Wednesday, July 25, 2007

June’s Best Babushka: Founding Baba, Sonia Filkova

This Babushka is one of the 4 founding mothers of the post-Soviet Belarusian Jewish community. Before any Jewish organization had been established in Minsk, or anywhere else in the country for that matter, Sonia taught the Belarusian yingele in the only Jewish Sunday school of the time. Sonia and the others kept their full-time jobs while working as full-time volunteers in the Jewish community. When the JDC sent their first emissary to Belarus after the fall of the Soviet Union, he discovered these four women had already created a basic community infrastructure, but it was in need of assistance. Since she was so wonderful with children, she was offered the position of director of the as-of-yet non-existant local JCC, JCC Emuna. Since then, Sonia has been invaluable in creating programs for Jewish children across the Republic. Sonia loves eating chocolates and cakes as much as she likes distributing them to her JCC children. Once you talk to this Baba, you’ll find that you’ll get a sweet tooth for more of her.

Sonia has one grandson who participates in programming in the Minsk Jewish Campus.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Babushka! May in Mogilev

You’ve apprehensively waited for May’s Best, but this one’s definitely worth it. Masha from Mogilev was a child when World War II broke out, and she and her parents were evacuated to the Urals. While tumult was all around her, she learned to find inner peace. Masha will tell you that she “has a deep artistic Jewish spirit,” and that’s also why she likes attending Hesed’s jewelry-making classes in the Mogilev Jewish Community House. When you meet her, you will indeed sense that Masha’s creative soul can peer out from her fishbowl glasses and read your deepest thoughts.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Yiddish Alef Bet

For the Yiddishist in you...

Monday, July 9, 2007

Cornbread Meets Caviar: Atlanta Teen Ambassadors Come to Belarus

This morning Jason Feldman was touring Minsk with his new pal Vadim, and an elderly Hesed volunteer named Garik. But this was no tourist’s excursion. These three had a mission: to deliver food packages for the hosts of the “Warm Home” programs planned for the ensuing Shabbat. The program provides lonely and isolated elderly individuals with a much-needed nutritious meal, company, and the opportunity to celebrate Shabbat in a hospitable home setting.

Jason’s knowledge of Russian was limited to a cheerful “Priviet!,” yet it was enough to bring appreciative smiles and words of welcome from Hesed clients-- old, lonely, and sick. Coming from a world that is completely different from what is commonplace in Belarus, Jason was not impressed with the decrepitude he was exposed to, or so it seemed. He behaved like a seasoned welfare worker, mixing up an accurate dose of sympathy with huge amounts of respect and an encouraging presence. The half-a-dozen individuals Jason visited before lunch will be dwelling upon his confident smile and hearty priviet for quite some time.

At that very same moment, Jason’s peers were scattered all around Minsk busily preparing Shabbat activities for needy Belarusian Jews, bringing the spirit of Shabbat to where it otherwise would not be found.

Jason and his seven associates are participants of a group called the “Teen Ambassadors,” a group of high school students from Atlanta, GA, reinforcing the sister-city bond between Atlanta and Minsk. In its third year, the “Teen Ambassadors” group is a response to a growing recognition of the importance in strengthening our international Jewish support network. This year’s American emissaries are disciples of the Weber School, a pluralistic Jewish community high school which not only offers its pupils science, math, history, and Jewish subjects, but also works hard to reinforce the concepts of tikkun olam, social action, and love for Israel in every facet of school life. The Jewish Federation of Atlanta, Jerry Weiner, and the ambassadors themselves provided the necessary funding which made the trip possible.

Volunteerism aside, an essential component of the teen expedition was the involvement of Jewish Belarusian high school counterparts. Just as important as offering manpower and smiles to the elderly and ailing was finding common ground with Jewish peers on the opposite side of the planet, demonstrating that Jewishness indeed creates common ground across boundaries.

Together, American and Belarusian teens carried out service projects and honored the Jewish dead at monuments in once-vibrant Jewish communities. While most groups simply visit the historical yeshivas and cemeteries of Mir and Volozhn, these take-charge highschoolers donned their gardening gloves and crouched down in the dirt to salvage what was left of Volozhn’s Jewish tombstones. While other Americans were taking a day off on the 4th of July, these teens honored their American Independence by scraping Jewish tombstones clean of moss and clearing out the grass which had long overgrown most of the names of the Jews of the town.

With the help of Minsk’s Hesed Rachamim and Jewish Family Outreach Service, the American and Belarusian ambassadors were split into services routes to assist with the delivery of food and humanitarian aid to destitute families, the elderly, and individuals with special needs. While this work can be difficult for the untrained, it was apparent by the smiles on the faces of both giver and receiver that these pupils had intuitively understood the essence of giving.

On a visit to Kurapati, a Stalin killing-ground in the forests outside Minsk, the young adults somberly walked through the lanes of crosses, led by Yakov Bassin, head of the Progressive Jewish Community of Belarus, to reach a small stone structure stained with red paint. Upon a closer look, it became clear that it was a monument placed by the Jewish community in memory of “Jewish, Christian, and Moslem brothers” killed in this camp. They also realized that the red paint formed a faded swastika. The ambassadors also visited Khatyn World War II memorial in memory of the town which was burnt down with all of its inhabitants.

