We started on Wednesday by taking the scenic route to Belaya Tzerkov, about an hour south of Kiev. Snow-covered fields as far as the eye could see — at least, while the road was smooth enough for us to concentrate.

The Jewish community of Belaya Tzerkov was reestablished in the 1970s, and there are an estimated 800-1000 active members (roughly 1% of the total residents of Belaya Tzerkov). These families send their children to School Mitzvah-613, founded in 2002. It not only is the educational home of 142 students (at capacity!) aged 1.5 through 16, but also serves as a “Jewish Community Center” for Belaya Tzerkov. JAFI, the Tzofim (Scouts – a youth group) and others all have their offices there.

No visit to a Jewish school is complete without meeting the students–and boy, were they adorable! Among others, we met 5th and 8th graders learning English (“What do you do for fun?” “Rest.”–it seems that elementary and graduate students are not so different). In addition to the required Ukrainian curriculum, they study Hebrew, Jewish literature and history, and Israeli geography. And, the deputy headmaster was quick to tell us, they excel in regional, national, and international academic competitions. Alumni do mostly leave Belaya Tzerkov for Kiev or Israel when they finish, but they remain engaged and committed Jews.

But what makes the school special is how it, by virtue of teaching children about Judaism, has reengaged the adult population. But it’s more than the children simply bringing their knowledge home, the school actively educates parents, for example by incorporating learning into parent-teacher conferences.

(What also makes the school is its kitchens, which whipped up a delicious lunch for us, replete with the requisite potato, fish, and mayonnaise. Not to mention the pre-Purim hamantaschen!)

After a brief walk around Belaya Tzerkov to see the buildings that were once part of Jewish communal life, we set off for Uman, the burial place of the Hasidic sage Nachman of Breslov. A nearly two-hour snowy van ride later, we arrived at the shul built upon the gravesite. We spent about 15 minutes there, because it is a three-hour drive to Odessa! But, we finally made it, had a lovely dinner, bade farewell to our driver, Victor, and checked in to our (glamorous) hotel.


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