Cherkassy is not only the name of a city, but also the name of an oblast (or region). Cherkassy is the major city in the Cherkassy oblast. There are approximately 2,500 Jews in the city and an additional 2,500 in the surrounding communities. The family camp program is open to families both from the city itself as well as from the outlying towns and cities. This program is now in its 17th year and is underwritten by Greater MetroWest.
As an aside, over the years, the people of Cherkassy have learned the word “MetroWest.” They know that this place “MetroWest” sends money, supplies and people to help them develop their Jewish community. So, several times when community leaders were standing in front of the community speaking, the only word I could pick out in the midst of their very fast Russian speeches was “MetroWest” (apparently, they have not been fully apprised of the merger).
Kabbalat Shabbat was beautiful. Rabbi Alekasandr Duchovny (yes, he told me that the actor is apparently a distant cousin) conducted the service – he is the rabbi of the Progressive (Reform) congregation in Kiev, but he visits many communities since he is one of only three Progessive rabbis in Ukraine. But, what made the service so beautiful was the participation of several young women with gorgeous voices. (I did not personally take pictures during Shabbat, but pictures were, in fact, taken. If/when I get access to some, I will certainly share them.)
Update: Here’s a pic from the ceremony….
While there were many men in attendance and some of them have key leadership roles, it is clear that the women are the ones driving the spiritual renewal of the community. They are the ones leading prayers, learning Hebrew songs and dances as well as teaching in the schools. Of the 14 B’nai Mitzvah, 12 were girls.
I was matched up with a boy named Vladimir – whose Hebrew name coincidentally is Avi. He is 16 years old, but never had a Bar Mitzvah. His father is Jewish and his mother is not. He came to the family camp without his parents because of his interest in Judaism. His dream is to make aliyah to Israel and be a doctor. I had been told that he liked sports and plays the guitar. So, here he is in the NJ Devils shirt I brought for him.
Our group sat around after our Shabbat experience and we talked about what we saw versus what we expected. While I think we all have our own ideas about what Judaism should look like here in Ukraine, it is important for us to remember that they were denied the opportunity to learn about and practice our tradition for 75 years. Then, when the Iron Curtain fell, many Jews chose to leave for the US or Israel. It’s hard to imagine what our own Jewish identities would be if our parents and grandparents were not permitted – and were not necessarily knowledgeable enough – to teach us about our tradition.
So, at the end of Shabbat, we all felt a tremendous amount of admiration for our Ukrainian brothers and sisters. All we could do is applaud their passion and efforts while pledging to continue supporting them as they find their own path back to the Judaism they have been denied for too many years.