FEATURED STUDENT PROJECT
BGI IN THE NEWS
While studying abroad in The Netherlands and standing in Amsterdam’s Jewish Historic Museum earlier this month – a museum constructed from several synagogues that have stood the test of time – I began to appreciating a new level of my identity. The museum illuminates the Dutch understanding of tolerance, where Jewish merchants, artisans, and others were able to freely practice their religion and trade; a true safe haven before the Second World War. Walking through the museum and learning about the journeys and sacrifices that were made so that Jewish people of all heritages could live unrestricted and free from persecution raised a couple of important questions for me. How closely could I connect with the writings on a museum exhibit or a historical document in general? Were these people’s lives that much different than my own? Most importantly: could I come one step closer to truly understanding my identity? Variations of these questions came up throughout my BGI experience as well and the significance was even stronger.
BGI’s impact on my Jewish identity started like any good Russian story: a mysterious letter in the mail on a rainy day inviting me to join a newly formed organization. The celebration of Jewish life, whether it be Russian, American, or Dutch has many lessons for an individual that truly wants to discover. Unsurprisingly, I found many such individuals throughout my BGI experience. Participating in volunteer efforts at Hebrew Rehabilitation Center (HRC) was a pleasure. By simply speaking to Senior Citizen residents and composing biographies on their lives or helping them with their Fitness Program and entertainment activities, I gained a certain appreciation for their commitments in life and found it rewarding to return every week to learn more. Whether my eagerness was a result of my curiosity to connect with my heritage or a reflection of my family’s struggles that I heard in the resident’s stories, I still do not know. But, I do know that I felt at home with people I had met for the first time and the life issues they described seemed all too familiar.
Working with David Raiz, a resident from my home city of Lvov, gave me a chance to see how incredibly connected Russian Jews are, even if they are spread out all over the world. At the time, I was describing the biography gathering process to my grandmother and told her about David, a doctor from our home city of Lvov who had fond memories of the city and its magnificent culture. Soon enough, I discovered that David was my grandmother’s doctor for quite some time. More recently, on a trip to Germany for my 23rd birthday, I discovered even more family friends and former Lvov residents that remembered David’s superb work when he too served as their doctor. I kept in contact with David for some time, visiting him even after our biography sessions ended and he was delighted to see me with his usual question: What are the young people of the world up to this week? My experience at HRC taught me not only how to better communicate, but also that every Russian Jew has a unique fingerprint that seems similar to another Russian Jew’s. No matter how close we think we are in our interests and identities, we each have a distinct story and outlook that needs to be shared, compared, and repeated. David’s weekly question made sense: each generation was curious to see if the next could carry on the traditions of our community and I realized that it was my responsibility to do so.
My second project, developing the foundations for a conference between local Jewish community leaders and university students, gave me a sense of gratification from opening a dialogue that each party may have trouble doing on their own. Working with younger BGI fellows as a team on the project and offering guidance to them individually gave all of us a chance to focus on enhancing the community at large. Developing connections with community leaders was important not only for the project, but for continuing to grow relationships for a lifetime. With help from several organizations and students at countless universities, we were able to spread knowledge about BGI’s programs, but more importantly that a community of Russian Jews was still interested in learning more about their heritage and creating future leaders for the worldwide community.
Overall, BGI strengthened my perception of the Russian Jewish community, because it made me realize even more than it cannot be separated into two categories. The Institute allowed me to see the future of our community: one which regards mentorship and discovery between generations of Russian Jews as a key virtue. Since the strength of our community is based on our values, beliefs, and traditions, it remains vital to maintain a vision for the future of BGI and our community as a whole.
With respect to the questions I raised for myself at the museum, I do not want to answer them yet. Instead, I want to keep finding new angles and perspectives for these questions. The importance of asking myself the same questions frequently reminds me of who I am, and this is something I will never let myself forget. Like the Jews that settled in The Netherlands and are forever alive in the museum, I am proud to see that a community of like-minded individuals within the BGI can share new experiences together, invite others to build the future together, and create a better world for our community.