When the limo pulled up at JFK’s airport terminal, it was the first time Alina Lubhetzkaya, 13, smiled in a long while. Her mother died this spring while Alina attended Tzivos Hashem of Ukraine’s sleepaway Passover Camp, leaving her and her brothers behind. She and two of her brothers were welcomed into the Esther and William Benenson Children’s Home, a project of Tzivos Hashem, Chabad’s international children’s organization.
Alina seemed to be coping as best as could be expected. The on-staff psychologist at the Benenson Home saw Alina’s willingness to enter a Jewish knowledge contest offered through Tzivos Hashem’s Russian language Yeladim magazine as a good sign of her progress. Yeladim reaches 10,000 Jewish children by mail and through Or Avner Jewish day schools across the former Soviet Union. The grand prize is nothing short of miraculous: an all expenses paid, two-week trip of a lifetime to the United States. This year, hundreds of children entered and only eight children would be selected for this year’s trip.
Alina’s chances of winning were slim. The contest was very demanding. There were fifty questions to answer, ranging from the simple – list the Ten Commandments – to the complex – describe the 39 cardinal tasks not permitted on Shabbat. One boy sent his answers in a binder, complete with file folders. An essay on a Jewish topic or a project symbolizing a Jewish concept was required, too. An aspiring artist crushed egg shells to create a 3-D picture of the Yom Kippur eve custom of kapporot.
One lucky winner, Golda Vlaezyamovskaya, 16, created a crossword puzzle about the Jewish holidays and sent it in to Tzivos Hashem from her school in Zhitomir, Ukraine. “I was doing the best I could, but everyone was worrying about the contest so much,” Golda said. “It was unbelievable to win. It is unbelievable that I am here.”
When Alina found out she won, she was “totally flabbergasted,” said Rabbi Shmuli Brown, head of Tzivos Hashem’s publishing house in Ukraine and a veteran Tzivos Hashem youth director who is shepherding the winners on the trip. “Like all the kids, Alina’s looking wide eyed at everything: the limo, the tall buildings and everything American.”
From July 18 through August 1, the eight lucky winners – all girls this year – are touring the very best the New York City and Washington, D.C. have to offer. They will be hitting the big sites: the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Museum of Natural History, Central Park Zoo and more. To experience Jewish life in America, they were welcomed as honored guests at the wedding of last year’s trip counselor Nechamie Blotner, spent one Shabbat near Lubavitch headquarters and another among New York’s Russian Jewish community in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Every night and for most lunches, the children are dining out at New York’s best kosher restaurants. And if that’s not enough, they’ll be taking in “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway.
Offering destitute and orphaned Ukrainian and Russian children a chance to see and taste the splendor of America is an outgrowth of the contest, but not its goal, according to the executive director of Tzivos Hashem in the CIS Rabbi Yossi Glick. “The trip gives these children a chance to see — first hand — Yiddishkeit in a living format as opposed to the textbook format,” he said. Seeing American Jews who are able to maintain active Jewish lives and a successful career is another lesson the contest winners learn. “In America they see living Judaism where the rabbis, teachers, store owners, waiters, doctors, accountants are proud Jews, and they can begin to relate more to living a Jewish life.”
Simply entering the contest catapults Jewish children in the CIS deeper into their Jewish studies. Answering the questions and writing the essays requires a lot of research. “Some kids worked hard to find out what Judaism is all about,” said Brown. “They had to visit libraries and do searches on the internet for answers.”
Golda’s secret answer source was her teacher at Or Avner. Golda said she will be scouring souvenir shops to find a genuine American tchatchke as a thank you gift for her mentor.
While the winners are learning of the wonders of America and the opportunities it offers its Jewish population, New Yorkers have proven their generosity. Tzivos Hashem’s trip coordinator, Miriam Moss, contacted New York’s top tourist spots and described the trip’s humanitarian angle. Donations or discounted tickets came from all quarters: Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, the Intrepid Museum, Brooklyn Botanical Garden, Our Name is Mud pottery painting shop, Chelsea Piers, the Jewish Children’s Museum, Circle Line, Museum of Natural History and Six Flags Great Adventures.
Moss said the tourist attraction operators were moved by the children’s stories. “These children have started out with so little in life, and I told everyone I spoke to that we want to give these girls so much love and attention. We want them to have the time of their lives,” said Moss.
Their first morning in the U.S., the children were treated to a delicious breakfast at The Boulevard Café in Brooklyn, with rich hot cocoa, pastries, and family size platters of scrambled eggs for the girls. “It’s our pleasure and honor to open our doors to a these visitors,” said Boulevard Café manager Yosef Schreiber. “We hope every moment of their trip will be special.”
Eateries that donated meals or offered discounts included a who’s who of popular kosher restaurants. The girls enjoyed meals at Esther’s Grill and Deli, Café Royal, Dougie’s BBQ and Grill, J2 Pizza, Noah’s Ark Deli and Restaurant, Mendy’s Kosher Restaurant and Delicatessen, My Most Favorite Dessert, Circa-NY Restaurant, and the JCC Café in Washington, D.C.
Tzivos Hashem of the CIS’s American supporters booked special time with the girls as well. Dr. Marcia Wilf made time in her schedule to meet the group for dinner because she sees real value in this trip. “My whole legacy in life is to do educational philanthropy, and this is a continuation of that legacy,” she said. “I am very interested to get their perspective on what’s going on in Russia right now.” Several years ago, Wilf breathed life into the dreams of one Tzivos Hashem contest winner and sponsored her schooling at Stern College.
Another friend of Tzivos Hashem CIS, Ira Yavarkovsky, will be taking the girls to dinner, to the Broadway show, and – if there is time – to the GAP for a mini-shopping spree. All this largess has a larger purpose. “The children are given a firsthand lesson in Tzedaka when they meet Ira Yavarkovksy and Mitchell and Janet Feldman who made this trip possible,” said Rabbi Glick.
As part of the trip, the contest winners will take a two-day jaunt to Washington, D.C. Chico McCarthy, a tour guide with the Old Town Trolley company, will be chauffeuring the group around the nation’s capital. McCarthy has a soft spot for children in need. He is the co-founder of the Orphan World Alliance which helps Russian orphans, and he helped raise four orphaned children from Puerto Rico. He is looking forward to meeting this year’s contest winners. “I’d like them to go home feeling that America and Russia are not natural enemies,” said McCarthy, “and that Jewish people not only have a place in American society, they have a good one and one to be proud of.”
When night comes, the girls’ counselor and translator Racheli Kats has planned activities that will show the group another dimension New York. She has worked out invitations to several homes of prominent Russian-speaking women in the Lubavitch community. “I want the girls to be inspired. There’s a lot you can learn when you are not being lectured to,” she said as she spread cream cheese and tuna onto bread for the girls to snack on. “There was a ton of preparation that went into the trip. It was really rewarding, actually, when you see how everyone is so willing to help out these girls.”
And for orphans like Alina, the trip is more than a tourist’s dream; the outpouring of love and friendship make the Tzivos Hashem Torah Contest trip and experience of a lifetime.