Bringing Judaism to Ex-soviet Lands, Volunteers Rediscover Their Own Faith

Mollie Wertlieb had spent a semester in St. Petersburg in 2005, and although her Russian was good, she knew she would never be proficient unless she returned for a longer stay.

So Weinberg couldn’t wait to get back to the former Soviet Union after she graduated last year from Tufts University, where she focused on Russian/European studies and community health.

“I have the ‘Russian illness,’ ” she said, referring to the love-hate syndrome well known to Russian studies majors.

In August, the budding Russophile will be wrapping up a yearlong stint in Kiev, Ukraine, as a volunteer for Jewish Service Corps, a project of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Since the corps sent its first volunteer to the field in 1987, Jewish volunteers have worked in places as diverse as Morocco, Tunisia, Bulgaria, Austria, Ethiopia, India, Turkey and, since 1997, the former Soviet Union. Four from this year’s class of 13 volunteers went to the former Soviet Union: two in St. Petersburg, one in the Belarusian capital Minsk and one in Kiev.

The volunteers work in Jewish education and outreach, with a JDC program in countries where one exists, and with the local Jewish community in places such as Turkey where there is none.

“The program is focused on meeting needs that exist in the field and that can’t be met locally,” said Melanie Levav, JDC’s New York-based director of volunteer programs and fellowships. “They might organize camps or youth groups, teach Hebrew school — whatever is needed. The point is to work alongside local leaders so the programs are self-sustaining after they leave.”

For post-Soviet states still struggling to regain much of what was lost during the 20th century, and some still bound by less than favorable regimes, that idea can take on various meanings.

Lacking many indigenous institutions with extensive working history and much program guidance — there is no ‘Little Red Book” for Service Corps volunteers — they must be creative in finding new ways to apply their skills to the areas deemed most necessary by the local community, whether through education or social services.

Weinberg, who enjoyed perhaps the most structured program of the four volunteers sent to the former Soviet Union in this year’s class, was assigned to the Hesed Avot welfare center in Kiev, where she started out translating before ending up re-establishing the city’s moribund Warm Homes program. In the program, small groups of elderly, isolated Jews get together once a week in members’ apartments for tea and conversation.

She visits as many homes as she can, taking subways and buses to the outlying districts where most are located. As she trudges up the stairs to yet another cramped, Soviet-style apartment, Weinberg clutches a bag of oranges or other goodies.

“I always like to bring something,” she said.

Erica Fishbein, another corps volunteer, is a native New Yorker and recent George Washington University graduate who was assigned to the JDC’s Minsk Jewish campus. Most of her time was spent either facilitating trips for foreign donors or putting her years in Jewish day school to use. She helps teach Hebrew and Jewish traditions to a small community with abundant passion but little knowledge.

“For me personally, I was thinking about the Peace Corps program, but I’m not as turned on by working in a community that isn’t Jewish,” she said. “I just feel closer to the people. It’s more of a personal experience when you’re working with people you share history with. I also think my skills are more useful in a place that is Jewish.”

This month she is in the Belarusian countryside helping to administer a series of 10-day summer camps run by the JDC for children and their families.

The volunteer corps, open to college graduates, does not require knowing the local language. Of the four sent to the former Soviet Union this year, only Weinberg had any Russian knowledge before leaving.

Well, almost.

“I was able to read the alphabet and say ‘hello’,” said Fishbein, giggling. More important, she added, was the phrase “I don’t understand.”

Husband-and wife-duo Matt and Alyson Fieldman’s motivation to move halfway around the world was based on several factors, including a half-forgotten proposition from the early days of their relationship.

“We were dating for three months when Matt sent me a link to the JDC Service Corps program,” Alyson said, adding with a laugh, “At the time I didn’t know whether I wanted to go on another date with him, let alone move abroad.”

But the idea returned to her shortly after their marriage two years ago. Both figured it was a good way to give something back to the community, as well as have an adventure.

After a four-month JDC-sponsored course in Russian, the Fieldmans were off to St. Petersburg. Asked why they chose the JDC program over a secular program, the couple didn’t equivocate.

“We wanted to be Jewish,” Matt said. “This was the best opportunity to make a tangible difference in their lives.”

The Fieldmans quickly applied their professional backgrounds — both have advanced degrees from George Washington in marketing and business, teaching local Jews grant-writing skills and how to develop a community Web site.

The volunteers’ experiences, varied as they may be though similarly inspired, seem to have led many to reconsider their own relationship to Judaism.

“Even though people there in the Jewish community don’t know a lot about their Judaism, they’re so excited about it,” said Fishbein, on vacation in her native New York. “The people involved in programs aren’t at all jaded. We take a lot of things for granted. We take the freedom to practice our Judaism for granted, but there they love it, they totally suck it up. It helps me to appreciate it a little more.”

For Weinberg, the time abroad added to her experience in community building and helped make her Russian more than serviceable. But, unexpectedly, it strengthened her Jewish identity.

Although she was raised Conservative, she says she “hated Hebrew school,” avoided Jewish camp and Hillel, and was “completely unaffiliated” when she arrived in Kiev.

In the former Soviet Union, however, Weinberg found the local community turning to her with questions about Judaism — questions she could not answer.

“I’ve had a whole Jewish education here. It’s a lot to process,” she acknowledged. “I’ve re-identified myself Jewishly. I feel guilty that I took my Jewish education for granted. And I know my own kids will go to Jewish camp.”

JTA correspondent Sue Fishkoff contributed to this story from Kiev.

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