In The Ukraine, BGI Fellows Explore Jewish Past, Present, and Future

Six BGI undergraduate fellows entered the complex world of the Jewish past and built connections to contemporary Jewish communities as they traveled to the Ukraine together in the first week of June 2011. 

The trip, supported by the Genesis Philanthropy Group, included one junior and five seniors from the first class of BGI undergraduate fellows to graduate from Brandeis University, departing just one week after Brandeis commencement.

They were part of a group led by BGI executive director Victor Vitkin, and accompanied by Daniel Terris, vice president for global affairs at Brandeis. BGI fellow participants included: Nera Lerner, Diana Aronin, Julian Olidort, Julia Rabkin, Helen Shapiro and Eli Tukachinsky.
Beit Grand Community Center in Odessa
The five-day trip focused on Jewish history and contemporary Jewish life in Kiev, Odessa, and points in between. The group experienced the richness of Jewish heritage, encountered the devastation of Jewish life in the pogroms and the Holocaust, and witnessed heroic efforts to revive and strengthen the contemporary Jewish community in post-Soviet Ukraine. 

For many of the BGI fellows, the trip provided a direct link to the distant and recent history of their own families. For some, it was a rare opportunity to return to the former Soviet Union (FSU), or even to visit the FSU for the first time. 

 Podol synagogue in Kiev
In Kiev, the group strolled through the Ancient city of Kiev, Podol, absorbing a sense of Jewish commercial life from a century ago.

At the Jewish Studies Institute, director Leonard Finberg described the extraordinary work that he and his team have done to create archives and publications on the history of Jewish life in the Ukraine.

Visits to two working synagogues provided a glimpse into a revived community life since the fall of the Soviet Union.  

At the Ukrainian national library, they saw the Judaica collection, where they were introduced to the extraordinary output of Yiddish publications in the early years of the Soviet Union.  And the Sholem Aleichem Museum, tucked into an "entertainment zone" built on the site of the great writer's house, gave a sense of the challenge of preserving Jewish heritage.

Jewish day school in Belaya Tzerkov

Driving south, the group visited the medieval town of Belaya Tzerkov, where they saw a thriving Jewish day school whose energetic director has almost single-handedly revived the local Jewish community. 

Their next stop city of Uman, a quiet town about 125 miles south of Kiev, where they visited the grave site of the Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the  great-grandson of the mystical Hasidic Rabbi Baal Shem Tov, and the founder of the Breslov Hasidic sect, mystic extraordinaire, and guarantor of salvation to all those who visit him on Rosh Hashanah.  There the fellows came to understand the fervor of his followers.

The cosmopolitan city of Odessa was once one of the great world centers of Jewish life, as the group saw through a visit to the Museum of Jewish Heritage there. They explored the extensive maze of underground catacombs - which go on for hundreds of miles beneath every part of the city - where Jewish partisans hid from Romanian and German occupiers during World War II. At the Migdal and Beit Grand community centers, they saw vital cultural and educational programming for Jewish children and adults.

At Babi Yar in Kiev where thousands of Jews lost their lives in a horrific 1941 massacre.  At Babi Yar, they participated in the first-ever formal ceremony at the site led by members of the Israel Defense Forces. It was a moving tribute to those who perished and combined with a stern determination to protect Jewish lives and values for the future. 

They also visited the Ukranian national World War II museum and memorial, where two Jewish survivors of the war recounted their experiences and recited their poetry about the Jewish experience.

Over lunch and during on an evening boat ride on the Dnieper River, the group had the opportunity to mingle with participants in other programs supported by the Genesis Philanthropy Group: Russian-speaking Israeli soldiers on a Jewish life tour of the country, leaders of Hillel in Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union, and youth and representatives from other organizations.