Penn State Hillel – Moldova– March 2011

Friday, March 11th, 2011

PSU update from Moldova! 3-11-11

Hi everyone! This is Elise reporting from the lobby of the Jazz Hotel in Chisinau, Moldova! I still can’t believe we are thousands of miles away from State College, PA and that our trip is almost over. We have been having an amazing time and I think I could speak for everyone when I say that our eyes have really been opened up to so many new things.

Yesterday, Thursday, we spent a lot of time working on renovations at the Hesed Community Center. Lots of painting and cleaning but we really started to see the progress we were making on the site. Before heading off we had a reflection session about how difficult and challenging it is to distribute resources amongst the branches and priorities of the JDC. Instead of just talking, Sharon (the student coordinator) lead a really fun activity where we split up into the groups and simulated having to distribute our resources using legos. It was a lot more difficult than we all thought it was going to be because we wanted to help everyone who needed it and also give resources to leadership programs, Hillel, and rebuilding a community center.

As we started our day of work at Hesed we started to really bond with the local Hesed volunteers. We were all pretty intimated by Misha, the head volunteer who told us what jobs we all should do, but by the end of the day he learned some of our names and everything got a lot more comfortable. We also became closer with one of our translators, Lida. She put a smile on all of our faces and kept us motivated as we worked. After a couple of hours of work we headed out to Andy’s Pizza. We were all starving and indulged in a milkshake and some pizza. I can’t say we haven’t been eating well this whole week! After walking out with our stomachs filled we were ready to get back to work. A few more hours went by way too fast and we were on our way back to the hotel, eating dinner at the “Big Deal” restaurant (it’s SUCH a big deal), and then bowling with our Moldovan peers. It was really fun to be able to get to know everyone on a more personal level.

Friday: After breakfast today we quickly got back to work at the center. The hours quickly past and after eating just about the biggest lunch known to mankind (I wish I was exaggerating) at La Placinta restaurant and we hurried back to Hesed to wrap up. Before saying our final goodbyes to the JDC volunteers, Ryan gave a speech and gave them Penn State rally towels that we all signed. The volunteers also thanked us and to our surprise some of the elderly women who were part of the original center in 1996 spoke to us about how much our work meant to them and gave us hand made necklaces, potholders, and yarmulkes. Before our departure we were told they had a special surprise for us. As we anxiously sat waiting to see what we were going to recieve, Joe Biden walked through the door….just kidding, we wish! We found out a few days ago the Biden was coming to Moldova today to speak about democracy. Unfortunately we were unable to see him but we did see about 4 policeman at every single intersection. Anyways, 2 bottles of wine were brought out and we made a toast to the future of the Hesed community center and JDC work in Moldova (guess they know about Penn State’s “party school” rep in Moldova too). We were all really touched by the words of everyone who spoke and it was so hard for us to say goodbye. I’m sure everyone would agree that we’d be more than willing to spend another week here doing more work even if we would be smelly and covered from head to toe in paint. We spent our Friday night the the KJJC with our Moldovan peers to celebrate Shabbat. It was a great experience to see how they celebrate and compare it to how we all celebrate it at home and at Hillel at Penn State.

I could probably go on and on but as much description as I give I don’t think it would be possible to describe every detail we are experiencing and all the emotions we are feeling. This has truly been the experience of a lifetime and personally I know for a fact that this trip tops any sort of Spring break trip to Punta Cana, Acapulco, or any sort of cruise that all of our friends are doing.

Spaciba (Russian for thank you) for reading!


Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

Penn State Hillel – Hello from Moldova!

Hey everyone! This is Ariel reporting from Penn State Hillel’s trip to Moldova!

We’ve been in Moldova for two full days; I can’t believe it’s already Wednesday night! But I suppose that’s what you get when you spend almost two days traveling. We got in Monday night after delays on the first flight and a consequently short layover in Kiev, Ukraine; we spent more than half a day on planes alone, not to mention that we lost time.

When we finally got in, we piled into a van and were immediately immersed in the capital city of Chisinau (also spelled “Kishinev”) as we passed through the city “gates.” Watching from our windows, many of us had mixed reactions. For me personally, it really did simply look like what you would expect from the former Soviet Union, particularly because of the many run-down apartment buildings. Though, I have been told that they are not so bad on the inside.

