Thursday, April 26, 2007

Our 100th Post!

Congratulations to us, this is our 100th blog post! In honor of this momentous occasion, we thought we'd post two short commercials! Talk about shameless self-promotion!

If you think we're cool, bold, and/or inspirational and you want to be like too can join the Jewish Service Corps!

The Jewish Service Corps (JSC) of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) is a unique one-year volunteer opportunity for active, enthusiastic, knowledgeable Jews to take part in the life of a Jewish community abroad.

The job description of each JDC Jewish Service Corps Volunteer is a unique blend based on the resources and needs of the community and the talents and skills of the individual volunteer. Often past volunteers have started projects that can be enhanced or developed more fully. There may be a targeted set of outcomes and roles drafted at the beginning of a volunteer’s term, but often those evolve as the year progresses.

JDC is currently looking for volunteers to serve next year in Turkey, Ukraine, and possibly Slovakia. For more information about these positions or about the JDC Jewish Service Corps, please e-mail

If you think we're cool, qualified and professional and you want to help us...please help us find jobs for next year!

Matt is looking for positions in the Jewish communal sphere, ideally something that leverages his development skills and takes them one higher, i.e. young leadership, assistant director positions, or anything else that maximizes his "big picture" brain.

Alyson is looking for a marketing position in a Jewish or nonprofit organization, ideally, but would be totally and completely happy going back to a law firm environment, as long as the environment is highly creative and collaborative.

If you know of any suitable positions, please email them to us! Thanks for reading our 100th blog commercial.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Ghetto-Fabulous Gatchina

Although it rarely works out that way, Friday is nominally our day off. While we often have meetings or office work to do--and occasionally, a Shabbat meal to prepare for our guests!--Fridays are meant to be a little more low-key and relaxed. This Friday, we were able to take some time off and enjoy a fun day of sightseeing and Shabbat services.

Being a good husband, I deferred to Alyson's desire to see the Gatchina palace. Located about 60 km outside SPB, Gatchina is the ugly step-sister of the prestigious SPB palaces, like Peterhof, the Hermitage, Yusupov Palace, Pushkin, and Pavlovsk (I like to call them the Pretty Palaces, because they are just so over-the-top lavish). In fact, many tourist publications don't even mention Gatchina. Why? Because after the incessant bombing of WWII, the palace was a shambles. While the Soviets did a fantastic job restoring the major palaces, they left much of Gatchina untouched, unrestored, and generally unloved. So, as we set off on our journey this morning, I wasn't expecting anything special.

The adventure started with our bus ride. Sitting in front of us were two young men speaking English. One look at their dark suits told me exactly who they were: Mormons (or, as they prefer to call themselves, missionaries from the Church of Latterday Saints). Mormons are becoming a more and more common sight in this part of the world; just two weeks ago, the 80 Mormon missionaries in the SPB-area came together for a conference in downtown SPB. Think about it: they have 80 people working in just the greater Petersburg area--talk about a big operation! Now, don't get me wrong--we love Christian missionaries, because they are so darn nice, friendly, and supportive of our work. But when you meet two young men with such incredibly different worldviews, as these guys did, what do you have to talk about for a 40-minute bus ride?

I won't bore you with all the details, but I will tell you what I found fascinating. Did you know that these two guys are part of a worldwide network of 50,000 Mormon missionaries? By contrast, Chabad, which seems ubiquitous in this part of the world, has just 4,000 missionaries and only 150 in the FSU. Did you know that these Mormons sign up for a two-year commitment, with no knowledge or say in where they get placed? Or that they all pay the movement $400 per month to be missionaries, regardless if they live in SPB, Shanghai, or South Africa? That's spending nearly $10,000 of your own money to leave your family, move to a strange country, and work your tail off for your faith. Let's do a little math:
50,000 people x $400/month x 12 months/year = $240 million per year income from the missionaries

What an insane amount of money! What a massive commitment! I mean, these two guys make Alyson and me look like we're receiving executive-level CEO treatment! One other funny thing--since Mormons don't drink alcohol, they often have uncomfortable situations when they are at Russian houses and they are offered vodka to drink. But they seem to have mastered the ins and outs of Russian hospitality--sadly, when they were telling us about the hospitality of Russian homes, Alyson and I couldn't relate.

