Monday, August 28, 2006

Memoirs of First Week Fellows

It's Monday and that means that we've officially been here in St. Petersburg for one full week. I have to admit that the week was one of the hardest of my life. I cried daily for the first three days, but after that, my homesickness tapered off as we submersed ourselves in our new city. Days one through three were occupied with the Hillel seminar that Matt described and I will revisit below. After that, we had no mission other than to familiarize ourselves with St. Petersburg. Fortuitously, Katie and Dov were here and I thank heavens for their visit. It was exactly the distraction I needed -- familiar faces with a desire to go sightseeing! Since last Thursday, all we've done is sightseeing. It's kind of odd to not have an office or a 9-5 job, but at the same time, it's refreshing to be able to focus on discovering what surrounds us. There are a few successes that I'd like to reflect upon from this past week.

Triumph at the Hillel Conference

Reading over Matt's last blog post, I am saddened that he chose to portray our experience at the Hillel conference in a negative light. While the first session was slow and difficult, the afternoon session proved anything but. We tackled the topic of fundraising -- explaining why it's so important to the Russian Jewish community, the fundamentals of asking for a gift, and some lessons from the American Jewish lay leadership model that can be applied in loose terms in Russia. The group, who proved to be quite immature during the morning, was riveted and engaged. They did practice solicitation phone calls without any resistance; in fact, one of them mentioned in their evaluation that it was the most valuable part of our training seminar and that we should have spent more time honing their solicitation skills. We concluded the training with a goal-setting excercise. Each Hillel director had to set a goal and three tactics to reach that goal; we intend to check in with them at their mid-year seminar in February to see if they have achieved or started working towards achieving their goal. For us, the afternoon session erased the pain of the morning session. It gave us one quick success to place under our belt early in the year. And it gave us some confidence to tackle the as-of-yet-undetermined next project.

Slowly, Slowly Making Friends

Last night, Matt dragged me to the under-20 Women's World FIFA Championship soccer game between the US and Germany. Turns out it was a 20-minute walk from our house to the stadium and tickets were less than $5 for both of us. How could I complain? And through an expat listserv, Matt had successfully arranged to meet up with another expat couple at the game. The stadium was nearly empty, sadly, so we sat with the parents of the US team. To be surrounded by Americans was so incredibly comforting. The US team beat Germany 4-1. And afterwards, we went out for coffee with the other American expat couple. They are a little older than we are (with two small children) and have lived here for 5 years, doing missionary work. It was so nice to get insights and tips from "near-locals." I am so delighted that we have already begun to make friends. I think it will help smooth our transition tremendously.

No Sandwiches for Dinner

One of the hardest thing about a new country is grocery shopping. It's especially hard when you keep kosher and don't know Russian. Russia seems to operate on a similar system as Israel: there are grocery stores spread out across the city and on nearly every corner, there is a small "mikolet" or "productoy" in Russian. They seem to have a superb selection of three items -- bread, meat and cheese. Everything else is limited. Only a few items are cheap or reasonably priced -- cabbage, potatoes, beets, bread, tomatoes, apples, eggs and cheese. All else is imported, so it costs a small fortune. Needless to say, we've been eating a ton of sandwiches. At least I've been good about the variety, from tuna melts to egg salad and cheese sandwiches. But today was the breaking point. I realized that we just couldn't have one more sandwich-based meal! So tonight, I officially broke the mold and made rice noodles with Asian veggies as a stirfry. Coming from someone who prides herself on creative cooking, this year is going to push the limits of my creativity. But now that I've broken free of the endless sandwich cycle, I think we're off to a good start.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

There's a First Time for Everything!

Our First Work Experience: Russian Hillel Conference

As Alyson mentioned, we arrived back from China at 10 pm Sunday night, and we were at work come 10 am the next morning. We were given 48 hours to create 6 hours worth of training for the Hillel directors of Russia. While they told us we’d have 15 students, only 9 really showed up. Where the others were, I have no idea. Rather than focus on the boring details of the session, I’m going to talk about my impressions. But to start, here are some pictures to give you a sense of our work space and audience.