The streets are dirty and let’s not even begin to talk about the ridiculous driving patterns–people cut off each other left and right, there are rarely any marked lanes and most people don’t adhere to them, and the pedestrians nonchalantly walk across the unmarked crosswalks as a car is only a few feet in front of them. There are countless cell phone stores–either “Orange” or “Moldcell”–and everything is in three languages: Moldovan (a dialect of Romanian, in the same way British English and American English are different), Russian, and sometimes English. However, it seems as though most people we’ve encountered prefer to speak Russian.

Oh, and we can’t forget “Malldova.”

I think all of the play-on-words of “Moldova” is to garner a sense of nationalism.

Another interesting point is that many people dress incredibly nicely. Women particularly favor heels and fur coats, as well as fashionable haircuts and nice makeup, and many guys wear very nice jeans and shirts.

Anyway, we checked into our hotel, called the Jazz Hotel, which is incredibly nice!

We headed off to our first dinner, which was at the Popasul Dacilor restaurant. It served traditional Moldovan cuisine, and the decor was so cool!

We spent almost three hours there ordering tons of food and being entertaining by a singer who was quite good.

The next day, we had a very good breakfast and had our first reflection session. We discussed Jewish peoplehood and got a briefing on the general problems Moldova faces.

It was International Women’s Day! It’s basically the same as Mother’s Day in the US, but it seems as though it’s a bigger deal in Moldova. A few of us girls received flowers and gifts from random guys on the street!

We met a few of the Moldovan peers who attend the Haverim Jewish youth program at the JDC center in Chisinau. My peers were Tania, 21, who was very outgoing and studying theater, and Olga, 17, who was more reserved with very good English and studies ecology.

First, they gave us pins with little stitched red and white flowers which are only worn during the month of March. Here is an explanation of the legend behind the flowers, if you’re interested. After exchanging some money into lei ($1 = 11.80 lei!), we started heading to our home visit. We had split into six groups to meet several older, Jewish women and give them gifts for International Women’s Day. We got on a bus, and when we paid for our ticket, Tania explained the superstition of “lucky tickets.” If the first two numbers and the last two numbers add up to the same sum, it’s a “happy ticket” and you’re supposed to eat it!

It took a bit of an effort to find the woman’s apartment, but when we finally did, we found it to be tiny and cozy. There were pictures of poets, one being Hemingway, as well as books and magazines. Her name was Esfir, and she just had the most incredibly story.

Her father was a Jewish member of the Romanian parliament, and both he and her mother were killed by the Soviets. They sent her to a Siberian prison camp. When she told them that she wanted to study to become a doctor, they told her she could only specialize in one thing: Cutting down trees and hauling lumber. That’s what she did for a couple of years, but during this time, the guards recognized that she was a cultured person and exceptional poet, so they respected her. Also, while everyone around her was cursing and pressuring her to curse, she refused. One night, she got on her knees on her bed, imagined her parents under the bed, and she swore that she would never use bad words for the rest of her life.

She escaped the camp and worked in a ship-building plant in Ukraine, but she was caught and sent back to the camp. This would happen four times. The final time, the cold and hard labor had taken its toll, and she had developed a heart condition. She had to have surgery, which somehow rendered her barren.

She finally was able to go free once Stalin was out of power, and she’s lived in Chisinau ever since. She has no children and never married–she has no one. Yet still, one of the things she emphasized is that the only person you can rely on is yourself.

While she was talking, our peers translating for us, I felt so captivated by this woman, despite the fact that I can’t understand Russian. She later recited a poem that she had written, and again, even though I couldn’t understand…I don’t know, I could just tell that it was a very powerful, riveting poem. I very much wish I could have understood it. The poem was about love, keeping faith in God, and the beauty of flowers.

It was an honor to be in her presence; I was incredibly moved. One of the things she told us was that she hoped that we will never have to know of war; that really stuck with me. I will definitely treasure that experience for the rest of my life.

Afterwards, we headed to Andy’s Pizza for lunch! It was delicious and we had the opportunity to meet other Moldovan peers.

