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"Sarah, we need your help in the Ukraine this summer. Can I count on you?" This question changed my life profoundly. I was asked to be a counselor on JOLT, Jewish Oversees Leadership Program, an opportunity to interact with young campers in an impoverished country and positively influence their lives. Little did I realize that this experience would impact mine so greatly.
JOLT, an outreach program, runs an annual overnight summer camp in the Ukraine with counselors from the United States and Israel. These counselors are carefully selected because of the rigorous programming and the many physical hardships of living in the Ukraine. Over one hundred local children come to Charkov to learn about their Jewish background. As one of the counselors, I had the privilege and extraordinary task of exposing them to the beauty of our religion and heritage.
I remember the anxiety and excitement that I felt as I exited the plane with twenty other high school students, embarking on my summer teaching experience, wondering if I was fully prepared. The moment the busloads of children arrived, I attached myself to a group of kids and started singing and dancing with them. Despite my initial fears, we began to form a bond. My role changed from that of a teenager to that of a responsible counselor. Not only was I here to teach them about Judaism through classes and activities, but more importantly I was acting as a role model. For the majority of Ukrainian children, we were the first Americans they had ever met and, therefore, were watched vigilantly and constantly emulated. This humbling realization made me feel rather self-conscious at first. However, their desire to imitate also heightened the impact of that which we taught them. They wanted to learn. Although an immense language barrier lay between the campers and me, we managed to communicate through translators, hand signals, songs, and broken English and Russian.
With the help of a book that contained both the Hebrew and Russian, I taught Hebrew to a group of ten children who had never before been exposed to Judaism. Glieb, a ten-year old boy rapidly rose to the top of the class. In addition to the mandatory hours of daily learning, he was motivated to extend these sessions. So often at night after the fun and entertainment, he and I would practice reading Hebrew and we discussed, in simple terms, aspects of Jewish ritual that fascinated him.
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A few days before the end of camp, in broken English, Glieb explained that he had been working endlessly on a present for me. Similarly I had been trying to decide on something that I could give him. After hours of pondering, I decided to give Glieb what was most dear to me, my siddur (prayer book), which I had received upon entering sixth grade. I felt it appropriate to present him with his very first prayer book. For hours I decorated and transliterated the main prayers and on the last day of camp, before the kids left, we exchanged presents. He gave me his favorite key-chain of the "Sylvester" cartoon with an attached lanyard that he had made. Never had a gift had such a startling effect on me; I burst into tears. I handed him my siddur, and he stood there for a moment staring at his gift, and I at mine. Tears welled in his eyes as he continued to look at the siddur. I knew that he truly understood the significance of our exchange. We hugged goodbye, and I will never forget the feeling of his arms entwined around me with the siddur pressed against my back.
Who would have thought that I would go to the Ukraine, make such a strong impression on the lives of a group of children and impact my own? The campers' naïve yet deep questioning took me on a journey of self-discovery as I reexamined my own beliefs and practices in a foreign environment, spiritually void and materially deprived. This defining experience also taught me that I can make a difference. By continuing to work with people in my professional life as a nurse, I will be extending the passions I discovered during my summer experience. Just as I answered the call for help in the Ukraine, I intend to respond to future calls for help - with action, kindness, and caring.