On to Gatchina. What makes this palace so unique, and gives it a lot of character, is that much of the building is still ruined and, rather than be cordoned off, the decrepit rooms are displayed openly alongside pictures depicting its former glory. Of course, many of the rooms have been restored and are gorgeous--but, seriously, after you've been bombarded with the inlaid floors, the gilded mirrors, the finely-detailed furniture, and the overwhelming ostentatiousness of the Pretty Palaces, you become jaded and it all starts blending together. It's easy to sit back and say, "Oh, those stingy czars--if only they had shared their wealth with the starving people. But they were too self-centered and superficial!" But, in the mid-1860s, when the Russian monarchy was at its height, America was locked in a brutal Civil War. So you have to keep everything in perspective and not get carried away by criticism. For more pictures--and these are really interesting, since you get to see a lot of half-destroyed rooms--click here.

On the way back, we had another small-world experience: one of the families we work with at EVA was on the bus as well! They don't speak any English, but they are one of those families that came back to Russian from Israel, so they decided to ask us questions about the palace in Hebrew!

To end our day, we attended Shabbat services at Hillel; this week, the theme was Israel's Independence Day. They had a nice crowd of about 50 young people, and the program was interactive and engaging. It never fails to affect me when I hear Russian voices singing Hatikvah.

In all, a very exciting Friday!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Time Warp

Time has been acting weirdly this year. Our first five months in Russia felt like an eternity, and December, in particular, felt like it would never end. And now -- in what feels like just a few moments later -- I realize that we only have 3 short months left in Russia. Where did all the time go?

I'm overwhelmed by how much I still want to accomplish, both professionally and personally, in the short time we have left here. The YESOD website is still under construction and the Visitors Center is far from complete. And then there are all the touristy places I'd love to get to: Moscow, Helsinki, Gatchina, Valaam, Kizhi, etc. (It's almost embarrassing that I still haven't been to Moscow.) I begin to wonder how I'm going to do it all!

Just as I'm finally getting comfortable here and beginning to enjoy a few professional successes, it's time to switch gears and start looking towards the future. It always works that way, doesn't it?

Monday, April 16, 2007

On a Lighter Note...

As Alyson mentioned, we went to "Feel Yourself Russian," which would be better named, "Fall Yourself into a Tourist Trap." But there were some funny below for the videos:

Bird People Dance:

Man Plays Saw:

It's a Dirty Job...

Every day here in Russia is an adventure, because almost everything we do here, we do for the first time. Yesterday was a perfect example: I got a chance to participate in a community-wide event which has a long tradition here in SPB, but of course I was a total newbie and had no idea what to expect. Alyson was gracious and selfless in teaching my Sunday English class at EVA (thanks, sweetie!) so that I could participate in the community's commemoration of Yom Hashoah through cleaning up the local Jewish cemetery. Looking out over the crowd of about 350, I was excited to see the participation of so many individuals representing so many different organizations. It amazed me how the community really embraced this event, as representatives from Adain Lo, EVA, the Sochnut, Chabad, Hillel, and more came out to get their hands dirty to perform the mitzvah of kavod ha-met (honoring the dead). To see a video of one of the performances--a really beautiful Yiddish song--click here.

The Jewish cemetery is quite large, and has fallen into disrepair over the past 20 years or so as the daily upkeep is too big a job for the cemetery's two elderly caretakers. Walking through the cemetery (founded in 1875), it was upsetting to see the number of people who died in pogroms, during the Leningrad Blockade, and of various hungers and famines; on the bright side, you see the diversity of the community as you read the first names: Grigory, Dmitri, Nikolai, and Anna, interspersed amongst Fruma, Lev, Yakov, and Sarah (I can't imagine what it must have been like to live under the Soviet Union with such a distinctively-Jewish name, but that's another story...). In Russian tradition, many of the graves had likenesses and pictures of the dead etched into or attached to the gravestones. I wasn't shocked by the decrepit state of some of the graves, because I had seen it in other Eastern European cemeteries, but it was sad to see the gravestones crumbling, as the last memories of these people give way to the onward movement of time and nature.