Next, we had the privilege of getting a tour of Jewish Chisinau. Two highlights were that we got to see the only remaining synagogue out of the former 77 before Soviet occupation and a Jewish cemetery. In the cemetery, we saw an abandoned mikvah, and there were still bullet holes in the doors from the 1903 Chisinau pogrom. It was incredibly beautiful, despite the destruction and the trash, and many of us wished we could have stayed to help clean up.

After “freshening up,” we headed to the Kishinev Jacobs Jewish Campus for a Latino-themed party hosted by Haverim! Everyone commented that it was very reminiscent of high school and BBYO dances, with limbo and all. A girl named Kira actually called me out of the room just to talk. She wanted to know if I had any questions about Moldova, but since I couldn’t think of anything on the spot, I asked her if she had any questions about the USA. We talked about everything from movie stars to government; I’m not going to go into too much detail just for her privacy. But it was incredibly fascinating.

We had dinner at the Big Deal Restaurant. There had been a lot of jokes leading up to this moment (“What’s the big deal about Big Deal?” “…It’s kind of a big deal.”, from Anchorman, of course), so we were eager to eat here. I think the general consensus was that nobody was crazy about fish, but regardless it was a very nice restaurant.

Today was started off with another reflection session, and then we got a tour of the KJCC. We got to see many of its programs in-action, such as a computer class and a women’s empowerment class. There was a group of elderly who were making Purim crafts and even gave us some homemade graggers as gifts! We also got to meet both younger children and elderly learning English. The kids were absolutely precious (one of them kept giving us the “rock on!” sign), and the elderly people were so personable. We asked each other questions in English, and the one old man started saying that he wished us all of the happiness and luck in the world–and the others chimed in, “And wealth!” They were wonderful and many of us wished we could spend more time with them.

Next, we drove to the Hesed, or the welfare center. Many volunteers who had worked there for years and years told us about the programs which had gone on there over the years. Many of these have been moved to the KJCC. One lady who spoke was actually the wife of a very famous Moldovan writer. The Hesed needs a lot of fixing up, so after a boxed lunch, we got to work! Some of us cleaned, some of us did some manual labor, and many of us painted. I spent most of the time painting a door and its frame with primer for a future beauty salon space. I barely took a break because I was really enjoying myself!

We were very proud of how much we accomplished a few hours and we are looking forward to continuing our work not only at the Hesed, but because we know that the people we meet are so honored that we would travel such a long distance in order to help them and visit them. But that, I think, is just as much of an honor for us as it is for them.

Saturday, March 5th, 2011

Penn State Hillel Trip to Moldova!

Tomorrow a group of students from Penn State Hillel will be embarking to Chisinau, Moldova in order to help a Hesed in the Jewish community living there. Here are a few of the members of the trip:


Name: Abby Gelb
Hometown: Randolph, NJ
Year: Senior
Major(s) and Minor(s): Wildlife and Fisheries Science
Why you decided to go on this trip/What drew you to it:  To give back to the Jewish Community with a once in a lifetime experience.
What you are looking forward to doing on the trip: Besides the community service, I am excited to see how the people there live.
What you hope to gain out of the experience: I think that I will learn a lot and I want to grow from it and share my experiences with others.
Interesting fact about yourself: This is my first time traveling overseas.

Name: Sarah Hoffman
Nickname(s): Sarah
Hometown: Broomall, PA
Year: Sophomore
Major(s) and Minor(s): Media Studies: Film and Television
Why you decided to go on this trip/What drew you to it: I decided to go on this trip because I love to travel, especially to places people   normally don’t think of as your average travel destination. I was also drawn to the trip when Lauren came to me and told me she thought this trip would be perfect for me. At that point I couldn’t think of any reason not to go.
What you are looking forward to doing on the trip: I am looking forward the most to experiencing the culture in Moldova. I’d never even heard of the country until a few months ago when Lauren told me about the trip. I am very curious to see how their religious practices vary from ours.
What you hope to gain out of the experience: I am hoping to gain a greater understanding of Judaism and life in a depressed area. I’ve never experienced anything like this before and am looking forward to seeing how it will impact my everyday life after the trip is over.
Interesting fact about yourself: I have almost perfect pitch and I love animals. I have also been to Iceland twice and have traveled a lot with Penn State Hillel and with my high school even though I get travel anxiety… it’s a good way to push past it I think =)


