Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Returning to Reality

Winter has returned to St. Petersburg, and so have we. After three glorious weeks in Israel, we arrived at Pulkovo Airport at 3am last night. As we drove through the largely deserted streets, things felt familiar and comfortable, just with a thin white veil of snow. The temperatures plummeted since we left; now it's in the low teens (in Farenheit, or -11 Celsius). Despite the climate changes, we are happy to be back.

Our trip to Israel was both reinvigorating and relaxing. We spent the first week in meetings and our midyear seminar in Jerusalem, as Matt explained in the previous post. Then, we jumped around the country, visiting dear friends along the way in Kfar Saba, Herzilya, Yokneam and a small new settlement called Haruv (near Kiryat Gat). Since it was the first time we had been to Israel together, it was fun to show each other the places we had each lived and introduce each other to people from our past. We relished the abundance and variety of kosher food, the warm hospitality, the beautiful weather, some great shopping, the ability to practice our Hebrew, and discovering new places and re-discovering old places together. Our list of daytrips included Caesarea, Yad Vashem (where we saw the new museum -- a must see), Haifa, Tel Aviv, Zichron Yaakov, Mount Tabor (pictured above), and Beit Guvrin.

Being in Israel, though, is more than just sightseeing; it's a chance to glimpse into the psyche of the Jewish people. The remnants of this summer's war with Lebanon are mostly cleaned up, but the conflict has left psychological scars in the hearts of the people we talked to. Did we lose the war? What was the end-goal? Why did we initiate a war if we weren't prepared? These are the types of questions we heard over and over. During our trip, the scandal surrounding President Katsav spiraled out of control. For us, it was insightful and intriguing to watch "Eretz Nehaderet"--a political satire show on TV that is a mix between Saturday Night Live and the Daily Show--as it lampooned the situation, the American presidential campaigns, and more. Fortunately, one thing Israel has aced is the ability to laugh at itself (and others!).

The most powerful encounter we had with recent changes in the Israeli landscape was during our visit to Haruv, which is a new settlement in the northern Negev, about 20 minutes from Kiryat Gat. We visited Biko and Liat, a recently-married couple that Matt knows from BCI (pictured above). Basically, Haruv is one street lined with caravans (temporary trailer homes), housing 30 families awaiting the approval to build their homes on a nearby hill and thus, settle the land of Israel anew. These people represent a new generation of practical Zionists. In the distance, you can see the security fence that was built to protect Israel from unwanted intruders from the West Bank. The adjacent street looks fairly similar, but with larger temporary homes. This street is another such settlement which will be located near the new Haruv, but these people are not there voluntarily: they are the relocated families from Gush Katif. They are the result of the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza that occurred in the summer of 2005. A handful of them have signs in their front yard admonishing the Israeli government for pulling out of Gaza, but we were impressed to hear that, by and large, they have accepted their situation and are eager to move on with their lives.

Sadly, the realities of being in Israel hit us hard as a pigua (Hebrew for explosion) killed three in Eilat just a few days before we left.

Once we finish unpacking and doing laundry later today, we can refocus our attention to our work in St. Petersburg. The next few months bring some formidable challenges for us as we swing into high gear for planning a few critical initiatives. First, we are organizing the Pesach Project, an amazing coalescence of St. Petersburg's Jewish young adults, its partner cities in the US (Cleveland and Palm Beach), and their Partnership2000 cities in Israel (three northern towns and Beit She'an). Nearly 50 young adults from these communities descend on Petersburg for a week of Passover-related celebrations and volunteering. Second, we are working hard to launch a YESOD website well before the start of the spring tourist season here. Third, we are initiating a sports program at YESOD to lure unaffiliated Jewish teens into the building. And fourth, we are recruiting Petersburg's Jewish students to work in American Jewish summer camps this summer so, if you have any contacts at American Jewish summer camps, please send them Matt's way!

Fortunately, we've returned from Israel with a ton of new energy and passion after being away from the city for nearly five weeks straight. We are very much looking forward to part 2 of our Russian adventure!