Body Language is Understandable No Matter What Language You Speak

Our first session got off to a rough start. The directors were slouching, sending text messages, giggling amongst themselves: it brought back horrible memories of teaching Hebrew school. When a couple of guys teased the Hillel director from Novosibirsk because of her uniquely Siberian accent, I was saddened that these professionals, who were supposed to be models for their community, were acting like six-year-olds. While I wouldn’t call their behavior towards us “disrespectful,” since they were tired and listening through a translator is hard, it definitely presented our first obstacle and set the tone for a challenging day.

That obstacle only grew larger as our session got bogged down in a mundane topic. We wanted to start with something easy and quick, so we put programming as the first agenda item. We had no idea that we’d hit a really fascinating and intriguing chord, and dwell on it for the first three hours! The topic was “meaningful Jewish experiences,” and we wanted the directors to understand that educational programming—meaning the lectures and classes that have been staples of Russian Hillel programming to this point—have been replaced by more impactful programming focused on experiential learning. The whole exercise fell flat: we just couldn’t get them to understand that, in order to stay relevant and exciting for today’s student, Hillels must push the envelope and appeal to all five senses instead of just the student’s mind. After the session, a fellow Jewish professional let us in on an important insight:

“Hillel in America is a Grocery Store. Hillel in Russia is a Cheese Shop.”

These directors, seemingly so young an impressionable, are actually knee-deep in the post-Soviet Russian Jewish model. That model is to get students hooked by teaching the meat-and-potatoes of Jewish tradition and religion, leaving the appetizers, desserts, and other courses to other Jewish organizations. This isn’t necessarily a function of limited resources or lack of training; rather, this is a conscious decision to offer a limited selection of programming, attracting intellectually-curious students in a deep and meaningful way. On the other end of the spectrum is American Hillel, which offers a wide range of options—from sports, to dance, to drama, to parties—in an effort to attract as many students as possible. Which leads me to my second point:

Translators Should Only Be Used By Important Politicians and When The Daily Show Makes Fun of Those Politicians

Speaking through a translator is really hard; it makes you weigh every sentence carefully. In addition to not being able to translate the passion and commitment I was trying to convey, I was upset when our translator kept changing “meaningful” to “important” in her translations. It may not seem like a big deal, but it was to me. We need to learn Russian so we can communicate our own ideas effectively, but more importantly, so we can say,

“Get in Here, Have a Seat, and Pay Attention!”

Outside the classroom, I had one of the most interesting meetings of my professional career. Alyson and I joined with some other Jewish professionals from around the world for a short walk to the nearby Gulf of Finland, which is a section of the Baltic Sea. A group of us waded into the water, and discussed the ins and outs of Hillel in Russia. It became very clear that there are major changes underway here, with big announcements coming soon (so keep your eyes peeled) that will affect Jewish life here in a tangible way. But enough work—check out

Our Video from Peterhof

Peterhof was everything it was hyped up to be. The luscious gardens, the funky fountains, and the crush of Russian tourists—it made for a great experience. And going with Dov Grossman and Katie Schenk, friends of ours from DC who timed their visit perfectly with our work and personal schedule, made it all the more enjoyable.

The Fountains - A quick look at the fountains that make Peterhof so famous.

The Drinking - When we got caught in the rain, we took the opportunity to drink like the Russians. Between the three of us, we finished off a solid bottle of vodka and a herring!

The SPB Waterline - This is cool. We took the hydrofoil to and from the palace. On our return, we got a nice view of what SPB looks like from the water. Check out the cameo by the Russian couple who didn't feel like moving out of our video!

Odds and Ends

Pictures from our China trip - sorry, we took over 500, and we've been too busy to go through them. Here's a start!