Name: Alex Weisler
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
Year: Senior
Major(s) and Minor(s): Journalism major, Jewish studies minor
Why you decided to go on this trip/What drew you to it: In 1989 and 1991, relatives of mine emigrated from Ukraine and settled in Brooklyn. Since then, I’ve been fascinated by Eastern Europe and determined to visit.
What you are looking forward to doing on the trip: I’m looking forward to getting to know Chisinau and its Jewish community. I’m excited to interact with Moldovans my own age and discover the commonalities between us.
What you hope to gain out of the experience: I’m hoping to get a better understanding of a part of the world somewhat in the dark for me right now.
Interesting fact about yourself: My stupid, irrational fear? Revolving doors.


Name: Hannah Rose Hyman
Nickname(s): just call me Hannah
Hometown: Pittsburgh, PA
Year: sophomore
Major(s) and Minor(s): Spanish and Psychology with a minor in  TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages)
Why you decided to go on this trip/What drew you to it: Sarah Hoffman told me about it!! I jumped at the opportunity to travel with some of the same kids from my Birthright trip & friends from Hillel, and I think it will be a truly enriching experience for all involved!
What you are looking forward to doing on the trip: I’m looking forward to meeting the people of Moldova, learning about the culture and how Jews live there, and helping out how ever we can!!
What you hope to gain out of the experience: A better sense of what it means to be Jewish in another part of the world, and the satisfaction of touching the lives of others :)
Interesting fact about yourself: I was adopted from St. Petersburg, Russia when I was 3 years old and this will be the closest I’ve ever been back to my home country!


Name: Sarah Hochberg
Hometown: Plainview, New York
Year: Junior
Major(s) and Minor(s): Double Major: Psychology and Economics
Why you decided to go on this trip/What drew you to it: I went to Israel with Hillel and had a lot of fun, I wanted to go on another trip with Hillel take advantage of this opportunity to see a new part of the world.
What you are looking forward to doing on the trip: I’m looking forward to learning about Jewish life in Moldova.
What you hope to gain out of the experience: I hope to gain knowledge about how people maintain their Jewish culture in different countries and to make to help people through our service projects.
Interesting fact about yourself: I have a fish named Aristotle.

Name: Jackie Kelly
Year: Junior
Major(s) and Minor(s): Major-Political Science Minors-Jewish Studies and Business
Why you decided to go on this trip/What drew you to it: I believe as Jews we have an obligation to help people less fortunate.
What you are looking forward to doing on the trip: Social interactions between people who live in a totally different world than us.
What you hope to gain out of the experience: A life experience.

Name: Sharon Silverman
Nickname(s): Sharbear, shayronnnn
Hometown: Willow Grove, PA
Year: Senior
Major(s) and Minor(s): Jewish studies
Why you decided to go on this trip/What drew you to it: After going on a trip last year and having such a great time, i really wanted to be able to go on another trip and give back to another Jewish community.
What you are looking forward to doing on the trip: I’m looking forward to getting to know the other Penn State Students on the trip as well as our Moldovan peers
What you hope to gain out of the experience:  I hope to gain a better understanding and appreciation for the Jewish community in Moldova.
Interesting fact about yourself: Many people think i look like sarah silverman, and we basically have the same name.  Weird!

Name: Ariel Siegelman
Hometown: York, PA
Year: Sophomore
Major(s) and Minor(s): Prospective Film/Video Major, International Studies Dual Major, Italian minor
Why you decided to go on this trip/What drew you to it: The trifecta of learning about a new culture, getting to hang out with a bunch of awesome Jews, and doing community service made it a no-brainer.
What you are looking forward to doing on the trip: I’m incredibly curious to learn about Moldova’s culture and help out those who are less fortunate than I.
What you hope to gain out of the experience: I hope to gain a renewed perspective about the world and the international Jewish community, as well as some new friends.
Interesting fact about yourself: I have already been to over 20 countries.