition, somehow fake eating the enthusiastically served gefilte fish. You gotta draw the line somewhere! So, yes, providing food, money, shelter—all fantastic and heroic, but so is just being there and I highly recommend it.
Applications to be a JSC Fellow are due February 15, 2013. Complete info can be found here.