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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Pesach in Belarus

Wow, where do I begin? Should I begin with my deep fears for this trip? I had no idea what to expect on our trip to the Former Soviet Union. I remember many things from my childhood, and there were many stereotypes from my childhood which kept coming back to my mind regarding the FSU. To be honest, I really haven't known many people from the FSU in my life. I do remember some people immigrating to my hometown (Columbia, SC) when I was in middle school. I specifically remember a very sweet man, Anatoly, who wound up working at my Synagogue and was like a grandfather to me in many ways. And, of course, I have several classmates from Russia and the Ukraine. Also, in Israel there are a large number of Israeli citizens from the FSU.

But, still, even with the programs we did to get ready for this trip, I really had many fears. After all, I had never used a translator before. Would I really be able to communicate with the communities? And, would I be able to lead a Seder for the first time in my life? I knew I wouldn't be alone as one of my classmates was with me in both of the small cities we traveled to. I guess I kept myself calm with the excitement I had with finally using some of the skills I have learned and aquired this year.

We arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv with this same excitement and fear. Once we finally boarded our plane, we knew there was no turning back, and we really were going to Belarus. While I was excited, I was also quite sad. Since I've known Batya, I've never been away from her during Passover. And, I had never been in a different country than her. I knew I would really miss Carlie and Batya, but I'll write more about that in a bit.

Landing in Belarus, I looked out and saw foggy rain clouds. It wasn't that cold, but it wasn't warm either. We spent the first night in Minsk, and I was pretty excited because I knew that I had family from Minsk. I immediately felt a connection to Minsk. We were comforted when the Chief Rabbi of Belarus, a Reform Rabbi, met us at the airport. He had many interesting things to say to us as we took a van into the city:

"There are no terrorists on trains..."
"You might meet KGB...(Ka Ga Beh in Russian)"

That night we were amused to see a strip club, called "Texas," and a bowling alley in our hotel. Oh, and a Casino too. Really, why leave our hotel??? Actually, when we went to the supermarket after dinner, we found eclairs and other pastries for about 700 Rubels (which eqauls to less than 50 cents). The exchange rate was 2100 rubels to 1 dollar. So, for $100, I was able to have over 200,000 Rubels in my wallet! I felt rich for the first time in my life!!!

Anyway, we woke up very early the next morning, met our translator, Ilona (More about her later), and headed out to Polotsk. Here's where things started to get interesting. So, we had heard that people from the FSU love to drink, and especially love to drink Vodka. Well, this very nice man, our new friend, offered PJ and me sips from his Vodka - at 8:30 in the morning. Needless to say, we both took a taste, and that was it. 8:30 is WAY TOO EARLY to be drinking...

When we arrived in Polotsk, we were told we would be leading a Seder for the Elderly and leading Kabbalat Shabbat for the High School group, Netzer. We were excited and nervous at the same time. As you can see by my pictures (link to webshots on the right of the blog), we had a great time, and it was a lot of fun. The Netzer kids were very nice, and had so many questions about life in America and Israel. They had so much pride in their Judaism, and it was awesome to be even a small part of that. When we went to tour around Polotsk, they refused to let us go alone, and we had a great time with them! In Polotsk, we ate every meal at this "Cafe" that was inside a supermarket. The food was really good, and by the time we left Polotsk (in 2 days), we could order for ourselves! Oh, and I can't forget to tell you about the bowling alley right next to the supermarket. It was pretty good, and we bowled both nights we were in Polotsk! Oh, one more thing about Polotsk. When we were walking around Polotsk, we met this very nice Belarus woman. She had the largest fingers I have ever seen. She was about 4 feet tall, but her hands were gigantic!!!

So, I have to speak about our translator, Ilona. She really was very special. She was incredibly nice...her English was fantastic, and she was a tremendous amount of fun to be with. She taught us quite a bit of Russian, and we even taught her some English slang expressions. I hope I can stay in contact with her. She was awesome!!! Even though we are 12 years apart, I constantly referred to her as "Ilona our mother" because she really took great care of us!