Friday, January 19, 2007

Chillin' in Israel

Today was a great day to be in Israel. First of all, the weather is's in the 60s, bright and sunny and not a cloud in the sky. We're staying with family friends of Alyson, the Ronens, who live in Kfar Saba (outside Tel Aviv). We started the day with a very somber reminder that we are in Israel: we attended the memorial ceremony of an Israeli soldier named Gidi Eyal who died when his helicopter crashed during a training mission exactly twenty years ago. It was a sad and poignant ceremony in the military cemetary where he is buried, but it was beautiful to see that around 60 people were there to show their support and condolences, even 20 years later. We greeted Gidi's mother, who seemed remarkably resilient when she told us, "This is part of living in Israel." It truly must be--when we turned to leave, we saw another memorial ceremony taking place just a few meters away.

Our day continued on a happier note with a decadent lunch of hummus and salads in Zichron Yaakov. If you've never been there, you are definitely missing out, as the town is so cute and relaxed, and the views overlooking the Mediterranean are simply fantastic. While Alyson went back to the house, I went with the guys to fly kites on the beach. It was something out of a book: a stunning sunset, horses galloping on the beach, a low-flying plane buzzing over the water, and just enough wind to keep the kites aloft. We just finished Shabbat dinner, and we wanted to post to the blog before going to bed. In the next few days, we'll be traipsing around the country to visit more friends: the Rofes in Herzliya, the Yarmuts in Yokneam (outside Haifa), and the Arrans in Haruv (in the northern Negev, not far from Beer Sheva).

Now let's go back in time a few days to explain why we're here in Israel. We arrived last week in order to participate in the Jewish Service Corps Midyear Seminar, which gathered the 12 volunteers from our nine countries for four days of discussions, introspection, and generating ideas. Of course, there was also a large amount of commiseration, as we shared stories of culture shock, local food, misunderstandings, and adjusting to our host cities. We really enjoyed seeing our colleagues from around the world and pigging out on delicious kosher food. We found the seminar extremely helpful and motivating. Now we're tacking on two weeks of vacation at the end, running from city to city to see friends. It's strange to say this, but with our new-found motivation and excitement, we're actually looking forward to going back to St. Petersburg!

In the picture, from right to left: Michal in Sri Lanka, Faye in Turkey, Ariella in Romania, me, in front of me is Aviva in Warsaw, then Mollie in Kiev, then Alyson, then Chloe in Turkey, Erica in Minsk, Eli in Ethiopia, and finally Erin in India. On the far left is our Country Director, Jonathan Porath, who is our mentor and supervisor based in Jerusalem.
In this picture, you see a little get-together we had at "Colony," a fancy bar in Jerusalem. The three people to my left are all friends from DC that I wanted to hang out with. From right to left: Lizzie, Jay Rosen, Tali Golan, David Bernay, me, Alyson, and Mollie Wertlieb (the JSC volunteer in Kiev). We can't tell you how "at home" we feel in Israel--we have tons of friends here, we know our way around, and we can find kosher food on every corner. It's been a great respite from our work in St. Petersburg, and we know that we'll return refreshed and ready to jump back in at the end.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Am Yisrael Chai

We're back from camp, with a whole 24 hours to unpack, do laundry, catch up on email (and our blog), re-pack, and catch our flight to Israel! Before I get to the summary of camp, let's give it up for my Florida Gators, who won the National Championship at the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. As promised, I listened to the whole game (4 to 8 am SPB time), making me Gator Fan #1. Now for camp...

The second camp we staffed -- organized by EVA, which focuses on the Jewish creative arts like singing and dancing (as well as services for the elderly) -- was not just fun and enjoyable, but also meaningful. Alyson and I were able to carve out roles that went beyond English teaching or American ambassadors, and became something more like "Jewish tradition coordinators." In our English classes, we facilitated lots of Jewish experiential learning. As you know by now, I teach Jewish tradition through modern music. At EVA camp, we did five lessons: we looked at the spiritually-rich music of Matisyahu; the political debate over the future of Israel, as reflected in Israeli hip-hop music; the Jewish view of tzedakah through some American rap music; the Jewish view of happiness; and women's roles in Judaism. In my free time, we enjoyed getting to know the kids through hanging out, playing chess and Russian-style checkers, and walking outside along the coast (this picture was taken at noon, just to give you a sense of how much sunlight we are getting these days!).