Pictures from around SPB and Peterhof - The synagogue is beautiful here. Well worth seeing on your computer screen.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Day One and Desperate Plea

Today was our first "real day of work" as loosely defined as that is. We fought the jetlag to stay in bed past 6am, got up, unpacked a little and got ready. A driver picked us up at 10 and off we went to Yesod for a meeting with the folks at Hillel there. They have asked us to present a day-long (!!) training session to 15 Hillel directors across the FSU on Wednesday. So much for a slow adjustment period -- we are jumping right into the thick of it. I guess they think that we are capable enough! We spent nearly two hours discussing what areas they'd like us to cover and what to expect. Then, after touring the Yesod building, we walked back to our apartment (about 20-25 minutes away), stopping briefly en route to pick up a few groceries. We spent most of the afternoon working on an outline and attack strategy for Wednesday's seminar. We've also managed to spend a good deal of time unpacking from China and getting settled in a bit more. Our appointment with a handyman fell through -- apparently he got tied up in traffic, or something ridiculous like that. The JDC security policy requires that we have our locks replaced. And while he was coming, I asked to have him look at our oven that is, in the traditional Russian way, "ne rabotet," i.e. not working. One quick aside on the Yesod building. It's spectacularly beautiful. Modern, clean, well organized into communal space and individual space for shops and Jewish community organizations. It struck us how empty the building was -- but we were told repeatedly that it's because it's summertime and most everyone is still on vacation. I guess we'll see in a few short weeks just how utilized the building actually is. On a happy note, it was in the mid-70's here today!

Anyway, here's the real reason I'm writing...we miss you all! We have our new contact info, so just shoot one of us an email to get it. (We are not posting it here for obvious security/privacy reasons, as I'm sure you can understand.) Please send us emails, call us, send us letters, etc. At minimum, please post comments to our blog. And definitely get Skype and let us know when you want to talk!

There’s a Reason You’ve Never Heard Anything Good About Aeroflot

To their credit, the service is relatively attentive and we received our kosher meals without a hitch. But have you ever been in an airplane where the bathroom stank so badly that you held it in rather than deal with the trauma of going to pee? On the way to China, we actually had a decent kosher dinner, supervised by the Chabad in Moscow. But you can imagine our surprise when we received the exact same meal four hours later for breakfast! I’m sorry, but chicken and rice for breakfast is a little bit nauseating. The planes that we flew on were these bizarre Soviet-era aircraft, Ilyushin something-or-other, that are designed to be painful. For example, the tray tables are difficult to open and close—when the person in front of you reclines their seat, well, I hope you like having a shelf in your crotch. And if you don’t, you only have one option: make life miserable for the person in front of you. That can include things like kicking their seat, shaking the tray table, or (and this is the most common method) simply pushing the seat forward and demanding that the person not recline.

Oh, and the other bizarre thing? Every seat has a buzzer for the flight attendants that ring throughout the cabin, waking anyone trying to sleep, read, or relax. It’s really quite obnoxious and infuriating. Did I mention these buttons are located on every seat, including the two seven-year-olds in front of me who are pressing the buttons like they’re some sort of video game?

To Beijing and Back: Highlights and Insights

While we were slightly disappointed by some of the supposed highlights of our trip, there were a few surprises that seemed far too coincidental to be mere coincidence.

Our first organized tour was a small intimate group of seven; one of our fellow travelers was a 60ish man from Wilmington, Delaware who was a chemical engineer by training who had spent 32 years working for Hercules. His story parallels my father’s, a small reminder of home while halfway around the world.

That same day, while we were visiting the Summer Palace on the outskirts of Beijing, along with thousands of other tourists, we unexpectedly bumped into Ronna and Moe Hochman, dear family friends of ours. Yet another—and far more intimate—reminder of home.

The third encounter is less about home and more about our unfolding adventure. At Chabad in Beijing (where there was also severe overcrowding), we sat next to a woman in her 30’s who introduced herself as Yana. It turns out that she was born in St. Petersburg, but had immigrated to Germany with her family when Communism fell. Ultimately, she made aliyah before moving to China to pursue her studies. When we told her about our impending year in St. Petersburg, she seemed to understand at once. Where others have showered us with questions, she only wanted to shower us with praise and encouragement. It was the spiritual push that I needed to make the journey back to St. Petersburg.

