KU Hillel’s European Leadership Mission (ELM), which took 20 students to Bucharest, Romania and Sofia, Bulgaria over winter break, was one of the most meaningful trips I’ve ever participated in. The trip aims to connect students with the Jewish communities in the two cities and show what Jewish life is like around the world.
Before going on this trip, I really knew nothing about either country or the Jewish communities. We’d discussed some background in our pre-trip sessions, but even then I still think I, and others, weren’t sure about what to expect out of the trip.
After talking with my peers who went on ELM with me, we all agree that we learned so much from the trip and feel more confident telling people about my own Judaism experiences and values, in addition to talking about the history of the Jewish experience in Romania and Bulgaria.
“I had no idea what to expect, but now that I’ve been there [to Bulgaria] and explored, I am so ready and excited to go back,” junior Rebecca Seldin said.
While on the trip we went on tours, visited kindergartens, met with students involved in BBYO Bulgaria, danced along to traditional Bulgarian music and various other amazing experiences.
The most impactful part of the trip for me, however, were the home visits in both cities with elderly in the Jewish community. Our group of 20 was split up into smaller groups of three or four where we then went to homes to talk with people and hear their stories and share ours. One of my home visits in Bucharest was with 85-year-old Rosaline, who spoke of her life with such joy. She told us about her warm home events where she got together with other Jewish people in community and about her times traveling in America.
Similarly in Sofia, my home visit was with Bettie. As a Sephardic Jew, Bettie also spoke Spanish, allowing another person in my group to communicate with her directly instead of through a translator. She sang to us in Spanish and proudly showed us an award she received from the Jewish community.
These experiences, amongst others, were memorable to me as they really put my own Jewish experience into perspective. Learning about their lives in Romania or Bulgaria, and seeing what Judaism means to them, allowed me to fully realize what my own community means to me. I personally feel more connected to my Jewish peers and community, as well as more capable of talking about my Judaism with others because of the experiences talking to these people in their communities.
Other students on the trip felt the same way about their experiences.
“The home visits were so impactful because these women [I met] were so passionate about their lives,” senior Kara Kahn said. “I felt so connected to them it almost felt like spending time with our own grandparents.”
Now as the trip is over and we’re back at school, we’re planning ways to take what we learned and apply those lessons to our own communities. In group reunion meetings, we plan to discuss ways to connect with other Jewish students who have taken part in this trip in past years, ways to connect with Jewish youth and young adults in Lawrence and Kansas City, as well as ways to educate fellow students about the stories of the people we met. I’m excited to keep these lessons going and do more with them even though we’re back in Kansas.