Learning to appreciate what you have, and gaining an awareness that we are responsible for Jews all over the world, are valuable lessons. Learning that while helping others and forming lasting relationships is even more precious.
That’s why the 11th-graders at Ateres Bais Yaakov Rockland in New Hempstead visit Odessa, and why they come back with a heightened sense of purpose.
Rabbi Aaron Fink, the dean of the school since its founding, said he got the idea for the visit from another school that sent students to the former Soviet Union. “I saw the impact on the community and the kids,” he said.
His school, founded in 2000 and serving some 430 students, began by sending the girls to Kiev, “but after a while they couldn’t support our school program,” Rabbi Fink said. “We have certain parameters — for example, a dormitory setting rather than private homes. When Kiev began not to fit, we found Tikva in Odessa. It’s a phenomenal organization doing amazing work.” The Bais Yaakov girls have worked in the orphanage there for the last 10 years.
According to its website, “Tikva is a rescue aid and educational organization saving the lives of at-risk Jewish children and relieving the suffering of impoverished Jewish families in Odessa, Ukraine. [It] has also been a pioneer in the revitalization of Jewish life in Odessa, reaching into the heart of the Jewish community to rebuild Jewish identity destroyed by decades of persecution and communist rule.”
The site goes on to note that “Thousands of Jewish children, even those living in supportive family settings, go hungry every day in Ukraine. Given the extremely low wages (the average being $50 per month) and lack of extensive social safety nets like those of Western Europe, many parents cannot cope and abandon their children out of sheer desperation. It is estimated that approximately 2,500 Jewish children are still orphaned or homeless in Ukraine.” These are the children rescued by Tikva.
This year, 16 Rockland students went to Odessa for two weeks, from late January to early February. Most of the cost is borne by the students themselves. “They stay in the orphanage with the girls there,” Rabbi Fink said. “They do teaching, provide extracurricular activities, and serve as role models. They also bring a lot of ruach.”
When the girls return home, they bring with them “an appreciation for what they have here and an appreciation for the worldwide interconnectivity of Jews,” he continued. “They gain a sense of responsibility for Jews across the world. These are family. Understanding that all Jews are family is a big deal.”
His goal in creating the program was for the girls “to begin to create a reality of what they’ve already learned — to transform the academic and give it practical and relevant meaning. They know it but now have a chance to put it to use,” combining both their intellectual knowledge and emotional sensitivity.
“They become the teachers, taking their own knowledge and making it real,” he said.
When they return from Odessa, the girls discuss their experiences at a full assembly — “what they accomplished, what they gained, gave, and saw.” They also create a web group to maintain connections with the children they visited. In addition, the orphanage runs a day camp in late June, and many of the girls go back to work as counselors.
During their two-week visit in January, the girls take a trip to visit holy places in Ukraine, including the graves of the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, and Rabbi Nachman of Uman. “They make a pilgrimage of prayer,” Rabbi Fink said. “They also go to some Holocaust shrines where Jews were murdered.”
In an email sent to parents on “Day 5!” by Batsheva Fink, the rabbi’s daughter — who was part of the two-week trip — the girls’ enthusiasm is palpable: “We had yet another incredible day! In the morning we went to school and your daughters went into the classroom and played games, did crafts, activities and gave love to the kids. They really saw the fruits of their labor. The Tikva girls loved every minute of it. Their hard work really paid off and they should be proud! After school we went to the shul for lunch. While we enjoyed grilled cheese, we heard from a Tikva graduate, Marina. Marina spoke to us about what it meant to her when the Ateres girls came and what an impact it makes on the girls. Marina ended off by telling us she is now married, with a good job, and part of the community, and how Ateres girls helped to bring her to where she is today.”
Also, Batsheva wrote, “We went to visit two homes of the mothers of kids in the dorm. What we saw was a shack with a bed, an outdoor fire pit, an outdoor bathroom — it was something we never could’ve imagined. To see where these kids come from gave us a much deeper appreciation for what we have, and a greater desire to give.”