On Sunday, we were off to the Cultural capital of Belarus, Vitebsk! Vitebsk was quite a bit larger than Polotsk, and our hotel overlooked the city square. It was really beautiful. We met a new friend, Stas, another person I hope to stay in touch with. He was with us the entire time we were in Vitebsk, and we had a great time with him. While we were in Vitebsk, I experienced the most interesting and maybe the most fun Seder I've ever experienced. They had microphones set up for the leaders of the seder right next to a synthesizer. They acted out the Pesach story with dancer, actors, and a "time machine" that took them back in time to experience the story. There was an Israeli named Boris who is actually from Vitebsk. He sang two Israeli Songs in Hebrew, and I really began to realize how much I missed and appreciated Israel.

Even though there have been times when I really felt uncomfortable here in Israel, I have realized how much I love Israel and will truly miss Israel when I leave. Israel is a part of who I am, and the experiences from this year have truly helped me to learn and grow more in 10 months than my previous 31 years. I also decided I didn't want to be away from Batya and Carlie for that long EVER again! I actually began to cry when Boris was singing because his song was all about returning home to Israel, and all I could think about was how lucky I am to be able to go home to Israel, and how much I missed my girls!

So, while we were in Vitebsk, we also led a Seder in a kindergarten. THAT WAS SO MUCH FUN!!! It was really great to dance and sing with the kids. They were so inspiring, and they were so knowledgeable about Judaism. Returning to Minsk for two days was tiring but a lot of fun. We participated in a Cantorial Music Festival...and the community really appreciated us. We also were asked to lead a Seder for a college aged group. It was a little frustrating because we were all exhausted, but it was a great experience.

What have I learned from this awesome experience? The reasons why I want to be a Rabbi were reminded to me and confirmed to me. I truly love being Jewish, and the opportunity to lead others was educational, inspiring, and rewarding all at the same time. I only hope I am able to keep my relationship and connection with Belarus. I also hope to be able to return to these communities in the future. I end my blog with the "informal" way of saying goodbye in Russian -


Friday, April 11, 2008

Just some random thoughts

It truly is amazing how quickly life flies by. I remember a conversation I had with Batya about 16 months ago as we were beginning to think about how life would be in Israel with a small child. Granted, Carlie is a pretty calm kid, but she was still a baby, and we knew life would be hard, especially for Batya. Thank God we found the kindergarten at the YMCA, and Batya has been able to do things she wanted to do this year! And, it's been so good for Carlie. Her Hebrew is progressing so well. She even speaks more Hebrew than English. Just the other day when Batya asked her to put her bowl on the table, Carlie said, "not table, Mommy, Shulchan (Hebrew for Table)." Back to the conversation Batya and I were having...we were so excited and scared out of our minds at the same time. How would we get everything done we needed to do before we went? How would we figure out how to pay bills in Israel? How would we be able to take care of our financial and other responsibilities in the US while we were abroad?

I have always believed God held us in God's hands, and would help us along the way. Batya has always been more of a realist. She believes in God, for sure, and is deeply engaged Jewishly - I've actually been quite surprised at her interests in my studies this year - but she has always kept more of a "realist" belief toward life. While I am talking about things like b'sheret (fate), Batya is talking about coincidence. But, somehow, we come together and are able to get things done. Truth be told, I would be nowhere without Batya. Her deep understanding of who I am (which is quite difficult at times) and where I want to be in life keeps me in check. She is the first person to stick her neck out for me, and she never is anything but supportive. Even when we have arguments, she is coming from a place of support - something I sometimes have difficulty realizing until after the fact.

Here we are, 6 weeks before our return to the States, and these same conversations are beginning. How are we going to reenter our "normal" lives in the States - a place where we are comfortable, where we understand completely the language and culture? How will we get all of our loose ends tied up before we return? Somehow, our love and deep sense of family has and will continue to help us even through our most confused times.

I am going to Belarus - to Plotzk and Vitebzk - to help with Pesach programming for a week. We (myself and some of my classmates) leave on Thursday. While this is going to be an amazing experience, and I am incredibly excited, I am also weary of the fact that when I return we have 4 weeks to "get things done." This doesn't only apply to packing and school. We want to cherish every day we have in Israel, as we aren't sure of when we'll be back. Sure, I might be able to staff a Birthright trip in the future, but who knows when we'll come back as a family? Although this year has been difficult in some ways, it has been more rewarding than we could ever have imagined. We have grown as a family, and I have grown individually more in this year than in my whole life - spiritually, Jewishly, and personally.

We are excited to enjoy these last 6 weeks and take advantage of everything we are able to!

Shabbat Shalom!