When thinking of places to spend midwinter vacation, the frigid city of Pinsk, Belarus, is generally not the first destination that comes to mind. During these winter months, my family and I typically try to escape to warmer climates. This year, however, I chose a different type of vacation, joining a group of girls from my school, Manhattan High School for Girls, and traveling east to Pinsk, to spend time with an organization called Yad Yisroel.
In the early 1900s, Belarus had a thriving population of over one million Jews. Between the devastating effects of the Holocaust and a brutal Communist regime, Belarusian Jewry experienced a dramatic physical and spiritual decline. After the fall of Communism, Yad Yisroel was founded with the purpose of rebuilding and reviving the scattered and broken Belarusian Jewish community. Based in Pinsk, they provide aid to people of all stages and walks of life throughout Belarus. One major component of their work is running boarding schools for Jewish boys and girls, often from poor and broken homes: feeding, clothing, and educating them to have a strong religious background. We stayed in the girls’ boarding school, called Beis Aharon, spending most of our time with the girls there, who ranged in age from 6 to 17.
On the plane, I tried to picture what our interactions with these girls would be like. Although some of them spoke a bit of Hebrew and English, their primary language was Russian. I wondered how we could communicate, let alone connect, with these girls, if we barely spoke the same language. After a long flight, we arrived at the girls school late Thursday night. On Friday morning, we met the girls. Somehow, through dancing, hugging, a bit of Hebrew and English, and the three Russian words we had learned so far—da, nyet and spasiba—we managed to communicate. By the time the sky was darkening for Shabbos, we had already started to get to know them.
I was completely blown away by the amount of mesiras nefesh (personal sacrifice) these girls showed simply by keeping things like shabbos, kashrus and tznius. I always thought it was difficult in America to be a religious Jew, because of all the outside influences of secular culture. But meeting these girls made me realize how much I take for granted in my life. In the whole country of Belarus, there are no kosher food stores or restaurants. There are no Jewish clothing stores. There are no Jewish schools besides their own. I was honored and inspired to be sitting at the shabbos table and singing zemiros with these incredible girls. The sacrifices they make in order to keep Judaism are more than anything I had ever experienced in my life.
Each day, after the girls finished classes, we would run activities and programs with them. With all of the materials we brought, the girls were very careful not to waste anything. One night we gave out hot cocoa in hot cups. After finishing the cocoa, the girls carefully washed the hot cups and brought them up to their rooms to use again.
While the girls had class, we had the opportunity to spend time with other parts of the Jewish community. We went to the boys’ school, bringing toys and candy for the younger boys there. While they were playing, they would sing Jewish songs together.
We also spent time with elderly women in the Jewish community. Together with the Pinsk girls, we visited them in their homes, singing them songs and bringing them each a loaf of bread. Seeing where they lived really allowed us to understand the devastating effects of Communism. They lived in small, one-room apartments in old, pre-war buildings. Many of the elderly women had wedding pictures of themselves from only a few years ago. The Pinsk girls explained to us that these women had not been allowed to have a proper Jewish wedding ceremony under the Communist regime, and after it fell, Yad Yisroel helped them have a real Jewish wedding for the first time.
Throughout the trip, we had the opportunity to meet several of the families who comprise the small Jewish community in Pinsk, including Rabbi Moshe and Rebbetzin Rikki Fhima, the amazingly devoted heads of Yad Yisroel in Pinsk. I viewed the Fhimas as a modern-day Avraham and Sarah, welcoming people to a life of Judaism with their warmth and sincerity. Although Pinsk is not an easy place to be a religious Jew, the Fhimas and a number of other families choose to live there for the purpose of reviving and sustaining Judaism in Belarus.
When we were fortunate enough to be invited to the home of Rabbi and Rebbetzin Fhima, we saw a room near the entrance with walls filled from floor to ceiling with wedding pictures of graduates from the school. It was an incredible sight to behold: hundreds of couples, smiling at the camera as they stood proudly under a chuppah.
We spent one day visiting various holy Jewish sites and kvarim (burial sites). We visited the original Mir Yeshiva, the Chofetz Chaim’s yeshiva in Radin and the Volozhiner Yeshiva, as well as the kvarim of Rav Yerucham Levovitz, the Chofetz Chaim and Rav Chaim Volozhin. It was very moving to daven at these places, and it reminded me how this country had once been a thriving Jewish center of Torah learning. It was sad to see how it had all been wiped out, but heartening at the same time to know that it was slowly being rekindled.
Throughout the week, we became very close with the girls in the school. It was amazing to see how two groups of people could have so much in common after growing up on different sides of the world. We became friends with the older girls, and were excited to find out that several will be coming to America next year to attend college in New York. We bonded with the younger girls as well, hugging them, playing with them, giving them candy and saying Shema with them at night. I became very close with a few of the younger girls. I knew it would be very difficult to part with them, but it turned out to be harder than I had imagined.
In order to catch our flight, we needed to leave at midnight of the second Saturday night that we were there. That night, we gave each other our contact information and sat together until it was time for us to leave. We hugged each other one last time, and from both our school and their school there were very few girls who were not crying. I went upstairs to say goodbye to the little girls, and one of the girls, who was about 7, pulled me to her bed. She hugged me, and, crying, whispered that she did not want me to leave. I didn’t know what to say, because I couldn’t tell her that we would see each other again; it was likely we wouldn’t. I just told her that I loved her, said Shema with her and left, trying not to let her see I was crying too.
Traveling to Pinsk was not the most conventional way to spend my winter break. But I can honestly say that these 10 days were the greatest and most meaningful days of my life. My friends and I are very much in touch with these girls, exchanging frequent messages and pictures with them, and as these communications stretch from America to Europe, the bond between a group of students in New York and a small school of girls in Pinsk continues to grow.
Yad Yisroel is a non-profit organization dedicated to the revival of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union, as well as to assisting former Soviet Jewry wherever they may be. To support or find out more information, visit www.yadyisroel.com
By Rachel Retter
Rachel Retter is a former summer intern at the Jewish Link and a senior at Manhattan High School for Girls.