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Mission to Eastern Europe gives KU Hillel students insight into global Jewish community

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Some college students choose to relax during their winter break and vacation at a beach resort. Then there are others, such as a group of 20 students from KU Hillel who took part in the KU Hillel European Leadership Mission, choosing to wake up earlier than they do during a school day to learn all they can about the global Jewish community.

ELM, funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City’s Israel and Overseas Committee, is a high-level trip for top Jewish student leaders at the University of Kansas. The goal of ELM is to give students a deeper understanding of the economic and social issues that the Jewish communities in Bulgaria and Romania experience on a daily basis. The trip was led by KU Hillel Executive Director Jay Lewis, KU Hillel Director of Development Carly Stein and Jen Berman, an alum of KU Hillel who works for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

This is the seventh time the Jewish Federation has funded KU Hillel’s leadership mission — the previous six to Israel. All leadership missions are intended to give these students insight into the global Jewish community.

“It’s an investment in the future of our Jewish community,” Lewis explained.

Eastern Europe was chosen for this year’s leadership mission instead of Israel because the Jewish Federation is deeply invested in these communities as well as Israel. The change in venue would also give students a different perspective on global Jewry.

“The American Jewish education system does a nice job educating about Jewish life in the United States and what it means to be Jewish in the United States. We also learn a lot about Israel. But generally the only thing we learn about Jewish life outside the United States is Holocaust history,” Lewis explained.

“We think this was an opportunity to prepare these emerging leaders in our Jewish community and help them better understand Jewish global peoplehood and Jewish life outside the United States and Israel,” he continued.

This investment in KU students has proven to be a valuable one to the Jewish Federation, said its Associate Executive Director Alan Edelman.

“Our tradition teaches, ‘kol Yisrael areivim zeh la-zeh/ all of Israel (the Jewish people) are responsible for one another.’ The KU Hillel leadership seminar in Bulgaria and Romania, and in the past to Israel, operationalizes this important dictum by offering a service learning opportunity for these emerging Jewish adults who want to make an impact in overseas Jewish communities. By providing the funds to support the students participating in this program, the Jewish Federation shows its commitment to our overseas partners as well as to these students, who will become tomorrow’s Jewish communal leaders. An important aspect of being a ‘total’ Jewish leader is an awareness of world Jewry and taking action on their behalf,” Edelman said.

In Eastern Europe the group did a tiny bit of touring so it could better understand the history of the area. The majority of the trip was devoted to community service work within those Eastern European Jewish communities. They did such things as visit with seniors in their homes as well as senior living facilities and adult day care centers. They also visited with school students and Jewish leaders, both young and old. They visited three cities, the capitals of Bulgaria and Romania, Sofia and Bucharest, where the majority of the Jewish people live and Brasov, Romania, where the Jewish population is only about 200.

Lewis said the trip was transformative for every participant in probably 20 different ways.

“They absolutely got a good understanding about the Jewish community and what Jewish life is like in Romania and Bulgaria,” Lewis said.

Everyone, Lewis said, was inspired to see how hard people are working in Romania and Bulgaria to make sure Jewish life thrives there. Pearl Sonnenschein, a sophomore from Overland Park, said the third day of the trip while they were in Bulgaria had the greatest impact on her.

“We learned traditional Bulgarian dances with the elderly in the morning, and in the afternoon we visited senior citizens in their homes to learn about their lives during the communist era and the Holocaust. That day was the most impactful day for me because I gained a newfound respect for the elderly. I learned that every generation in the Jewish community is important to look after. We tend to give special attention to the younger ones because they are the next generation and will soon be the leaders in our community, but we must not forget the older generation. Their stories, experiences and life lessons are ones not to forget,” Sonnenschein said.

Stephanie Pollack, a senior from Overland Park, said the trip had a huge impact on her perception of Jews living around the world.

“This trip had an incredibly humbling impact on me. It opened my eyes to the connection Jewish people have with each other, near and far. Our visit to the Rosen Home in Bucharest, Romania, showed me just that. An elderly woman, Silvian, held my hand and cried when I told her I was Jewish traveling with a group of Jewish students my age. Her love for Judaism was almost as strong as mine, regardless of her age or geographical location. Now and in the future, I will be able to relate to a complete stranger across the world. Using the mitzvot of ‘loving a stranger,’ as the people in Romania and Bulgaria did for us,” she said.

Lewis said the students are all asked to “do something” after the trip is over.

“There is not one normative. It’s a short-term expectation, but it’s the long-term expectation that we put very clearly to the students. The reason why the Federation subsidized their trip and why KU Hillel is doing this and investing in them is that we are anticipating that they are going to be leaders in the Jewish community for the next 30, 40, 50 years. They need to bring this experience to their leadership roles and we are expecting them to be engaged and invested in the Jewish community,” Lewis said.

Having watched those who participated in six other leadership missions, Lewis believes that plan is working.

“They are definitely engaged in Jewish life wherever they are. Many of them tell us that out of all the things they did Jewishly at KU, this was the most impactful,” Lewis said.

Pollack, a member of Congregation Beth Shalom, said this experience will spur her to provide more for her Jewish community.

“These communities rely not only on their leaders but the young adults working as madrichs (teaching assistants). These people sometimes volunteer their time to make programs better and help the children or elderly enjoy each day being Jewish. This has inspired me to keep a closer eye on the problems we have here and be able to find a solution using the assets we have available. There are many things I hope to do in the future in Kansas City and Lawrence for my last semester at KU, the ideas coming from what I experienced in Bulgaria and Romania. The inspiration the leaders of their communities have given me is timeless and I am so thankful I was able to be a part of this mission trip,” Pollack said.

Sonnenschein hopes to share the information she learned on the trip with others in the Jewish community.

“We learned about how the JDC and the Jewish Federation of Kansas City have helped both Jewish communities in Romania and Bulgaria. Without them, the Jewish communities over there would basically have nothing,” Sonnenschein said.

She also learned that help doesn’t come solely in the form of money.

“Spending time with the communities there is another form of service, and a very important form of service. I learned that there are Jewish communities all over there world — some that are as prosperous as ours in the United States, and others that are on their way to being prosperous, like in Eastern Europe. But, as the saying goes: wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish. And you have a special connection with that person, even if you live a million miles away from them.” Sonnenschein said.

Based on everything she’s learned, Sonnenschein, who is a member of Congregation Beth Shalom, said she plans to take on a greater role in the Jewish community here, especially after she graduates.

“Even though we have a fantastic Jewish community in the Greater Kansas City area, there is always room for improvement, and I want to be able to help with those areas,” she said.

The participants kept a blog during their trip. You can read more of their impressions while they were in Eastern Europe at Kansashillel.blogspot.com. Lindsey Havens, a sophomore from Chicago, also wrote a commentary about the trip in the University Daily Kansan, published Jan. 20. You can read it at http://kansan.com/opinion/2014/01/20/havens-service-trip-teaches-meaning-of-living-and-surviving-2/.