Project Kharkov Delves into Ukraine’s Rich Jewish Heritage and Complex Post-Communist Identity
A group of 18 Yeshiva University students traveled to Kharkov, Ukraine over their winter break to explore a community with a rich history that is struggling to revitalize its Jewish identity, post-communism. Over the course of the two-week program students interacted with the community through hands-on volunteer work and joint Shabbat experiences and learned about the community through in-depth context education and Jewish studies.
Project Kharkov was organized by YU’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF) in partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), with support from the Eckstein Family and Repair the World.
Members of Kharkov's Jewish community greet the YU group at the airport.
Before embarking on their journey, the group spent a meaningful Shabbat in New York with participants from Russian American Jewish Experience (RAJE)—an organization committed to sparking Jewish life in Russian American society. In Ukraine, the students traveled outside of the city to shtetls, where small Jewish communities still exist and experienced the community’s challenges firsthand by volunteering for various projects. In addition to their volunteer work, JDC professionals taught the students about Ukraine’s Jewish community, history and current socio-economic climate.
“We entered into a country of people we didn’t know and we left with a stronger sense of Judaism and a new group of friends,” said David Eckstein, a RIETS student and group advisor. “This trip really opened our eyes and made us realize how fortunate we are to live in a society that allows us to freely practice our religion.”
YU students help construct Kharkov's new Jewish Community Center.
The students were accompanied by Aliza Abrams, program director for the CJF’s Department of Service Learning and Experiential Education, and Rabbi Nehemia Taylor, who provided the Torah learning component of their studies, focusing on Jewish values and high-level shiurim [lectures] about Jewish responsibility, community, prioritizing need and giving.
“The goal of this mission was to impart to our students the importance of remembering that there are Jews and people all over the world in need of help,” said Abrams. “We wanted to engage the students in hands-on service that was meaningful, both to those volunteering and those benefitting from the work.”
Students join local youth in song and dance.
Abrams believes that the students came back as “undeniably changed” people.
“After meeting with the different generations of Ukrainian Jews, it became quite clear to us that communism took away Judaism in a very tragic way. Now this younger and free generation wants to reestablish their faith as well as strengthen their community and our students want to be involved in that process.”
To learn more about the Center for the Jewish Future, visit www.yu.edu/cjf.