SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) – Ilana Seff, a sophomore at the University of Florida in Gainesville, grew up with a strong Conservative background. She attended day school until her bat mitzvah and joined a Jewish sorority at college.
Last winter Seff visited Israel for the first time on a birthright israel program. In June she spent 10 days in the western Ukraine on a Jewish service program run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Working with Ukrainian Hillel students, Seff and other Hillel students from the University of Florida visited the Jewish elderly, repainted one playground and helped build a second, and even delivered coal to the homebound.
“I visited one 14-year-old boy, a national checkers champion, whose 4-year-old twin brothers have liver disease,” Seff, 19, recalls. “Everywhere I was struck by the utter loneliness of the elderly. I cried so many times. After all they’ve given to their country and they get just $60 a month.”
[photo servicesidetwo align=left] Seff and her fellow University of Florida students have a detailed follow-up plan for the coming semester: They hope to organize a toy drive on campus, ask local businesses for donations, and speak to synagogues and Jewish federations about Jewish needs in Ukraine.
And there’s the “adopt a babushka” project, in which they will ask local Jewish day schools and Hebrew-school classes to raise money to support 10 elderly Jewish women in Ukraine. The goal is to raise $7,000 in the first year.
“Each kid can have their own ‘babushka,’ and we’ll give them a picture so they can feel more attached,” she explains.
Seff says that while she always had a strong Jewish identity, “this trip really had an impact.”
“You learn about the Holocaust in school, but I saw its lasting effect,” she says. “Jews always say ‘never again,’ but there is so much we can do to help those who are still suffering.”