Students Spread Light in Ukraine

Osik Akselrud got a little help from his friends in staging a recent workshop designed to teach students to teach others about the history and traditions of Chanukah.

That’s because the head of the Hillel office responsible for Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova was able to use, as instructors and assistants, students who’d already completed the first two installments of the program.

"We had two instructors from Hillel in Israel, as well as the Hillel students who’d gone through the first and second generations of seminars — and they know everything," he said. "I say, ‘Hey, you guys have become professional Jews.’"

About 140 students took part in the weeklong workshop that wrapped up Nov. 10.

They came by train to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev from cities across the country — Lvov, Odessa, Kharkov, Simferopol and Sevastopol — as well as from Minsk, Belarus, and Kishinev, Moldova. And it’s to those regional Hillel centers they’ll return to pass along what they’ve learned to their fellow Hillel members and then out to Jews in communities across the three countries.

Speaking at Kiev’s Sunflower Community Center after the seminar, Akselrud said such education is sorely needed. He said that despite the efforts of the past decade, following the break up of the Soviet Union, more time is required to make up for the 70 years of suppression that succeeded in alienating most Jews from their culture and religion.

"Only about 15 percent of Jews are involved in Jewish community programs," he said. "Sunflower has about 400 or 500 regular visitors, but there are between 80,000 and 100,000 Jews living in Kiev."

Hillel is banking on a combination of education and outreach to increase those numbers. It is using a hands-on approach to education to get the message across.

The Chanukah seminar opened in a traditional way, with a song performed by instructors from each regional Hillel office. That was followed by presentations by the regional groups — through songs, dances or performances.

First-time participants were taught the Chanukah and Israeli songs that would be sung together throughout the week. The following days followed a similar pattern — a combination of learning and fun.

"Our seminars are not only religious but also holiday-oriented for people who’ve lost their traditions," said Yulia Belilovska, the seminar’s coordinator. "The idea is to provide the education and, after that, if some want to go to synagogue, they can."

In a novel approach to learning about Chanukah, Hillel also arranged public relations and advertising training for the students. Belilovska explained that the idea was to get the students thinking about imaginative ways to present the meaning and traditions of Chanukah and how to attract community members to attend workshops on the topic. Half the group focused on video presentations, and the other half on dramatic presentations.

"One group presented a commercial containing ‘positive and negative PR,’" Belilovska said. "One girl explained that candles should be lit during Chanukah because they’re beautiful, amazing, a miracle and a good tradition, while one boy countered by saying, ‘Yes, but on Chanukah there are a lot of house fires.’" The positive argument won the day.

Dennis Bainkovsky said he felt like a winner, too. The 21-year-old economics student at the International Solomon University in Kiev was attending his third Chanukah seminar but serving as an instructor for the first time. He said he enjoyed the opportunity to teach others who’d taught him previously.

"The most important part of the seminar for me was acting as a madrich. I felt like a leader," he said, using the Hebrew word for guide or counselor. "I was helping teach some students who’d taught me at other seminars in the past — and while that was difficult, I was ready, and it worked out well."

His schoolmate at Solomon University, 19-year-old Yevgenia Soloviyova, was also attending her third Chanukah seminar. But her experience of Chanukah goes well beyond that, since she also grew up as an active Jew in her native city of Khmelnitski.

She said she enjoyed the opportunity to share her knowledge with the approximately 70 percent of the seminar participants who were learning the details of Chanukah for the first time. She said it was interesting to compare and contrast the styles and attitudes of various Hillel members.

"The Hillel organizations are a little different and have different feelings of spirit," she said. "For example, the group from Kishinev seemed to be a little more religious," while in "Kiev, we have our own place and maybe consider ourselves to be a little more independent."

But with completion of the seminar, it will be up to the participants to pass on what they’ve learned. That is done with workshops within their regional Hillel organizations. Then with the start of Chanukah, they fan out to communities in their regions and beyond.

Members of the Kiev Hillel, for instance, will travel to Hesed community centers around the region, including the city of Zhitomir, before heading farther west to major centers like Ivano-Frankivsk.

"It can be challenging when you’ve got a mixed group of older people and children and have to find a way to keep them all interested and entertained," Soloviyova said. "But sometimes, it’s great where there are older people who remember what Chanukah was like during their childhood and want to tell you about it."

Soloviyova said enlightenment can also work both ways — as was the case when Kiev Hillel traveled to the western border city of Uzhgorod last year.

"We met a group of younger people who were telling us that life wasn’t very interesting for them, because they didn’t know what kinds of things they could do together in their community," she said. "So, of course, we told them all about what we do in Hillel and the programs we’re involved in."

It is just such interaction, education and growth that Akselrud said the Chanukah seminar was designed to encourage. He said that makes the efforts and the $20,000 cost of the initiative — funded in part by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — worth it.

"For me, the most important part of the seminar was that I saw many, many new faces," he said. "And that means more students involved in Jewish life — and more potential."