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An Update from Odessa

The letter below was written by Ms. Aliza Abrams, Assistant Director of Service Learning and Experiential Education, who is leading a YU service mission to the Ukraine with YU and Stern College students.

Let me begin with Friday.  After shachrit at Chabad we had the opportunity to visit the Chabad run orphanage appropriately called Chessed ShehBichessed.  We were greeted by smiling adorable little boys everywhere we turned.  Rabbi Wolf, the Chabad Rabbi and founder of the orphanage shared with us the history of their beautiful facility and the stories of many of the children who call the orphanage home. We met a pair of brothers who have grown up in the orphanage, the older brother went through their Yeshiva and is now teaching Torah to the younger boys, his own brother one of his students.  We passed by the crib of a beautiful three month old baby boy who was found in a train station abandoned by his mother just two months ago.  Each story we heard broke our hearts, and yet we were in one of the happiest places. Rabbi Wolf and his staff give these boys the love, nurturing and Torah education their families sadly can’t provide for them turning them hopefully into sweet young men.

After leaving the orphanage we traveled back to the JCC Beit Grand where we ran a shabbos party for the little kids.  Prior to the shabbos party Rabbi Eli Belizon gave us a shiur on the beauty of shabbos, putting us in the right mindset to teach others about shabbos.  Each child had the opportunity to make their own challah cover as well as enjoy a mock shabbos meal. There was kiddush, and singing and a real fun spirit in the air. From there we went to a second shabbos party. This one was with the Migdal- Hesed seniors. We were practically out danced by this amazing group of people who come together each Friday to welcome in shabbos together.  We thoroughly enjoyed singing yiddish songs and dancing around the room with everyone.  The director told us that often when groups come the seniors have to pull them out of their chairs, with our group you couldn’t get us to sit down- it was such a great way to get us prepared for shabbos.

From there we had a debriefing session which enabled us each to share some of our personal highlights.  That was followed by a session about the important work that our partner organization the JDC does around the world.

Our next stop was our hotel to prepare for shabbos which was rocking. We began with a beautiful Kabbalos Shabbos led by our own Rabbi Belizon. We were joined by a group of local peers, everyone davened, sang, and danced together. The meal which followed was equally as nice, we spoke with our new friends and had the opportunity to hear about Jewish life in Odessa from their perspective and shared words of Torah.

Shabbos morning we returned to the Choral Synagogue, or the Tikva community as it’s more often called, to find a shul packed with 200-300 people. We could not believe how full the shul was.  We recognized that 95% of the room were baalei Teshuva who the Rav of the shul, Rabbi Basht brought back to yiddishkeit since he moved to Odessa in 1992. We ate a very traditional Ukrainian lunch at the shul and then headed out on a walking tour/shbatzeer around the city.  We were fortunate to have gorgeous weather over shabbos and really enjoyed everything we saw.

The rest of shabbos flew by, we had seudah shleeshit and went back to Chabad for mincha and maariv replete with videos of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.  Motzei shabbos we had the distinct honor of having a kumsitz with Rabbi Noach Paley of the Tikva Yeshiva. Until 1am we sat with him singing, hearing divrei torah, and stories of how he has literally saved students lives. Many people reflected that it was one of the most inspirational kumsitz’s they’ve ever been to.

Today, Sunday, was a whirlwind of a day. After shacharit back at Chabad we walked over to the Migdal JCC, a second JCC in town which we had not yet visited.   The staff prepared activities for us which included art, dance, song, and ice breakers through which we instantly connected with the kids from Migdal. We learned about each others families, and communities. After a quick lunch we all prepared a special treat of Ukrainian cookies which we later delivered during warm home visits. With arms full of cookie packages, we visited small groups of elderly community members who get together weekly to socialize providing them with companionship and a hearty snack.  We had the opportunity to ask them questions about their lives, their roots and their families.

From the warm home visits we returned to the hotel for a shiur given by Rabbi Belizon on the topic of Halachik issues related to adoption and conversion, very much a hot button topic on this trip.  After the shiur we headed to the Tikva orphanage. Again upon arrival we were greeted by 65 smiling boys ranging from 1.5 years old to 15/16 years old. We played games and sports with the boys and despite the language barrier had a great time together.  We also had the opportunity to really impact the boys by taking a polaroid picture of each of the boys for them to keep. As many people in our group reflected, we have loving parents who often make us take pictures that we sometimes find annoying, these boys don’t have that. We even had the opportunity for “family portraits” as sets of brothers asked to be photographed together. It was sweet and heartbreaking at the same time.  One participant in our group noticed that one of the four year old boys had his shoes on the wrong feet the whole day.  While they have wonderful people caring for them, they are lacking that one on one relationship we are all so fortunate to have with our parents.  So we gave the boys a small memento along with hugs and high fives.  We left hoping that we impacted them a fraction of how our visit impacted on us.

Our last stop of the day was bowling with our friends from Migdal JCC, it was a fun way to continue getting to know each other.

When we returned to the hotel Rabbi Belizon gave over a shiur on davening at Kivrei Tzaddikim, the graves of the righteous, to prepare us for our visit to Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s kever in Uman on Tuesday.  Together we studied the great significance of davening to Hashem at such holy sites. It put us in the right frame of mind to prepare ourselves for the experience as well as enhanced our understanding of davening for others.

If you’d like to check out the blog being written by our students please visit: http://jdcentwine.com/trips/yu-ukraine-2013.