NEW YORK, June 17 (JTA) — The end of senior year usually is a time to set aside the books and party, but some graduating seniors at a Florida yeshiva high school wanted something more meaningful — so they spent two weeks teaching school in Ukraine.
“They were so eager to listen to me and understand what I had to say, even though I wasn’t teaching anything academic,” said Alisa Atkin, one of 13 students who made the trip to Kharkov, Ukraine, last month.
Rabbi Perry Tirschwell, principal of the Yeshiva High School in Boca Raton, Fla., worried at first that the students might want to spend their free time elsewhere.
“To get kids excited about skiing, that’s one thing,” said Tirschwell, who spent a year planning the trip. But getting them to leave behind the amenities of home to teach in Ukraine, he said, is “amazing.”
Amy Horowitz, a trip chaperone and wife of a Yeshiva teacher, also wondered whether the Florida teens would miss the comforts of home. She tried to prepare them for the lack of privacy, hot water, kosher meat and dairy products.
“We tried to scare them,” she said with a chuckle. “We spent weeks telling them how terrible it was going to be.”
But the Americans barely noticed the hardships. They were too busy demonstrating the importance of Jewish pride.
“The purpose of the trip was not to go help the Ukrainian kids,” Tirschwell said. “The primary purpose of the trip was to impart to our students that they are privileged materially, spiritually and educationally, and that they have the responsibility to share that knowledge.”
On May 20, the group took a 14-hour flight from Miami to Kiev, followed by a seven-hour bus ride to Kharkov, located in northeastern Ukraine. They arrived at Lycee Sha’alvim/Orthodox Union Center Jewish School early in the morning.
Soon they began the daunting task of communicating to the Ukrainians the importance of studying and celebrating their Jewish heritage.
The Americans broke into small groups, each assigned to a classroom of fifth- and sixth-grade students. Before them sat a dozen or more youths who barely spoke their language.
The key, it turned out, was Hebrew and ad-libbed sign language. A few of the American students, and even more of the Ukrainians, could speak Hebrew well enough to serve as interpreters. It was enough to allow the Americans to teach games like Simon Says and charades, and even to study a Jewish prayer.
“It was very easy to connect,” Yeshiva student Noam Solomon said. “They were very interested and ready to learn.”
The Americans “were such troopers; they bonded immediately,” she said.
For two weeks, the Americans spent each morning in the school.
After lunch, they turned their attention to more recreational endeavors: visiting sites of Jewish interest, going bowling, playing cards and chess, making tie-dyed clothing, going to an amusement park, taking walks with the Ukrainian kids and hanging out.
When the Shavuot holiday fell during the second week of the trip, it was a perfect opportunity for the Ukrainians to gain some hands-on religious experience. They started the holiday with a festive meal, followed by singing and a Torah-study program that lasted until 8 o’clock the next morning.
Besides working with the Ukrainian youth, the Americans spent a day volunteering at a center for the elderly run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. There they worked in the soup kitchen, fixed broken chairs, raked leaves and shoveled dirt.
Though they spent much of their time teaching, the Yeshiva students also learned a lot.
They visited the graves of two famous Chasidic rabbis, visited ancient and contemporary synagogues and, on their last day, explored Ukraine’s capital, Kiev. They learned about the country’s history — it gained independence only 10 years ago, after nearly 70 years in the Soviet Union — and about the fate of Ukrainian Jews in World War II.
Because it was created only four years ago, this is Yeshiva High School’s first graduating class. The school plans similar trips in the future.
The Florida students, who graduated in mid-June, say they brought home memories that will last a lifetime.
“Spiritually, it was really good,” Solomon said. “It makes you realize how much we take for granted in America. But by the end of the trip nobody wanted to go home.”