After a one-night stopover back in Shanghai, we are now aboard our flight back to Russia. I have to admit that I really loved China, far more than I imagined. While some customs were a bit bizarre to me—namely that Chinese don’t diaper their babies; rather they put them in crotchless pants and teach them from 3 months to communicate their needs—I felt surprisingly comfortable there. Things were different, but efficient. And I can appreciate efficiency like few others. Just after we boarded the plane and I used the disgusting Aeroflot bathrooms (more on this topic later), I had a brief meltdown. Transitions are tough. I hope that the next few weeks pass quickly as I am sure they will be among our most difficult.

More Reflections on China

As we head back from our two weeks in China, I’ve been thinking a lot about the uncomfortable nature of traveling. Forget the long lines and interminable waiting that have become synonymous with flying; I’m talking about the critical cultural differences that define regions of the world and unite or separate people. In America, we value our privacy and alone time; tourism is a way to relax and commune with nature. In China, whether you’re born in Chung-du (population 9 million) or Chingdao (population 7 million), from day one you are exposed to massive crowds everywhere you go. That’s why squeezing fifteen people into an elevator is no big deal, the roads are a free-for-all, and every tourist site is jam-packed with people…and no one bats an eye.

This brings me to Beijing, where we had a very mixed experience. Whereas Shanghai mixes the enormous buildings of New York; the palm trees and high-rise apartments of Miami; and the cutting-edge, beacon-of-the-future aspects of Tokyo, Beijing has none of the charm or accessibility of Shanghai. The roads are jammed constantly, the sites are all under renovation for the 2008 Olympics, and—most disturbingly—a thick haze hangs over the city because there is no wind to push away the pollution. The haze is suffocating: we couldn’t see more than a half-mile in any direction, and the sun was just a vague yellow dot.

While in Beijing, trouble pursued us everywhere like a cat chasing a mouse. At the hotel where we stayed, a really fancy place just blocks from Tian An Men Square, we had all sorts of issues with communicating our needs to the hotel staff. The tour company we hired, which was very reputable and popular, wasted our precious time by stopping at every factory and demanding that we shop for jade, freshwater pearls, and every other kitschy Chinese souvenir. And we spent an hour in traffic trying to get to Chabad on Friday night for services. Although we saw a lot of historical sites in Beijing—the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, Tian An Men Square, the Ming Tombs, the Great Wall, etc.—none of them were stunning enough to overcome the sense of frustration and anxiety that we felt during our trip there. The city will be beautiful and fantastic for the 2008 Olympic Games but, for now, I recommend spending as little time there as possible.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Our China Trip, So Far

Hey everyone,

China has been fantastic so far. It's such a completely different country than I experienced eight years ago. Gone are all the feelings of being an outsider, the sense of exploring an exotic new world, and the hesitation at traveling in a communist country. In its place are a slew of Pizza Huts, KFCs, and Western tourists at every turn. For example: when we were hiking on a remote mountain near Lingying Palace, we were excited but a bit dismayed to hear Hebrew coming from the backpackers behind us. We were enjoyed the chance to converse with these two nice Israelis in the middle of nowhere, but it seems we can't go anywhere without bumping smack up against Western civilization. It's amazing what a difference 8 years can make.

Anyway, enough of the sappy retrospection. Here are some videos of our trip so far:

1. Seals at the Aquarium - The brand-new Shanghai Aquarium is really something special. Here's a fun video of the seals having a good old time. It looks like they're as amused staring at the tourists as we were looking at them! For a somewhat more tranquil (and by that I mean boring) video, you can check out the jellyfish as well.

2. Westernization, Exhibit A - I mean, this is just weird. We were in Hangzhou, a few hours outside Shanghai. We go to a pizza restaurant to get a drink, and this Filipino band is playing a random selection of Spanish music. It was really weird. My BCI Friends will get a kick out of this song, since we danced to it on a regular basis (go July 2001!).

3. And of course, an embarrassing picture from today's trip to Jiu Ja Jow. When in China...

That's all for now. More to come later.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Dragons, Deals and Dim Sum, Oh My!

