When Taryn Berelowitz signed up for a summer mission to Ukraine and other destinations in the former Soviet Union, she expected to bring Jewish identity to people who had little.
Instead, she found people who are deeply rooted in Judaism, who have passion for their identity, and who are open about being Jewish.
Berelowitz was among a group of 14 people who visited Cherkassy, a provincial capital in central Ukraine, and other destinations on a summer mission July 29-Aug. 7. Many of the participants are members of the Overseas Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, which has a longstanding relationship with the city.
Highlights included visits with federation-supported projects like the Cherkassy Family Camp, where they participated in a Shabbat celebration of 14 b’nei mitzva.
“I thought they’d be learning from us. But I came back with a whole different perspective,” Berelowitz, a committee member from Livingston, told NJJN in a phone interview. “Judaism was not foreign at all to them. We have so much to learn from them.”
Berelowitz was also surprised at how open people are about their Jewish identity. In Cherkassy and Kiev, she saw young Jews with tattoos of stars of David and Hebrew lettering.
“That they tattooed their bodies and wear their Jewishness proudly without worrying about anti-Semitism gave me a great sense of optimism,” said Berelowitz.
Among the organizers of the trip was the committee’s chair, Paula Saginaw. She has visited Cherkassy six times, beginning in 1999, and was keen to take another group — it’s been six years since the last federation trip.
“The connections I made in Cherkassy have really enriched my life,” said Saginaw, who offered the example of siblings, Max and Yana Moiseev, whom she met on her first visit. In the years since, she participated in their b’nei mitzva, visited both in Israel after they made aliya, and was planning to attend Max’s wedding in Israel this summer after the Cherkassy trip before a death in her family prevented her from making the trip.
“With each trip, I got closer to them and their families,” she said. “There’s just something really special about the people in Cherkassy.”
First-time mission participants this summer received a subsidy from the recently created Fried-Saginaw Family Mission Endowment Fund.
Said Saginaw: “I really got to see the impact of our dollars overseas and got a sense of the global Jewish community, and I wanted other people to experience the magic I have felt.”
In addition to Cherkassy, the group visited Odessa, Kiev, and Uman. In each city, the group met with partner agencies as well as Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative rabbis to learn about Jewish life there.
At Tikva Children’s Home, an orphanage and school in Odessa and a federation partner agency, they attended a brit mila conducted by a mohel who had flown in from Israel to perform the ceremony and made home visits to seniors and families in need. They also got to visit destinations like the catacombs, the Odessa Opera House, and the burial site of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. They also went to the Babi Yar ravine, site of the massacre of more than 30,000 Jews by the Nazis in 1941.
As a result of the mission, participants said they plan to go back next summer and run programs with families participating in the camp. During Hanukka two Israeli counselors will travel to Cherkassy to help run a Shabbaton/mini-camp.
As Saginaw put it, “The feelings you have and the relationships you develop — they’re indescribable until you go and experience it for yourself.”