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.”

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