Monday, June 26, 2006

Anxious Anticipation

I just thought I’d share with you the location of our new office, at the YESOD building in St. Petersburg. We’re right next to a Metro stop, two palaces, a botanical garden, and two sports stadiums…and I thought DC’s Chinatown was a fun place to work!,75

Friday, June 23, 2006

The Benefits of Volunteering

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

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We've all received them--the long emails from our friends detailing their week-long vacations in Tanzania, the emails full of pictures from their sojourns in Nepal. Although you really do want to read these tomes, when will you ever find the time?

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Thursday, June 15, 2006


We just got back from our two-day orientation session on a relatively high note. While we continue to struggle with the lack of details--where will we be living? what will our Internet access be like? what will our jobs be?--we are certainly excited about the trip and are moving full-speed ahead on the preparations. Just to give you a taste of how complex it has been to wrap up our lives in DC, here are some of the logistical items on our to-do list:

  1. Get visas for China trip, and make all the necessary flight and pick-up arrangements
  2. Register for Russian courses in DC (expensive!)
  3. Figure out what to do with our car for the next year (thanks, Bryna and Jay!)
  4. Close any bank accounts that might charge a fee while we're gone
  5. Find and confirm our apartment's renter
  6. Set up our trip to Cleveland to meet with the Jewish orgs and professionals there
  7. Get a DC business license for renting the apartment
  8. Run a rough sketch of next year's taxes, so we can understand the impact of our volunteering on our financial picture
  9. Assemble the necessary items we are going to need next year, like electricity converters and drug items
  10. Change our address and cancel any services we might be paying on a monthly basis for

And this is just the tip of the iceberg!

The best part of orientation, in my humble opinion, was the session on cross-cultural understanding. Maybe because it appealed to my psychology-major roots, or maybe because the teacher was a sex therapist in her free time, but I was riveted. She got us to start thinking about our culture as a series of linear spectrums, and each culture has a different worldview based on where it falls on that spectrum. Here are just a few of the things to consider:

  • Individualism vs. Collectivism: Is the goal of your society to assert yourself and speak your mind all the time, or should you fit in and maintain harmony above all else?
  • "Time is Money" vs. "I've Got All the Time in the World!": This got me thinking about the work environment, where some people are more focused on getting the job done, and others enjoy work relationships and socialize a lot more.
  • Optimism vs. Fatalism: I'm no expert, but this may be where Russian culture and American culture diverge starkly. Americans believe that life is what you make of it, and your accomplishments shape who you are. From what I've read, Russians are far more fatalistic and pessimistic, as you can read in Crime and Punishment. Life is much more random, and there is no arguing with the random events that happen.
  • "Just the Facts, Ma'am" vs. Body Language: It will be fascinating to see how differently Russians will communicate. Americans are notoriously goal-oriented, and expressing unchecked emotions is frowned upon by our society. But Russians are expressive, obnoxious, and highly emotive--and that's before they even open their mouths!

Over the next year, it will be interesting to see how we can bridge these cultural divides and create understanding despite our massive societal differences. I hope we can adapt to our surroundings and make friends with our fellow community members, but not lose the strengths that we bring from our backgrounds and push the community to grow and improve.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

What is Tikkun Olam, really?

Little known fact about me: the second paragraph of the Aleinu prayer, which is actually the only place "tikkun olam" shows up in our liturgy, is far and away my favorite portion of services. Has been for several years. In fact, I was really upset when a fellow BCIer from my aliyah (shout out to July 2001!) admitted that she didn't say that paragraph because she felt it to be too exclusionary and antiquated, because it talked about the whole world accepting monotheism in a less-than-PC way. Needless to say, we respectfully debated that topic for the rest of the summer. What is it about those few sentences? Well, I love the tune, but mostly I connect deeply with the Messianic hope of a global revelation, with people of all races and nationalities embracing the importance of monotheism and accepting the burden of mending a broken world.

In the previous post, Alyson started discussing one of the topics from our Heritage class discussion. Well, last night's discussion was also pretty interesting. Our teacher, Erica Brown, was pushing an important point: not every act of kindness we perform is really tikkun olam (repairing the world). In fact, the concept of healing the world is really a grass-roots effort to systematically affect change in the world. In other words, painting a homeless shelter is not really tikkun olam (here is a picture of Alyson and I doing just that on Christmas Day last year); rather, advocating for an end to poverty and hunger is the real way to be a "light unto the nations."

Amongst our classmates, this view was extremely controversial. One student said, "We only have so much time, energy, and resources. We're trying to help the world, but all of a sudden, what we're doing isn't good enough!" Another student made the point, "This borders on self-loathing. We Jews do a great job helping shape and improve the world--why can't we just be satisfied with what we are doing?" Because Erica was challenging the fundamental concept of tikkun olam--which many of us learned in pre-school--it was difficult for many of my classmates to accept that some of their favorite charitable activities were no longer qualified for that important designation.

Although I see both points, I think that this is a really important debate to be having. It raises all the questions that I've been dealing with ever since becoming a full-time fundraising professional. How strategic should we be in our philanthropy and volunteerism? What are the requirements necessary to lift a simple act of lovingkindness to the status of tikkun olam? How hard should we be pushing ourselves to improve our society - and when can we feel satisfied that we are doing and giving enough to improve this world?

The answers are few and far between. But one thing I am excited about is how our year in Russia fits into the tikkun olam jigsaw puzzle. For the first time since returning from OTZMA, I get to attack a root problem, instead of its symptoms. In my work at Hillel, I've been constantly dealing with how to engage Jewish students once they've already made the decision that Judaism isn't a critical piece of their lives. And at Federation, the challenge is convincing people that tzedakah is something they should live every day and with a portion of every dollar they earn - something they should have learned at home growing up!

In St. Petersburg, I have the opportunity to work with a community that doesn't have to deal with the same systematic pitfalls so common to the American Jewish landscape. Now, I'm under no illusions that this is somehow a blank canvas, just waiting for Alyson and I to paint a masterpiece. On the contrary--we are quickly learning about all the struggles and challenges of the Russian Jewish community. But the bottom line is that this is a younger, more malleable community that will hopefully be receptive to my overtures and open to my creative ideas in a way that my fellow Americans have never been.

This year in SPG is a chance to really enact tikkun olam on a daily basis. Instead of pulling weeds from a garden, knowing that they will always grow back again, this is our chance to lay down new soil and select what plants will grow there. Our ultimate goal shouldn't be what we did to repair and build the Russian Jewish community - it should be what we empowered the community to do for itself, both during our trip and long after we leave.

May the Lord give us the strength and wisdom to live out the values of tikkun olam, to teach them to those around us, and to inspire our community to put those values into action.