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Across the Former Soviet Union in Ukraine, Teachers, Musicians Enjoy Distance Learning Program

Fostering the spiritual rebirth among Jews in post-Communist Ukraine is no simple matter, particularly because the physical distance between communities can impede efforts.

Enter Kiev’s Jewish Education Center, which has the first distance-learning education program for Jewish teachers in Ukraine.

Co-sponsored by the Dutch Jewish Humanitarian Foundation and the Jewish Agency for Israel, the distance-learning graduate program opened in March with the first of a series of quarterly sessions that saw students from across the country — as well as one from Estonia — gather in Kiev to meet instructors face-to-face and attend classes together.

Between seminars, the students study on their own, complete assignments and communicate with their teachers by Internet or post.

The program includes topics in Jewish tradition and history, psychology, art and literature, as well as Hebrew and Yiddish.

After about two years of study, students will receive diplomas recognized by Ukraine’s Education Ministry, said the JEC’s director, Yana Yanover.

“The main innovations of the program are the focus on local Jewish heritage, as well as the collaboration we’re enjoying with the Israeli government,” Yanover said.

Yanover said the 16 students in the first group to go through the program fell into two types: those who work as teachers in their own communities and those who are musicians and musical educators. A second group began this month.

Teachers focused on Hebrew for the course’s language component, Yanover said, while the musicians opted for Yiddish.

“Studying Yiddish poetry and music had an immediate impact on these students, since they immediately began composing their own pieces based on what they had learned,” Yanover said.

But Yanover was quick to point out that there is a good deal of overlap between the two kinds of students in the program.

“The most important result of the first seminar session was that two different groups of contemporary Jewish intelligentsia had gathered together to study together,” she said. “For many, it was the first time teachers and musicians had met on such a professional and intimate level and had the opportunity to communicate informally and enrich one another with their own personal Jewish experiences.”

For student Igor Kazhdan, 28, the program is about enriching both himself and his young family.

A graduate of the Kiev Music Academy, Kazhdan directs and plays accordion in the Nigunim Jewish Orchestra.

His wife Natasha, a professor at the academy, plays violin in the five-piece orchestra. The oldest two of their three children — Alexander, 7, and Edward, 5 — help out on percussion instruments like the triangle and bongos during holiday concerts.

Kazhdan embodies the qualities Yanover described: He wants to explore the Jewish world beyond music and to learn more about “the story of the Jewish people.”

“I became interested in Jewish history and literature about a year and a half ago and I began to read Yiddish, because my own studies had always been very much focused on music and I never felt I knew enough about my own culture,” Kazhdan said. “When I heard about the Education Center program, I took the opportunity to sign up, and so did my wife — so that beside playing together, we can study together at home.”

The humor of his favorite Yiddish writer, the Ukraine-born Sholem Aleichem, whom he has studied through the JEC program, has had an influence on the work of the Nigunim Orchestra, Kazhdan said.

“We’ve taken well-known melodies and, working together at home, have given them an original arrangement, taking something serious and making it lighter and then playing with it through the orchestra,” he said.

The next seminar session is scheduled for August, just before Kiev’s klezmer festival — a time when music and Yiddish experts from around the world will be gathering in Kiev.

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