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Another Kind of Revolution

Avital Jeidel

Most people would prefer to go to sunny, safe Florida for midwinter break, and you couldn’t pay them to go to Belarus for ten days! But I never like doing what most people do, anyway

Thursday, February 02, 2017

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O f course I wanted to go to Belarus for midwinter vacation. Who wouldn’t?

Actually, I suppose most people wouldn’t. Most people would prefer to go to sunny, safe Florida for midwinter break, and you couldn’t pay them to go to Belarus for ten days! But I never like doing what most people do anyway.

My sister had gone to the Former Soviet Union (FSU) for midwinter vacation and then again for a summer eight years before me, and my mother is from England, so I grew up with the knowledge that the world doesn’t start and end with the five proverbial Jewish boroughs (Flatbush, Boro Park, Williamsburg, Lawrence, and Lakewood, of course). So every year, when the chesed heads in school would get up around November-time and announce a special kiruv trip for 11th and 12th graders to visit a Belarusian school for orphans, my ears would perk up, and I would anxiously await my junior and senior years.

Before the Holocaust, the chesed girls would explain, Belarus (formerly called White Russia) had over 1,000,000 Jews. However, the Jewish community in the region has suffered considerably in the last century — over 80% physical annihilation as well as spiritual decline under Communist rule.

Yad Yisroel was founded in 1990 at the behest of the Rebbe of Karlin-Stolin, who supervised Rabbi Shmuel Dishon and Rabbi Yaakov Shteierman in this reconstruction and Jewish revival project.

Of course, by the time I finally reached my junior year, that was the one year the trip didn’t happen. They couldn’t get enough girls to join. But I was a chesed head in 12th grade, and you bet your bottom dollar I made sure the trip happened and that I was on it.

How exotic it would be to tell my friends that I was going to Belarus, the snowy-white unknown entity halfway across the world! How sophisticated it would sound to tell the man in the crafts store that I was buying projects for my trip to Belarus, and the man in the grocery store that I was stocking up for my trip to Belarus. How cool it would be to casually slip into conversation how, once all of us girls on the group exchanged our dollars to rubles (one dollar to approximately 8,000 rubles at the time!), we walked out almost as millionaires. What’s that in your passport? my future husband would ask me the first time we fly together. Oh, that’s nothing. Just my Belarusian visa.

But obviously, it wasn’t just about a cool trip and a way to sound sophisticated. For the orphaned girls I was going to visit, the snowy-white obscurity of their home was blocking their bright futures, and the crafts and food I brought them were the most magical treats they could ever imagine. It wasn’t “cool” to them that one ruble was worth so little and they could only dream of having a few of their own, let alone millions

And while I took pride in the Belarusian visa in my passport, all these girls ever wanted was one to America. This wasn’t a ten-day chavayah for these girls; it was their entire lives.

Rav Shteierman was the one who got us our visas. We met him at the airport, at about 5:30 a.m. He was waiting at check-in for us, with five huge duffle bags of Reisman’s cookies and chocolate treats to take to the girls. He also stuffed huge blocks of American cheese into each of our suitcases and paid for the overweight. Apparently, the only dairy these girls ate all year was from the annual shipment we Americans brought with us because they didn’t have the proper facilities to make kosher milk and cheese products.

Sheesh, no Seasons? No Pomegranate or Landau’s? No finding kosher (even chalav Yisrael) products in some random gas station on the way up to the Catskills? I guess we really were going to the middle of nowhere.

Indeed, Pinsk, where the community we were going is located, is a dot on the map. “Oh, Minsk?” people ask, referring to the relatively large city in Belarus. “No, Pinsk.” It’s two hours south of Minsk, and many miles away in terms of civilization. Not that Minsk was the up-and-coming metropolis, exactly. I remember landing in Minsk (because there was no airport in Pinsk) with our group, about ten of us, including the chaperon. I walked into the women’s room, only to burst back out to baggage claim, laughing hysterically. Sparing the details, the bathrooms were just stalls with a step platform and a large hole.

In Pinsk, technology was even less advanced. On our first trip on a bus, we discovered they don’t use metro cards or any other kind of pass; instead, we were warned to have our money prepared for the woman who comes around collecting the fares. The grouchy woman, in fact, never did come to collect our fare, because the bus was too crowded for her to reach us before we got off. How she remembered who she already had collected from and who still had to pay was beyond me. What was not beyond me, suddenly, was why the ruble was worth so little. More than half the bus wasn’t paying the government for their rides because the system was too slow. On the bus, we stuck out like a sore thumb and we got a lot of hard stares. Americans. The locals were jealous of us and resented us.

We arrived at the school late at night. Masha, the girls’ counselor, rushed out to greet us in a surprisingly perfect English. She took us to the cafeteria to eat some supper, but none of us touched it; we all had our American stash of food saved for later, and the chicken mush she offered us was unfamiliar and unappealing. There was a lot of trying to persuade us to eat over the trip and a lot of our refusing. Strange fish from the kitchen with little orange balls on top were not what we wanted. Rav and Rebbetzin Fhima, who are Yad Yisroel’s local directors of operations in the Former Soviet Union and the rav and rebbetzin of the community since 1995, soon caught on. They kindly made us homemade ice cream for Shabbos, which we devoured.

Masha showed us to our rooms and introduced us to some of the girls who were practicing a dance. The head of the group, Leah, taught it to us, and even though we were useless, not understanding their Russian instructions, and spending most of the time laughing at ourselves, we walked back to our rooms thinking, hey, maybe this will work out after all.

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