Mostly, we spent the day raking dead leaves, picking up trash, and cleaning off the pictures. I fell in with a group of two Israelis and a local Chabadnik--talk about a mish-mash collection of people! As I've mentioned many times in past posts, it's easy to get wrapped up in the tough questions: "Are we doing enough here in SPB? Will our contributions be remembered? Are we truly making a difference for years to come?" For one day, though, I was happy to find an answer. Although the leaves may continue falling, and the trash will continue accumulating, I think spending the day in that cemetery was the best thing I could have done that day. Standing alongside other members of the community, working towards a common goal, and doing a great mitzvah together--those are the things that truly make a difference and will be remembered for years to come. It's a dirty job, but I'm happy to do it.
My cleaning buddies, from left to right: Vadim, Yaara, Leigh, and Leah.

Thursday, April 12, 2007


The last 12 days have been insane. Not only was the Pesach Project winding down, but our parents (minus Matt's dad) decided to descend on Petersburg for Pesach. The timing couldn't have been worse, but hell, what's living in Russia without a little extra confusion and logistical hurdles?! After all, they will be one of only 2 groups of visitors we are expecting, so we were pretty happy to receive them, despite the bad timing.

They arrived on Sunday of the Pesach Project, so we were able to skip out on the group's evening at the ballet -- after all, we went to see Carmen at the same theater just the week before -- to join our parents for dinner at a swanky St. Petersburg restaurant called Ryba, where we had never been before. We also managed to squeeze in lunch on Nevsky the next afternoon before Pesach started. We took them with us to first night seder with the group, which they loved, and then sent them to Rabbi Michael Farbman's expat seder at YESOD for second night seder. They also accompanied some of the small group home visits to the elderly Hesed clients which helped give them an "insider's" perspective. Then, during Hol Hamoed (the intermediate days), we lovingly shipped them off to a quick visit of Riga, which they enjoyed tremendously. They arrived back in St. Petersburg just before Shabbat, a full 24 hours after the Pesach Project had departed. Just enough time to do a little laundry, sleep, go grocery shopping and get ready for Shabbat.

We've really enjoyed playing tourist and showing them all of the sites of St. Petersburg. We even "saved up" a lot of things that we'd been wanting to see or do, so that we could share our "firsts" with our folks. For example, on "church day," we finally went inside 3 local churches that we pass fairly regularly but have never seen from the inside -- Church on the Spilled Blood, Kazansky Sabor and St. Isaac's Cathedral. Although, the highlight of the day, was by far, having high tea at the Hotel Astoria while a woman played the harp nearby. My mother aptly named the place "heaven."

On "palace day," we braved the snow and wind to see Catherine's Palace and the Holocaust memorial in Pushkin for the first time. We also managed to take them to Pavlovsk, and the Nikhailevsky Palace to see the cheesiest ever tourist-centric folk show called "Feel Yourself Russian." All we felt was drunk after the free-flowing champagne buffet at intermission! It sure did make the rest of the performance better!
From morning til night, we dragged them here and there -- to a bazillion tourist sites and museums (Hermitage, Palace Square, Peter and Paul Fortress, the Aurora, Russian Museum, the Kunstkammera, the Choral Synagogue, etc.), to a few off-the-beaten path kind of places (English Club at YESOD, our neighborhood Dixie, the local tea and blini shop, our favorite "rinak" or farmer's market, an amazing hole-in-the-wall Georgian restaurant, a few random metro stops, the Stolle pie shop, the not-so-extreme circus, etc.)