Greetings from China, where we've been for the last five days. We've been mostly in Shanghai, where Matt's father resides, but today we're in nearby Hangzhou, enjoying West Lake and a Buddhist Temple. It feels a lot like home -- very hot and very Western! Last night we had a very funny experience. We went out for drinks and ended up watching a Phillipino band perform Latin music at an Italian restaurant in Hangzhou! It was too funny!

There is some incredible shopping here in China and the prices are extraordinarily cheap. (To give you an example, I'm wearing a shirt I bought yesterday for less than $5. The same shirt in the States would easily be $40 at Ann Taylor Loft.) Every meal is an adventure. We've had 3 or more new foods at each meal, some which we can identify, others that we can't. Kashrut is a bit of a challenge, but we're doing the best we can.

Matt's dad is taking great care of us, even providing us with a wonderful tour guide named Sumei. He even treated me to accupuncture to help with my back issues! Wish I had more time to post more details now but we have a busy day ahead of us. We're having trouble posting to our blog from Shanghai, but maybe we'll have some luck next week from Beijing. Stay tuned for more...including some photos.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

View Our Apartment!

Through the wonders of technology, we have not only created a virtual tour of our apartment, but we've posted it on YouTube for all to see. It's a little dark and I moved the camera too fast - but not bad for a first online video. Check it out!

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Our first Shabbat

We spent an active Shabbat here in Petersburg with our new boss, Menachem Lipkivker, and his family. My first impressions: it's surprisingly similar to the States. We found a wireless internet connection in our apartment that we're pirating as I type, the mode of dress isn't that drastically different (as we had been warned), and even the brands are identical! We walked a few blocks alone this evening--it was 9 pm, but the streets were packed and it was broad daylight out--and noticed that on our street we have an Adidas store, a North Face store, some high-end brands like Ferragamo and Fendi, and even a Baskin Robbins!


















Driving around the city, the traffic and crazy drivers were exactly as people

had described them. However, these drivers don’t hold a candle to the insanity of Chinese drivers, who weave between taxis, rickshaws, mopeds, bicycles, and all manner of pedestrians. We are most excited about our apartment—with three bedrooms, a main foyer, and a decent-sized kitchen, it is far more spacious than anything we could ever afford in Washington. On the other hand, the “water closet” is tiny, the shower’s faucet leaks, and there are innumerable other minor flaws that make life here annoyingly inconvenient. Oh well—when in the FSU, do as the Former Soviets do. We live on Ordinarnaya Street (that’s our street sign above), but something tells me our adventure here will be anything but ordinary!



Of course, the one thing I have to love about the West: the universal language of consumerism can be found everywhere!

Friday, August 04, 2006

On Russian Soil

The moment we've been dreaming of for over a year has arrived -- we landed in St. Petersburg this afternoon! We've been here just a few hours, still getting acclimated to having to sound out the signs on the street, not knowing where we are, not understanding more than a word here and a word there, etc. We dropped off our bags, unpacked a bit, and now we're at the home of our supervisor Menachem for Shabbat dinner. More details to come. Shabbat shalom from Russia!

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Cleveland Doesn't Suck

We just got back from a whirlwind 5-day tour of Cleveland. As Roslyn Z. Wolf Fellows -- an honor we received as part of the application process for the Jewish Service Corps that memorializes an important leader in Cleveland's Jewish community -- we were asked to familiarize ourselves with everything Jewish Cleveland has to offer. In this way, we can better build bridges between the sister cities of Cleveland and St. Petersburg.

We hit all of the Jewish sites -- the Jewish Federation, the Maltz Museum, the Cleveland Indians game, to the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, and to the outdoor theater venue called Blossom where the Cleveland Symphony performed the works of John Williams.

The last few days -- despite the packed schedule -- have been the calm before the storm. We sleep in our apartment for the last time tonight. The next few days will be chaotic, as we prepare to board our flight in three short days. We now emphatically agree with the slogan on the t-shirts that Strengthening and Growing Jewish Cleveland gave us: Cleveland doesn't suck!