Alyson pushed the organization to innovate and take risks. For example, she had all four age groups make challah (over 60 loaves!) that we enjoyed together at the festive Shabbat meal. Each plate of challah was covered by handmade challah covers, created by the youngest two groups. The children also made Shabbat-inspired art projects and Shabbat candlesticks. Coordinating the logistics was no small feat (especially when she had to do most of it in Russian!), but the end result was worth all of the effort. It was something special to see these kids truly enjoying being Jewish and expressing their Judaism through the creative arts. If we can inspire them with a love and excitement now, then maybe as they get older they will be motivated to explore and learn more.

From the very beginning, this camp was unique, since it invited the entire family; there were many parents and babushkas (grandmothers) and even a few dedushkas (grandfathers) in attendance. We were able to bring fun American camp activities, like human knots, scavenger hunts, and campfires that enhanced the fun of camp. We sang at every opportunity, teaching American tunes to popular Jewish songs, to the point where we are totally sick of "Shabbat Shalom, hey!" We also enjoyed hearing the kids lead their own songs; in fact, to hear this community sing "Am Yisrael Chai"--the song was popularized as part of the movement to liberate Soviet Jewry and refuseniks--was truly inspirational.

If you ever look at one of our photo albums, this is the one. It was really something special for us to see organic expressions of yiddishkeit in a community that has faced such massive obstacles. One of the fathers approached us at the end of the camp to say that there are three ways for a Russian Jew to lead a Jewish life: assimilate, move to Israel, or stay put and try to create a vibrant Jewish life here. Clearly, this group is taking the third option and maximizing it, not just for themselves, but for their children and their parents.

Monday, January 01, 2007

An Amazing Start to 2007

Wow, what a fabulous start to the new year!

We went out last night and had a blast. Quite literally, the sky was ablaze with fireworks. Jumping out of my skin at first, I had to quickly adjust to the constant explosions as we followed the hoardes of people down Nevsky Prospekt to Dvorstavaya Ploshad (Palace Square). There, we stumbled upon a gathering of thousands, congregating in front of the Hermitage to watch a huge staged spectacle. Amid the wet, heavy snow that was falling, explosions and bright light (flares, sparklers, fireworks, spotlights) came from every direction with no warning. Apparently, amateur fireworks are completely legal here. Speaking of legal, there are no open-container laws in Russia, so everyone was carrying bottles of champagne and they were selling it at stands all around the downtown area. By midnight, the streets were littered with empty bottles and drunken revelers yelling, "s'novum godum," Russian for happy new year! Shortly after midnight, we headed home by foot, taking the long way past the Rostral Columns, which were ablaze with fire, lit on the occasion of the new year, and Peter and Paul Fortress, sitting like an enchanted palace overlooking the frozen Neva River. We've posted pictures here so that you can see the festivities for yourself, or check out the video by clicking here.

A couple of cool links for you:
  • You can read about St. Petersburg in this week's New York Times travel feature, Holiday on Ice in St. Petersburg.
  • We took a video in downtown that is featured on the Gator Sports website as part of the lead-up to the natioanl championship game. You can see it here.
This morning, we awoke to an email message from our dear friends Andy and Nadine back in DC. On Friday, Nadine gave birth to a healthy and adorable baby boy. Mazel tov, Andy and Nadine!

I went out at noon to meet a friend for tea while Matt went to run an errand. He met up with our Russian friend Zena who graciously and generously brought us a huge care package from the States, courtesy of Matt's family in Florida. We can't describe the joy and surprise when we opened the suitcase to find oodles of food, magazines, books and -- much to our delight -- a new laptop from my brother-in-law Ethan! It was as if our dreams had been answered!

Needless to say, we feel like we've turned a corner. As hard as it's been to live and work here, so far away from friends and family, we are slowly growing fond of Russia, with all of its oddities and charm. We are looking forward to being back after our travels to unearth more hidden gems and discover more ways we can make a difference in 2007!