A year in Dnepropetrovsk

An American volunteer in Ukraine


This post dates back to the 17th of November; I just now realized that I never published it! Enjoy this blast from the past…

I had heard so much about the Metsudah program in my short time here, but couldn’t really understand what made it so special. This weekend I had the chance to experience it firsthand.

Metsudah is a leadership year-long training program for young people from eastern Ukraine created by JDC Dnepropetrovsk six years ago. There are four week-long seminars. The first is for the hundred or so applicants who initially apply for the program. From this number about twenty are selected for the full program. Throughout the year, these twenty leaders take time out of their lives– leaving either their university or their job for a week at a time– to gather as a group. The location changes each seminar. This past summer, for example, one of the seminars was at the sea. Last week it was in Lisnoy, a forest getaway not 45 minutes from Dnepropetrovsk’s center.

I had gotten hints about what they actually do at these seminars.

Hint number one: All the Jews around town talk about how great the Metsudah leaders are and how much they’re already doing for the community.

Hint number two: Anya Kave, one of my first friends when I arrived and the director of the JCC Sunday school where I teach English, is a Metsudah graduate. Incidentally, she is quite a leader.

Hint number three: Dasha, the Do Good, Ukraine! coordinator in Donetsk and Grisha, a member of her team, are graduates of this year’s Metsudah class (for more information about this project that I currently spend all my time working on, see this page). Every graduate works on a voluntarism project. Dasha’s project originally centered around a center for children with cerebral palsy, and now it incorporates her work with Do Good, Ukraine! as well.

Hint number four: Amir often talks about Metsudah. It’s his baby. He loves this program. Even though the JDC budget is being cut left and right because of the economic crisis, he is doing everything in his power to save Metsudah.

Well, I finally got to experience it firsthand. Saturday morning I drove to Lisnoy to sit in on the last day of this year’s Metsudah. I arrived in time for the first of two lectures that were to take place without any of the instructors, assistants, volunteers, and former graduates who run around assisting the program. Only the students, Shy, the Israeli mentor who flies in just to run this program, and Ilya, his translator, are allowed to attend. I was able to sneak in, however, because Dasha introduced me as her personal guest and part of her project.

It was not what I expected. Everyone was in a carpeted room, sitting in a circle. Some were on chairs, others on the floor. Many had discovered creative new ways to position the chairs so as to lay comfortably. There was a timer in the center of the circle. The students were going around in order and talking about what they would do when they returned home on Sunday evening. None of the comments were terribly profound. After a while, some of the students started urging everyone to hurry, because time was about to run out. As soon as the timer went off, the activity was OVER. It was an immediate response and reminded me greatly of a high school class once the bell has rung. Shy then asked the group what they thought of the exercise, and a few students volunteered that “it was good,” and similarly detailed responses.

Lunch, a dvar torah (it was Shabbat), and then the second private lecture. This time, I decided to respect the rules and sit out. I took a walk in the forest, which was absolutely beautiful, though quite difficult in heels (I was extremely overdressed! The usual city fashion was omitted here in favor of more casual dress, reminiscent of what we wore in college). I came back and sat with Amir, who explained a lot more about the program. The group grows really close over the year, and Metsudah becomes a very meaningful part of their lives. They do a lot together, and learn a lot about themselves and their communities. Now they have to deal with graduating and leaving. Ilya came out of the lecture room for some tea and joined our conversation. The group was really struggling with separation. Ilya noted as I had that they were surprisingly concrete, especially in their reflections. Later Shy joined us, leaving the students on their own to plan their graduation ceremony and to finalize discussions on their projects and their experiences, and he corroborated this information.

Later in the evening, I had a chance to speak with him one on one and learn a little of his methodology. The timer is a staple of every session. He turns it on so that the students know that this is their time. They can spend it however they want. If they want to leave, they’re free to leave (I had noticed that some students left the second session early and wandered off on their own somewhere). If they want to sleep, they can sleep. Metsudah is of the students, by the students, and for the students. Shy was just there to help them talk through it. He works for a community organizing group and been doing Metsudah in Ukraine for two years now. The results are amazing, he informed me. What I saw was indicative of their attachment to the group and their reluctance to leave.

I truly believe this is true. I knew many of the students there, from Hillel in Dnepropetrovsk, from Do Good, Ukraine! and from Limmud, and they were sharing with me just how bittersweet this graduation was for them.

“It’s hard, you know?” Dasha was telling me. “You really get to love these people, and they become a support for you.”

I got to ask a few of them about their projects they’ll be continuing throughout the next year. Everyone was notably excited to give back to the community in an act of voluntarism, a testament to Metsudah in itself, since most people in Ukraine don’t even understand the word “volunteer.” One project that was particularly interesting was a film club that would create English subtitles for Russian or Ukrainian films, or would subtitle American films as a tool to teach English, as well as teach film and culture.

After the directors emceed the commencement that night, the students had their own graduation ceremony, as well. They performed some skits with inside jokes from the previous year and showed two movies that some of the students (including Grisha) had filmed and edited. I saw them throughout the year at work and at play, and I was really impressed by how close the group really appeared to be. Another set of skits followed the movies, and then a disco (ie: party). I actually missed the disco, because I and a few of the Hillel kids left early to go drinking back in the hotel rooms. It was a good night.

I left early the next morning, and although I really wasn’t so keen on leaving at 6:30 in the a.m., I was very glad not to witness/interfere with the actual goodbyes. Having been on public service trips that lasted only one week, I experienced, to a much smaller degree, just how close a bond is formed and how powerful an experience this kind of study can be. I can only imagine what they were going through.

I arrived home with more than enough time to groggily teach Sunday school, and although I was working with the kids, my mind was still in Lecnoy. I was very impressed with Metsudah. Very impressed. I don’t think this blog has properly expressed the professional level of work produced and great degree of social consciousness it has fostered. It really does mould young leaders, which is very much what eastern Ukraine needs. It is worth every penny of the precious JDC budget.


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