In a very different kind of camp-ground, the Teen Ambassadors visited young Jewish children participating in the JDC-funded camp for artistically talented youth. The teens were welcomed by singing and dancing campers, who clearly felt lucky to hone the talents that they had not the means to develop. The campers and ambassadors welcomed the Sabbath together with an interactive Kabbalat Shabbat, played games, and enjoyed a Shabbat dinner together.

By the end of their stay in Belarus, the American messengers were aghast with thoughts and sensations, barely knowing what to do with all of their excess energy. Beth, one of the American ambassadors commented, “This whole week has been so different. I really hope I can take what I saw back with me and do something about the problems.” Another ambassador named Ben said, “I did not sleep all night thinking about the family I visited in Cherven. I want to go back and start helping families like this one.”

But it was not only the Americans that gained from the experience. Masha, a Belarusian participant of the program, revealed, “This program showed me things in my own country that I did not see during all of my 15 years.” Dima, another partaker of the program who had attended Camp Barney in Atlanta as part of the Minsk-Atlanta partnership also shared his thoughts about the program with his American companions. “It was very interesting for me to learn about the place where I live. We visited cemeteries, cemeteries, and monuments, and we saw our very difficult Jewish history. I hope that when you come here again in 50 years that you can see things better than cemeteries, and we can show you a much brighter community.”

Although the Americans have returned home, the adventure is far from finished, as is the role of the Ambassadors. Artur Lifshitz, Director of the Resource Development Center in the Minsk Jewish Campus, who has been instrumental in building the Minsk-Atlanta relationship, told the Atlanta teens that “we truly believe you are going to become our ambassadors in Atlanta, taking responsibility, along with us, for the future of the community.”

Friday, July 6, 2007

Live the Belarusian Dream this Belarusian Independence Day!

Honor this dynamic nation with shashliki (barbeques), family gatherings, and a military parade! No Belarusian Independence Day is complete without a giant cabbage leading the armed forces into victory. Uncle Sam’s July 4th fireworks cannot begin to compete with Cousin Ivan’s July 3rd Soviet concerts. Come celebrate the existence of Belarus in the capital itself where the smells of daffodils and alcohol permeate the air!

Happy Birthday, Belarus!

Monday, July 2, 2007

Stuck a sheitl in her hat and called herself a Yankee

If you ask most Americans why the Yankees win as much as they do, you might hear, “because of Jeter.” or a spiteful, “because Steinbrenner is a smart businessman who knows how to buy the best players off of other teams.” or a simple, “because they’re the best.” But on a recent trip to The Big Apple from the Kashabasket of White Russia, Eritchka learned the real reason for the superhuman Yankee success, and that the reason for the success is truly superhuman.

The New York Yankees, or the “Bronx Bombers,” is the most triumphant team, scoring 26 World Series titles and 39 American League Pennants. This professional Major League Team is the most successful franchise in North American professional sports history, consisting of some of history’s most famous all-stars such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio.

But how did this Yankees heritage of triumph begin? And what sustains it? For the answer to this question, let us go back in time.

The year is 1903: the New York Highlanders are born and as little bat younglings, take to the field for their first game on April 22, playing the Washington Nats. That same year, New York was in the midst of tackling an immigration boom, and Eastern European Jews fleeing persecution in search of opportunity were amongst the various internationals arriving en masse. By 1924, just after the Highlanders became the Yankees, and Babe Ruth joined the team, two million Jews had already arrived to the United States, a huge number of them settling down in New York City.

Many Jews wanted to make America’s culture their own, and accordingly, made America’s game their own. The Big City in the early 1900s mass-produced Jewish baseball fans, and even bred some New York City Jews who proudly donned the pinstripes themselves, though not necessarily for the Yanks, such as Moe Berg, Alta Cohen, Harry Eisenstat, Leo Fischel, and of course, Hank Greenberg.

Baseball is the ultimate Jewish gene which can be transmitted patrilinially and matrilinially. With all those New York Jews scattered around the United States, it's not difficult to understand why most American Jews still root for the Yanks. And what other team sells Kosher Carvel soft serve in adorable helmet cups? What other stadium sells Hebrew National and Glatt hotdogs?

When they have enough minyans at a game, the Yankees always win enough points from above to be victorious. Just as the Israelites prayed for food and received manna from the heavens to sate their hunger, so too, can modern Jewry sanctify the Bronx with a grand slam.

PHOTOS: Top- a religious Jew, his wife, and her sister grab a nosh at the kosher pretzel stand in Yankees Stadium. The wife is a self-proclaimed Yankees fan "born and bred." Photo 2- can you guess that sect? Even the chassidim like to play America's sport. Photo 3- Evening minyan gathers in the halls of the Stadium. There are at least 2 minyans that night praying for a Yankee victory, which God indeed delivered later that night. Photo 4- Hungry Jews gather around "Strikly Kosher" hotdog stand in need of some kosher comestibles. Below- Jewish girl openly shares her Jewish love for Jeter. "Even if he's not Jewish, at least our children will be."