Summer in Polotsk, Belarus, July–September 2013

(My  summer  between  end  of  school  and  starting  university)

By Jonathan Clingman, FRS Madrich and youth worker, 1st year student at Oxford University


JClingman1If you plan to live in a place for three months, you have to really love it. I fell in love with Polotsk, a small town in the north of Belarus and home to FRS's twinned community a little over a year ago, working on the annual summer camp there, and even before leaving the country I was already inspired and had committed the following summer to working in the community there.

And I was not disappointed: Belarus is a country of breathtaking scenery, endless pine forests and huge lakes, and some of the friendliest and most welcoming people I could ever hope to meet. I remember afternoons swimming in lakes with Raya, the coordinator in Polotsk, sightseeing trips with Rina's friend's college librarian (that's how quickly you get adopted into the community) and of course the ubiquitous little cheese pancakes that appear everywhere and that I couldn't have enough of.

Unfortunately, Belarus is also a dictatorship, the last in Europe. Belarus's first and only president, Alexander Lukashenko, has spent the time since his coming to power in 1994 dismantling the young country's newly-written constitution to give himself absolute power, while actively ignoring the need to change anything since the soviet era. At times this is really obvious: there are plenty of police and official buildings around, whereas privately owned shops are a rarity. As one of our number put it, Belarus is a country inhabited 'not by people but by zombies: people go to work and come back from work, to work, from work, day in, day out'. There are no prospects for young people, most of whom have either emigrated or hope to do so as soon as possible. The situation was designed, was the conclusion, to keep the population in line and make them easier to rule. So the twinning project with Polotsk is badly needed, and thankfully it's come along way over the five years of its existence: it was to a quite active (if small) Jewish community that Nick and I set off at the beginning of July.

JClingman2Trying to bring people together in such a divided country was always going to be the biggest challenge and many of the ideas that we brought with us fell at the first hurdle of there not being enough interest, especially during the summer when many people are away. At least with the Bar Mitzvah group, with whom we probably did the most work, the kids were interested enough to sign up (the programmes with younger children rely on the parents to see the point in sending them, and it's much harder to interest people who were brought up in a society where religion was illegal). But my job was to get them to appreciate the significance of the ceremony - indeed something which even the British young adults I asked for ideas universally failed to appreciate themselves despite all their years of Jewish education! The last Bar Mitzvah ceremony had been postponed primarily because of that lack of understanding, and so my first task was to convince them to stick with the programme - but this meant first making them realise that in fact they hadn't been fully prepared last time, an idea that was met with fierce resistance. Still, we managed to gather together a small group of new pupils, and about half the previous group have decided to join them. Hopefully this time the ceremony will be completely successful, and that should be enough to regain the interest of the remaining people.

JClingman4But for every difficult project, there's always fun ones too. As luck would have it, the early dates of festivals this year meant that they fell before the start of term. Which meant four festivals of delicious food brought in by members of the community, lots of singing, building a Sukkah with the Sunday School children, and trying (in vain) to teach them to blow the shofar. Shabbat was the highlight of each week with lots of music, food (I introduced them to Chavurah suppers, which were so well received they're now a weekly occurrence) and a chance to catch up with everyone. Even on the last evening we were still trying new ideas, celebrating Simchat Torah with an actual scroll which we unwound around the community centre.

But more exciting than what happened while we were there is what will happen now we've left. The goal is self-sufficiency, so the whole trip was only successful if the projects we introduced are still being continued now we've left. So perhaps the best moment of the entire trip was Rina's session of writing the programme for RoshHashanah, even though - and indeed because - I missed the beginning because I hadn't been told about it! A few weeks later and I'm just beginning to get to grips with the very different stresses of university assignment deadlines and integrals and vector spaces, and now it's Debra in Polotsk, the first to see what the situation's like now we've left, and the feedback has been good - so far, anyway. So even though it feels like it's long since been over, in fact this is just the beginning...