Day #3—Day of Great Drama in Dneprepetrovsk
Well, I won’t describe the day in the order things happened, because I must start with the bombings that took place today. We had split into 6 groups, each in its own van, to do home visits to homebound elders. Our group apparently was the first to head to our meeting place—Chesed, a Jewish community center for elders and special needs children—but as we approached the square just around the corner, we noticed all sorts of activity and excitement—police cars, ambulances, soldiers, crime tape being applied to shoo away pedestrians—and a traffic policeman urgently pushing us to go quickly off the street. Turns out we were among the very last cars before they closed the street off. We knew something was amiss by the frantic behavior of the police, but not what so we were patiently waiting outside for the other groups. Then we heard a huge blast—loud, scary—and we then heard that several bombs had been set up in crowded city areas—like the one around the corner. We were taken inside to wait for the other groups—by now one additional one had shown up—and the others were taken several blocks away and had to walk to Chesed since all the streets were closed. We were enormously relieved to all be together, but wary of what was happening.
The staff and the mission co-chairs, Larry Goodman and Bill Gabovitch (two real class acts), gathered all possible intelligence and learned that we were to stay put. The police were asking everyone to stay inside. Shortly thereafter they blocked all cell phone reception as a security measure, so we just waited (and learned a lot about the fabulous work done at Chesed). The rabbi drove across town to speak with us, sharing the knowledge he had gleaned and assuring us we could return safely to the hotel, which we did. There Francine joined us (she had spent the day at Beit Baruch) and and we reunited with Rachel who had been sick, we could rejoice in being together as a group again.
Many things surprised me about this experience. Of course, I didn’t expect bombs to go off near us, that’s obvious. People’s reactions, at least what they showed, were generally calm—could others really not feel as scared as I did? I guess. Also, in this part of the world, news doesn’t seem to travel as instantly and completely as it does for us—it was actually hard to get information about how many bombs exploded, whether people were killed, and theories about why people had planted them. Granted, with no one claiming responsibility it’s going to take a while to uncover the motivation, but surely in the U.S. there would be gobs of experts offering their theories in authoritative voices. Not so here, which left us feeling uneasy and unable to put the events in a solid place in our thoughts.
OK—back to the programs we saw today. This morning we visited the Hebrew Day School where 400 students in grades 1-12 study. Somehow they have negotiated to have this be a public school, so there is no tuition and they receive state funds to operate. The teachers were universally lovely (the ones we met) and the kids seemed very engaged and adorable. They have a focus on English language—and they speak well. The past principal told us that as a boy, he never studied English—he figured why would he bother—New York was, in all practical terms, as far away as the moon! Today the kids believe they may visit the U.S. or other countries—their sense of possibilities are vast. And the old principal hasn’t yet traveled to the moon but he was in New York earlier this month! Beth Moscowitz used the opportunity when we visited the technology lab to describe a Havayah winter camp with American kids to work with Ukrainian counterparts to practice, in a really fun way, English, as well as a similar English Language Immersion summer camp. Her kids have participated and loved it and learned a lot.
We then learned about the Action for Post-Soviet Jewry project where there’s a focus on renewal of Jewish culture and traditions for those who longed for, but were denied, this. They visit elders, bring mobile ones to communal locations for celebrations and learning, and generally support families in deep poverty. They pointed out a worry that the next generation of elders may do worse than the current ones, since reparations from Germany will die out with those who were actual victims of the Holocaust.
We split up to do the home visits mentioned above. Our elder was a remarkable, talkative, interesting 83-year-old. She lost much of her family in World War II, but she and her mother survived the long exile and returned to Dnep after the war. She always had to work, but managed to also put herself through medical school and become a doctor. She said many of her colleagues in medical school were also women—it wasn’t unusual at all to have women doctors. She and her mother were communists, but weren’t allowed to join The Party because they were Jewish. She lives on a very small pension and manages because of the support of the Jewish tzedukah. She loved to talk—I wonder why she isn’t living at Beit Baruch where I suspect she’d be much happier. Perhaps we must build senior housing here—the assisted living is great but not for everyone………….
A word about the housing conditions. The gaps are wide, but proximate. The apartment we visited today is accessed off a hallway that has seen better days—peeling paint, smelly hallway and stairs that seemed plain dangerous. Nonetheless, within that same building wealthy (relatively) folks have apartments and have invested heavily in their units—yet are unwilling to redo common areas. This is parallel to conditions throughout the city—some very beautiful housing near quite rundown stuff—with poor infrastructure (roads and sidewalks) for all. I actually had an interesting conversation with Marc Cohen about whether this is a 2nd world country—because of the access to economic activity but the lack of broad distribution of same. We concluded we didn’t know if that was the right term, but that the conditions are such.
So that brings us back to our Chesed visit—the community welfare center supported by the Joint Development Committee (world-wide Jewish charity)—they support over 7500 seniors at home and have a senior day program where 23 groups of 15 seniors each come for 2 days/month. We sang songs with them and watched them play Wii bowling—and they made us paper flowers to take home. Clearly, the space and funding limits their ability to come as often as they would like. We also saw a day care center for special needs kids (again, limited availability) and a rehab program for young adults with severe developmental disabilities. In many cases, these young adults had never gone to school or any training programs—here, their potential is recognized and realized. They also help the families support these adults to grow and develop their abilities.
Then back to the hotel instead of visiting Jewish Big Brother Big Sister—but guess what, they came and waited for us at the hotel! They made a very moving presentation—introduced warmly and enthusiastically by Karen Sisselman who chairs the Boston chapter and clearly has supported and inspired the Dnep effort (and she’s a big sister herself, so speaks with first-hand knowledge and demonstrated commitment). We heard from one big brother who came into the program as someone else’s little brother—and gained so much from the experience that he’s not only a big brother but also teaching all the kids about boxing. A big sister is so committed that she has 2 little sisters—who share information with each other and never show jealousy but only support for each other. They’ve grown the program here to 60 matches in a relatively short time (I think 6 years, but may be wrong).
Then off to the rabbi’s for Shabbat dinner. Impossible to do justice to this evening. Their home is elegantly Hamish. The entire family—the rabbi and rebitzen and their 8 children were as gracious hosts as I’ve ever experienced—loving and warm and truly welcoming. When we finally sat down around a table that could seat all ~40 of us, we sang and blessed Shabbat and began eating and toasting. Honestly, I thought I had a great appetizer spread at my Shabbat dinners, but apparently I’ve been chintzing out! There must have been 20 different platters on the table, all filled with delicious offerings. Then the soup and entrée and dessert courses followed. By the end of the evening every single person had offered a toast—everyone spoke from the heart and with insight, and the rabbi had an apt response to every one and then some. Clearly a man of great wisdom and insight, he displayed a fabulous sense of humor and spirituality all at once—a feat! Because we had an Israeli soccer player at the table, he offered an analogy of following religious limitations (like not eating hametz on Pesach) to learning soccer—just as beginning soccer players learn how powerful they can be with only their feet/legs and no hands/arms, we Jews learn at how much is within our capacity by experiencing the limiting rules. By spending a night with him, I could intuitively understand how he spawned this miraculous rebirth and renewal—phoenix-like in its rise from the ashes of the Soviet regime. He is as personable, spiritual, wise and menschlik as Rabbi Bill Hamilton at home—the highest compliment I know how to pay. And the toasts gave me another chance to hear the beauty and special qualities of each person on this mission—every one a dear human being.
It’s now 3 a.m. and I have to get up for Shabbat services tomorrow morning, so I’ll stop although there’s so much more to say………thanks to all who emailed to express concerns about the security situation here.