In June 2007, I had the amazing experience of taking part in the first ever Lev el Lev (Hebrew for Heart to Heart) teen mission to Baltimore’s sister city of Odessa, Ukraine. Throughout history, Jewish culture has thrived in this area, however, World War II and the Soviet reign decimated the Jewish population and its heritage. In the five days I spent there with 11 other peers and the two chaperones who accompanied me, I experienced a completely different culture in spending time with people from the Former Soviet Union (FSU). It made me realize how fortunate I am to live in the financially and politically secure community of Pikesville.
The purpose of my mission trip was to create a stronger bond between Baltimore and Odessa to start rebuilding its Jewish community. My peers and I met up with Jewish Odessan teen counterparts to work with the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which has been vigorously working to restore Judaism in Odessa and many other parts of the world. We volunteered in numerous community service activities, ranging from beautifying a Holocaust memorial to entertaining little children at a food-tasting fair to visiting homebound elderly. At the fair, to introduce some American culture, we played the popular game “Coke and Pepsi” and served American delicacies such as hot dogs and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (while playing the song “It’s Peanut Butter Jelly Time”). The kids had a great time, especially from beating my peers at “Coke and Pepsi.”
W also had the ability to lead religious rituals, such as a model Shabbat service for World War II veterans- on June 22, the day Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. There, we danced and sang to songs such as Havah Negilah and The Hora (yes, I got lifted up and thrown around in midair on a chair). We got a nice taste of Ukrainian culture literally; I tried authentic Ukrainian borsch (beet soup) at the house of a host family.
By far, my most memorable experience was a visit to an elderly homebound man, Leonid Diorditsa, abandoned by his family ten years ago. He is a Holocaust survivor and cannot leave his home because he is paralyzed from the waist down. Minus the cost of rent, he lives off of a pension of 65 dollars per month. After all this suffering, he still maintains a positive outlook on life and publishes nonfiction stories about Odessa. From this visit I took with me a few lessons: First, always look for the good in life, and secondly, as Leonid himself stressed, live life in peace.
This mission allowed me to form close bonds with both my peers and the Odessan teens, some of whom visited Baltimore in August. I continue to stay in touch with all of them, and we plan to launch community service programs to continue to aid Odessa. I strongly recommend taking a mission trip like mine for the worldly experience, community service, and lifetime friendships.
Odessa currently has a population of 40,000 Jews, though there are only two synagogues in the city. Prior to World War II, there were 180,000 Jewish inhabitants in the city; most of them escaped or were killed by the Nazis. Perhaps the most amazing statistic is that over 50% of Odessa’s population falls below the poverty line. To help restore culture and help those in need in areas like Odessa, I stress that all teenagers look to participate in mission trips; doing the little things can make a big difference.
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