Jews in the Steppe: An American Jew in Kazakhstan and Ukraine
JDC Short-Term Service welcomes past participants to share reflections on their service with jdcinservice.org. Today, Perry Teicher, 25, reflects on his time serving throughout the Former Soviet Union.
When I traveled to Ukraine with JDC Short-Term Service and University of Michigan Hillel in 2005, it was (surprisingly for me as I thought back on it) my third time in the sphere of influence of the Former Soviet Union. In 2000 and 2002, I had been to Bulgaria on earlier Jewish service learning trips. While not officially a part of the Soviet Union, Bulgaria’s Jewish community suffered a similar identity loss as the other countries behind the Iron Curtain.
With each trip, the reality of the Jewish communities we spoke with, built community centers with, drank with, danced with, sang with, and ate with became more real. In Ukraine, our 15 UM students worked side-by-side 15 Jewish Ukrainian youth for 10 days, tearing down an old building, constructing a new community center and picking potatoes in Konotop, a small village in the eastern part of the country. I thought this would be the last of my few and far between trips to the FSU.
Как страна. How strange. After graduating from the University of Michigan, I found myself living and working in Kazakhstan as a Peace Corps Volunteer for over two years. I had no inkling that, through this experience, I would connect with the Jewish community in my adopted country. Fortunately, Peace Corps was open to the idea, and through my connection to JDC – and JDC’s connection to the community – the Jewish community welcomed me with open arms. My JDC Short-Term Service trip opened my eyes to the vivacity of the Jewish communities of the FSU. Peace Corps gave me the opportunity to connect and engage with a unique Jewish community in a deeper manner. 10 days working with a Jewish community is a great introduction to communal life and challenges; living in a community gives you an understanding of daily life, history, and potential.
During my Peace Corps service, I celebrated the holidays with the Jewish community in Aktobe (my site) and Almaty (the economic center). Within a few weeks of arriving in Aktobe, I was invited to a community Hannukah dinner, with about 25 other members of the Jewish community. Although a mostly older crowd, there were a few younger couples around the table. Even though I spoke Russian like a 6-year-old, I was welcomed with open arms. After eating more than my stomach could handle, I started to feel a part of the community, leading to more dinners, Shabbat services, and Hesed events over the next two years.
In 2008, JDC invited me to participate in two JDC Short-Term Service trips that were working with the Jewish community in Almaty. In Summer 2008, a group of Tufts students came to Kazakhstan, followed by an NYU group in Summer 2009. Both groups spent 10 days cleaning the houses of elderly Jews in Almaty, weeding their overgrown gardens, playing with kids at Jewish summer camp, and renovating the Jewish community center.
And while the experience definitely had a clear impact on the American students, the impact on the Kazakhstani Jewish community has also been far-reaching. Spending more time with the Kazakhstani Jewish community months later, the impact of these groups is very clear – perspectives of the Jewish community widened and needed help was performed, in a manner that created new ideas, new understandings, new programs, and lasting positive impressions.
My experience over the last two years reminded me that participation on a JDC Short-Term Service trip, or living among a Jewish community abroad, you are only seeing part of the community, that the experience is a segment of a bigger canvas of Jewish life.
Intense experiences such as these often make it difficult to reengage with what used to be “everyday life”. It would be easy to segment my experiences with the Jewish communities of the FSU as a one-time experience; as something that happened and is done. But that is not the case. These experiences are not just memories to be filed away and pulled-out when useful. Rather, these last two years, and the earlier trips, built real bonds and inspired new ideas that influence everything I do.
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