We joked that we should start a tour company called "TourMentors" with an emphasis on the tormenting part. At the end of their stay, I think we're all pretty exhausted, but we really enjoyed sharing the time together. In the end, it was a treat that it was Passover, which meant more meals at home than at restaurants, more quality time together (since we didn't have to work), and more of a focus on what's really important.

Just a few hours after they left, an eerie quiet looms over our apartment. No more lines for the toilet, no shower schedules, no odd-ball questions, and no one to do the dishes but us. It's back to business as usual, as the Fieldman Family Hotel closes its doors until our next guests arrive in late May.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Easing Out of Overdrive

Local participants welcome the groups from Israel and the US.

Understandably, I've been in overdrive for the last two weeks, gearing up for Pesach Project. The last seven days have flown by, packed and overflowing with activity and meaning. Each day was better than the next, and without a doubt, this past week has been the highlight of my year in St. Petersburg. Here are some of the most memorable moments from this past week:
  • Two of the small groups coordinated a spirited and joyous first night seder (dedicated to the 3 kidnapped and missing Israeli soldiers from last summer) for the group at YESOD. The maggid portion of the seder was a skit portraying a modern day exodus from Egypt. Pharoah had a cell phone and two bodyguards who looked like they were lifted from The Matrix!
  • Many of the participants were touched by the mini-seders to the children and young adults with special needs, as well as the home visits to the elderly. One group who had a teacher in the group brought drawings from her students; the young adult they visited was artistic and appreciated the gesture so much that she in turn gave the group a piece of her artwork to take back to the US.
  • Community organization seders were also very moving, especially the one provided to Adain Lo Tikvateinu program for young adults with special needs, where the seder was followed by a lively round of dancing, singing and playing a variation on "hot potato" using a giant, blow-up matza ball!
  • We watched a documentary on the Siege of Leningrad, visited the Memorial to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad and participated in a touching and solemn memorial ceremony organized by a handful of our participants. During the ceremony, the stories of two young girls were juxtaposed -- Anne Frank and a young girl who lived through the Siege of Leningrad.
  • On Saturday night, before Shabbat ended, we visited Cafe im Mashmaut (Coffee with Meaning) at JAFI's center, where we "ate and drank" from modern Israeli texts and partook in lively discussions in a relaxed and fun atmosphere.
  • The weather was beautiful, sunny and warm the day everyone arrived. But the participants also got to see "classic" St. Petersburg weather -- it snowed on Wednesday and was gray and cold today. For some of our Israeli participants, it was the first time they had seen snow!
Meeting and getting to know everyone in our group was really the most rewarding part of the Pesach Project. Some of our participants brought with them entire chapters of Jewish history -- three of our participants (2 from Cleveland and 1 from Tsachar) were born in the FSU and emigrated in the early 90s. The two from Cleveland have a beautiful story -- he was born in Baku and she in Tashkent. They met in high school in Cleveland, shortly after they arrived. They've been married for 5 years and have 2 young boys at home. Needless to say, the energy and enthusiasm all 3 of them brought to the trip added tremendously to everyone else's experience.

As we drove to the airport yesterday afternoon, I wondered aloud how I'll fill my time now that the Pesach Project is over. Matt quickly reached into his backpack and pulled out a handwritten letter. It was a sweet way for him to tell me how proud he was of me, but also to give me ideas for enjoying my recreation time over the next few months! (I admit that I'm really bad at relaxing and need all the help I can get!)

Now it's back to reality -- we have to cook our meals, take out the trash, etc. Just this morning, I was rudely reminded that I'm no longer in my happy little Pesach Project bubble, when a babushka knocked on our door to deliver some tickets to us. When I opened the door, she immediately started yelling at me that our apartment number isn't on the door and how was she supposed to find us?! After a few minutes of this verbal barrage, I asked her if she had our tickets, said thank you, and proceeded to close the door in her face. Just in case I had forgotten, she wanted to remind me that I live in Russia.

Despite the disappointment that follows any big project or event, I am filled with satisfaction in knowing that I helped create a powerful Pesach experience for everyone involved -- including myself.

Matt and I demonstrate how to make a Hillel sandwich at first night seder.