“I wonder what will happen on your Jewish haj? Where will you go, who will you meet, how will it change you?”
Joy Sisisky asked those questions in her 2014 Eli Talk (yes, the Jewish version of TED Talks), and, as a part of BBYO’s first Ambassadors to Ukraine trip, I and 13 other Jewish leaders from across North America joined our brothers and sisters in Active Jewish Teens, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s growing teen movement in the former Soviet Union and a BBYO partner through a global JDC partnership, at their fourth annual International Conference and pondered these questions throughout a momentous, formative, awe-inspiring week — our Jewish haj — from Nov. 13 to 20 in Ukraine.
I initially decided to travel across the world to support my growth and development as a leader in BBYO and to experience a community I was unfamiliar with. “Is there even that much of a Jewish community in Ukraine?” I wondered. “What’s there that’s so special?”
Afterward, I realized that my original intentions for traveling across the world were only a part of a much bigger, more detailed picture; there is so much that is special in the Jewish community of the former Soviet Union.
Gratitude took on a new meaning for me in the context of this trip. Our first exposure to the Jewish community in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, was making marzipan candies with 4- and 5-year-olds at the Halom JCC.
We then had the chance to visit with a 95-year-old Holocaust survivor, Lidiya Korotina, who became a military translator during World War II. She welcomed us into her home and shared her love for the Jewish community of Kiev with us.
She stressed the importance of Jews everywhere taking care of each other and that a community built upon understanding and faith in one another was vital to the continuation of strong, connected world Jewry.
I was so grateful for the repeated displays of understanding and welcoming that I received while in Ukraine.
The next day in Kiev, at the Hesed Welfare Center, which helps support Lidiya and other elderly Jews in the city, we danced with others serviced by the center. They were so excited to dance with us, and we were overjoyed to share in such a special moment with them.
Later, at Babi Yar, where over 100,000 Jews were murdered by Nazi Einsatzgruppen, we honored the memory of the victims by reading poems and singing songs of love and peace. We remembered the horrific atrocities committed, and we prepared to celebrate the resurgence of Jewish life in Ukraine.
AJT’s International Conference would be the site of this celebration, and it convened the next day. We traveled with the Lo Domim Teen Club from Kiev to Kharkov, Ukraine, for IC.
On arrival, it became obvious that the language barrier dividing me from most of my peers at the conference would be overcome by acceptance and understanding — that same acceptance and understanding that I felt in Lidiya’s home, at Halom and Hesed, is what I would feel throughout the weekend at IC.
The renaissance of Jewish life in the FSU was epitomized in the passion and joy I saw in over 400 Jewish teens gathered as one. It cannot be properly expressed through words. It was a life-changing experience.
The four days we spent together were filled with laughter, pride, singing and dancing. With no background in the Russian language, it was difficult to take part in most programming.
However, never did I feel like I was being ignored or forgotten; on the contrary, multiple peers in my learning group made a concerted effort to translate for me, even when it was difficult for them to do. They comforted me in a situation where I was naturally uncomfortable. My gratitude to them cannot be properly expressed.
The most impactful and memorable moment of the entire weekend came on Friday night during a Shabbat oneg celebration. Music transcended the language barrier that existed in that small room, and we sung our hearts out to tunes both in English and Russian.
We all left that singalong feeling unified and inspired. Our love for one another shone through in our shared appreciation for music.
So I know what happened on my Jewish haj to Ukraine. I traveled to Kiev and Kharkov, met with the young and old of the community, made some of my greatest friends in just a few days, and witnessed firsthand the unbounded resurgence of Jewish life in the FSU. But how did it change me?
First and foremost, I now understand what it means to be an ambassador for the global Jewish community. Through this experience, I have realized that being an ambassador begins with learning from others.
I did not go to Ukraine to lead; I went to represent BBYO on a much larger, more important stage. I went to interact with the renaissance of an entire community that just decades before was decimated by genocide. I am coming back to my community to share stories of endless joy and learning that I was fortunate enough to experience at AJT IC 2017.
Judaism is practiced and observed in so many different ways around the world, and no matter how it is done, it is beautiful and special. In BBYO, we have the opportunity to engage with so many different people through these unique experiences, and I will encourage my peers in Atlanta and around the country to take advantage of these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.
Jacob Busch lives in Atlanta and is a member of Greater Atlanta Region BBYO.