Friday, July 9th, 2010
In March, students from the Hillel at the University of Maryland Baltimore County volunteered with the Jewish community of Odessa, Ukraine. In June, the students traveled to New York to see the impact Jewish Ukrainians have left on The Big Apple.
Visiting Odessa, Ukraine last March on a JDC Short-Term Service program along with ten other UMBC students on was an incredible, fun experience – and a rather different Spring Break! This past weekend, we reunited as an (almost) full group again during our summer break, for what we call: The Brighton Beach experience.
The idea for this road trip sparked during our time spent together in Odessa, Ukraine, where we often joked that instead of the long flights to the former Soviet Union, we could have simply driven from Baltimore to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, for an authentic Russian experience! We made good on this idea on June 27th, and took a group road trip to check out New York’s Jewish Russian/ Ukrainian Heritage, visiting to Manhattan’s Lower East Side; Rego Park, Queens; and of course, Brighton Beach!
Our first stop was NYC’s Lower East Side, once mostly populated by Jewish immigrants. We stopped by the Elm Street Synagogue, the oldest synagogue built by Eastern European Jewry and surprisingly, we also learned that this synagogue’s first cantor was Pincus Minkowski, a cantor, from – of course – our favorite city, Odessa!
Afterwards we enjoyed lunch at Cheburechnaya, a kosher Bukharin restaurant in Rego Park, Queens. Wanting to relive our experiences in Ukraine, we asked for Cheburakis, traditional appetizers, common in the Soviet Union, made of a thin layer of fried dough folded over with different fillings inside (very similar to Spanish Empanadas or Brazilian Pastels) and very delicious!
Finally, after months of anticipation, we headed to our highlighted destination, Brighton Beach. As I mentioned before, Brighton had become a central element of our experience in Odessa. According to someone from the participants in our group who shall remain nameless, even while we were IN Ukraine, they kept mentioning that there was simply no better place in the world for the Russian experience (or Russian food, or anything else related to the FSU) than Brighton Beach. Brighton Beach is an area that was stopping point for primarily Jewish immigrants of the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. After so much hype about it – we simply had to go to Brighton!
Of course, parking at the beach was impossible, but luckily, as we toured around to find space, we found ourselves in an area that was once called Little Odessa! Every sign, store front, and newspapers was in Russian. Walking around the beach in this part of Brooklyn, the last language you would hear is English. After so many conversations and jokes while we were in Odessa about Brighton Beach, we finally understood the connection and we were finally here! And yet, ironically, once we arrived at this Little Odessa, we felt like we were stepping back into our experiences in the real Odessa, the Odessa, Ukraine we fell in love with during our in the Former Soviet Union. It was great to revisit together and hopefully we’ll get a chance to go back and connect once more!