Winter is Coming to Ukraine, but at the OU’s Kharkov Center, Summer Memories Linger On

17 Nov 2006


Summer is long over but its memories linger on in Kharkov, Ukraine. In July, the Orthodox Union’s NCSY sent participants in JOLT — the Jewish Overseas Leadership Training program for high school boys and girls — to the OU Joseph K. Miller Torah Center in Kharkov, to work with the youngsters there as part of their leadership training.

When Rabbi Steven Burg, National Director of NCSY, journeyed to Kharkov recently with Rabbi Avi Berman, Director of the OU Israel Center, and Norman Schmutter, Commission Chair for the Kharkov Center, he saw that the impact of JOLT was as strong as ever.

The OU’s Kharkov Center, under the directorship of Rabbi Shlomo Asraf, provides an environment for hundreds of children and adults that revitalizes their Jewish commitment and reinforces Zionist values. Through the center’s efforts, junior high and high school students, as well as participants in summer and school year camp programs, learn to observe the Sabbath and holidays. The OU’s presence in Ukraine also includes the Sha’alvim School; Sunday school; and, dormitory living while at school, among other activities. Almost 200 students, grades 1-11, study five days a week at the Sha’alvim school. Their competence in Hebrew enables those who make aliyah to arrive with strong language skills, which makes for a swift and easy acculturation process to life in Israel.

“When it comes to chesed (kindness) and true friendships, Orthodox Jewish teenagers are really stepping up to the plate,” Rabbi Burg declared. “This past summer, 80 American teenagers traveled to Kharkov on JOLT to volunteer their time as camp counselors, and they developed bonds which will last a lifetime.”

He recalls two memorable moments of his visit. “As I arrived, Nadya, one of the little girls in Sha’alvim, had just received a package from Shani Jensen, a participant in JOLT from Great Neck on Long Island, NY with whom she developed a relationship over the summer. And Dennis Malachov was putting on his own pair of tefillin. ”

Avi Bursky-Tammam, also of Great Neck, a participant in JOLT, explains, “Periodically one of the teens on JOLT would put on tefillin with Dennis, and at the end he was asked if he were given teffilin would he wear it consistently, and he said yes. We were so moved by this that everyone decided to contribute money to buy tefillin for him.” While on Israel phase of their trip, Ari Holtzman, of Albany, and J.J. Kuhl, of Toronto, on behalf of everyone, purchased a pair of tefillin in Jerusalem and sent it to Ukraine to Dennis.

“Of course, on JOLT, everyone did something nice by giving up their summer to work in Ukraine, but I didn’t just want it to be that. I wanted to keep in touch with Nadya,” Shani said.

Shani sent Nadya stationery, a bracelet her sister made for Nadya, and a photo album, which was full of pictures of their time together in Ukraine. She also wrote her a letter in Hebrew, the language Nadya learned well while living at the OU Center and interacting with the Israeli madrichim (guides). Their common knowledge of Hebrew allowed them to develop a strong relationship that will last for years to come. Shani intends to write Nadya once a month.

According to Rabbi Burg, the Orthodox Union is even sponsoring a visa application for Darya Mordinson, who is an active member of the OU community in Kharkov. She will be staying with her NCSY friends in Austin, Texas for two weeks, before returning home to share her inspirational experiences in America with her friends.

The Kharkov center is life-changing for many of these students. Close to 600 have made aliyah over the years, where the OU Israel Center in Jerusalem helps them to adjust to their new environment.

“For teens who make aliyah without their parents, the Beit Kharkov in Israel is a real home,” stated Rabbi Berman. “We look after them.”

Rabbi Burg believes that the OU is not just an American organization. “As American Jews, we have a global responsibility to our brethren around the world. American Jewish teens don’t realize how much potential they have to reach out to Jewish teens around the world and become effective Jewish leaders. That is a major purpose of JOLT and as we saw in our visit there, the values we teach have a lasting impact.”