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Around the Jewish World Hillel Outreach Program in Ukraine Brings in Students to Enliven Passover

April 23, 2003
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For Alyssa Blank, leading her first Passover seder is daunting, and doing so halfway around the world in the Ukraine is even more so.

But is that a bad thing? Not according to the 20-year-old native of Montreal who recently traveled to Ukraine to participate in the annual Hillel Passover outreach project.

“The experience is intimidating in that it’s entirely different from my life in Montreal,” Blank said. “But, of course, anything that’s different is going to be somewhat intimidating or nerve-wracking, and that’s also part of learning and growing.”

A recent high school graduate who plans to study political science in college, Blank also called it ironic that she visited Ukraine at all.

“It’s a little ironic that I’m here because when I went to Poland in 2000 on the March of the Living program, I had never imagined I would go there,” she said, “and then I never imagined even more that I’d be coming back to this part of the world, and to a neighboring country of Poland as well.”

Blank said she had personal reasons for participating in the March of the Living program, which follows up a tour of several the Nazi death camps with a trip to Israel.

“I had a great-aunt who went through Treblinka; part of my family went through Treblinka,” Blank said. “That wasn’t my main reason why I went to Poland, but it was definitely a heavy kind of push in that direction.”

Blank said a friend who went through the Hillel Passover program in Ukraine last year helped inspire her to return to Eastern Europe and learn more about a part of the world connected with her ancestral roots and traditions.

Along with two fellow Canadians and some 60 other students, mainly from Ukraine but also the United States and Israel, Blank spent the first two days after her arrival in Kiev on April 14 getting oriented.

The regional Hillel is the main program organizer and sponsor, but the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is also helping fund travel and accommodation — and the students met with local JDC representatives as well as those from the Jewish Agency for Israel. They were given an introduction to Jewish life in Ukraine, a tour of historical Jewish Kiev and, of course, training in leading a Passover seder.

Before heading out to the central Ukrainian city of Khmelnitski, where she would work during the holiday period, Blank said she was excited about getting started.

“We just finished our preparation five minutes ago, and I’m looking forward to leading a seder and seeing how it goes,” Blank said. “And then I’m looking forward to speaking to people one on one and finding out who they are, even if there is a language barrier.”

Osik Akselrud, regional Hillel director for Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, said those meetings between Hillel students and members of the Jewish community during holidays like Passover can be emotional.

“When the students visit some of the older or sick people, there can be tears, as those people remember their own youth and maybe when they celebrated Passover the last time — perhaps 50 years ago with their own families,” Akselrud said.

To promote such encounters and discovery, he said there’s a special effort to send the visiting Hillel students into communities outside the capital.

“For them, the regions represent the real Jewish school; where they can visit shtetls and cemeteries and discover Jewish culture for themselves,” he said.

With the Hillel Passover program now in its eighth year, the holiday has become an established tradition in larger communities like Kiev, where Hillel has a solid base. The Kinor community center in Kiev, for example, hosted its sixth Passover seder on April 17.

Following a brief introduction by Arkady Monastyrsky, general director of the Jewish Fund of Ukraine, senior Hillel member Mania Besuri and her two slightly younger colleagues Vitya Vlossky and Kisushia Paslyon led a seder for a congregation of some three dozen, mainly older, individuals.

The trio kept the atmosphere lively and relaxed as they told the Passover story; reviewed customs; distributed wine, juice and matzah; and led the congregation in singing. There were also Russian-language booklets available, containing information on all aspects of Passover such as the preparation of the Passover meal and the elements of the seder.

“This is my sixth year leading the seder, so of course everything is much easier,” Besuri said. “I know exactly what to say, and the story is also already familiar to many of the people who attend the service.”

Larisa Shvetz agreed. The pensioner said she attended her first formal seder in 199, and attends all the major holiday celebrations. She praised the efforts of the Hillel students to reawaken Jewish culture in Ukraine and to rekindle the lost traditions.

“They did a very beautiful job today,” she said. “My family celebrated Passover before the war, and we even attended an informal synagogue that was located on our street — but for many years afterward we had no such celebrations.”

And was the Hillel Passover program as successful in provincial cities? Yes, according to Shira Rosenwald, a 19-year-old business major at George Washington University and Hillel member who spent the holiday in and around the city of Rovne in western Ukraine.

Rosenwald said the Hillel students from different countries learned a lot from one another. The trip also helped form a bridge between the “old” and “new” Jewish worlds, she said.

She spoke of home visits in the shtetl of Sarny, where the Jewish population had dropped from 13,000 to just 13 throughout the decades.

In particular, she talked of meeting two elderly sisters living together in Sarny — of leading a seder for them, singing for them and exchanging stories.

“It was a life-changing experience,” Rosenwald said upon arriving back in Washington on Monday. Ukraine “has gone through so much — in a way, for us — and the trip opened our eyes to things we hadn’t seen before.”

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