I spent part of yesterday afternoon repainting parts of the only synagogue in Khabarovsk. The synagogue is the center for Jewish life in town. In addition to the synagogue it houses the Hillel, JCC and the Hesed Center. The Hesed Center provides services mostly for elderly Jews, in the form of social services and food cards. When we were there, there was a long line of people waiting to get their monthly food cards to supplement money provided by the government. The cards can be used for anything except alcohol, cigarettes and pork. Although we only painted the main gate and a few other rusted areas around the synagogue, it still felt meaningful. The city I am in is very remote and they do not get tourists, let alone Americans visiting the synagogue very often. I think the people who benefit from all the services the synagogue houses noticed that we were there and painting. It felt nice to contribute to the community in a small way.
This morning we went to the Jewish preschool in town. I raked leaves and played games with the Russian children. The Jewish preschool is a much better option than the regular one as they have smaller class sizes, better teachers and nice facilities. They even had little beds for nap time.
Probably the most meaningful experience thus far in the trip for me was yesterday when a Holocaust survivor spoke to the group. She was so open about her experiences. One of the participants noted that it was because the synagogue creates such a safe space. She was from Odessa, the same city as my maternal great-grandparents. Thank goodness they left when they did. This woman, Janna, said that when she was 12 she and her family were sent to the ghetto. Her parents were killed there, but she and her brother dug a hole under the fence to escape. They were shot at and she showed us the scar on her leg. They spent the next few years spending time in ghettos and in hiding. After the war she met her husband and they moved to this region, while her brother moved to Canada recently. As she told her story she mentioned how much of her family was killed in different places. As soon as she was done, she broke out in this joyful Yiddish song about the camps. I have a video clip and I will post when I get back to Moscow, but I attached a photo in the meantime. It was amazing how this woman who had such a tragic story and opened up to us was able to burst into song. She was beaming with life. Our meeting with her took place in the room where people were waiting for food cards. Once she started singing other people joined in and a Yiddish sing along began. It was incredible to see all these people with such life, even though they are in poverty.
From Russia with Love,