A year in Dnepropetrovsk

An American volunteer in Ukraine

So what exactly am I doing here?

I work for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee– otherwise known as “JDC” in America and “the Joint” everywhere else in the world. Technically, my title is “volunteer,” although I am paid a modest monthly salary, have an apartment with all expenses paid, and have health insurance coverage. I live far better than the average Ukrainian (I live pretty well by any standards), and yet I am considered to be a volunteer. I, therefore, consider myself a paid employee and, as such, take my work very seriously.

My first week was devoted to getting to know the Jewish community here in Dnepropetrovsk. I visited the JDC office, the Jewish Community Center (JCC), Chessed (a center which runs programs for the elderly Jews in the community), the new synagogue, the Jewish school (actually, there are three schools in the same facility– one religious one for boys, one religious one for girls, and one not-quite-secular-but-far-less-religious one that is co-ed), Beit-Chana (the university for women studying to become Jewish teachers), and Beit-Baruch (the nursing home for 60 elderly Jews erected by the Boston JCRC). I met the main characters in each location, and I especially devoted my time to auditing the various programs the JCC offers to the community. My boss Amir told me right off the bat that I should take a few weeks to get my bearings and figure the place out before I get involved in any one project. JDC is very much about understanding what the community wants, based on how it already functions. It would be pretty useless and maybe even detrimental for me to enter into an already high functioning organization and create a new program that just won’t work with the system in place. After I understand Dnepropetrovsk and fully grok the people in the Jewish community, then I can go about changing it.

That being said, I knew right away that I would be teaching English (and, conveniently enough, I was asked right away to do so!). This is something I can comfortably do without great command of the Russian language or a true understanding of how the community works. Beginning this week, I’ll be teaching two immersion classes every Sunday for the JCC but at the Chessed building (some JCC programs are run there). The two classes (7-9 year olds and 10-13 year olds) run for an hour each. Immersion is fun, because I essentially get to play games and such with the kids, while speaking only in English. Of course, the games must be self-explanatory, so that they don’t get frustrated and give up, and and every class must have a linguistic theme (even if the students don’t realize that this is the case). For example, this week’s theme for my 10-13 year olds is numbers. After a get-to-know-you game, we’ll play the concentration number game (we sit in a circle. Everyone is assigned a number, building in numerical order from 1. We clap our thighs and hands in a “We Will Rock You” beat, and #1 begins. “1-1-5-5” she says, declaring her own number and calling a new one. #5, whom she just called, responds, “5-5-3-3,” confirming his number and calling someone else. And so on and so forth. Any number may be called, as long as someone has been assigned that number. The point of the game is to stay with the rhythm; whoever misses a beat or calls a non-existent number loses.). This game is easy enough to explain with just hand gestures and basic English and will definitely teach the kids the numbers. If there’s time, we’ll finish with some math games.

I was fortunate enough to find a niche for myself within a week and a half. Liana, the director of the JCC, was explaining to me what the JCC does for holidays, and she mentioned that she wanted to do a Hanukkah play, but that there wasn’t enough money to hire actors. Why don’t the students themselves act in the play? I asked. When I heard the answer, that there was no one who could organize such an endeavor and that they needed to find money to rent theater space and pay for materials, I knew I found something I could do that would actually be a help to the community. And so I somehow found myself again producing theater! The plan: a Hanukkah performance of the people, by the people, and for the people, using resources the JCC already has available. They run a lot of programs: klezmer, choruses, singing lessons, dance classes, acting workshops, chess classes, art classes, day care, special needs kids day care, little kid day care, as well as education classes and special projects. It’s very well organized, too, considering the shortage of money, facilities, and staff. My plan is to meet with the teachers of each program and get them to work on some small part for the show. The acting kids will put on a small play about the story of Hanukkah. The klezmer band will play music. The dance group will dance. The art kids will make the sets. And so forth. We’ll have a few rehearsals to put it all together, and then it’ll go up. The big issue is money. We have none. Right now I’m writing grant applications to America to try to get funds out of them and emailing every connection I have in America to see what they can do. More importantly, however, I want to get local businesses and maybe even larger corporations to advertise in our playbills. The JCC so far has only used charities as a source of income, and advertising could prove very worthwhile in the future. I also want to establish a working connection with a xerox or paper company, because I want to print a lot of things: a banner with the JCC logo and mission statement, a donation card to be placed in each playbill (some of the wealthiest people in all of Europe live in Dnepropetrovsk, a large number of them Jewish. While most people here are poor, there is a very small population of crazy millionaires), playbills, and fliers. If we work out a deal with a paper company, maybe we get a discount on all our printing in exchange for advertising or some other tangible benefit that I can’t think of right now. This would set a good precedent for the future. I’m very excited about this project for a number of reasons. It will, more than any tour or interview, help me get to know the inner workings of the JCC– already I know a lot about how the office functions, just from writing major grants! This is something I’m good at and enjoy, so I can really give of myself in a meaningful way that will actually add to this already thriving community. That’s pretty cool.

Once this project ends in December, I’m going to take over the voluntarism project that the Joint runs for all of Eastern Ukraine. But that’s another story for another day.

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