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With trepidation this 60 year-old occupational therapist packed suitcases more filled with toys than clothes and began a journey that would actualize the Yiddish song, “Maine Shetele Beltz”. It was a journey less of miles and more of visualized memories of what my Bubie Yettie had told me of her life “back in the old country”. In so many ways, I felt I went “home”. And like trips “back home”, it was warm and welcoming, and familiar.
I almost didn’t go. I was scared and unsure of going so far with really not knowing anyone. My daughter’s good friends, the Spaldings, convinced me otherwise, and so on faith in Hashem, off I went. Once the decision was made, it was as if instant “fairy-godmothers” appeared in the form of Terri Bagen, Julie Kaminsky and Natasha Alhazova, guiding my every step.
First stop was Kishinev, a bustling city of electric streetcars and outdoor cafés and the Kishinev Jacobs Jewish Campus. A large building housing a JCC, Day Care Center, Hesed and multiple other Jewish agencies working to re-create, stimulate and preserve Jewish life in an area of the world that was over 50% Jewish before World War II. Their optimism, dedication and hunger for information were infectious; I was at once both the teacher and the student—learning from them about appreciating life at its roots while re-discovering mine.
Next came Tirapsol, an island of Russian rule in the middle of the country where Visas are required to “cross the border” into a country within the country. Now, that was scary!! But Visas and rules and a 90 minute border delay did not limit the love of learning and the reception of the doctors, psychologists, teachers, parents and children.
As an occupational therapist, who uses games as a method of treatment, the language of “play” needed no interpreter, as the children eagerly joined in various activities.
Beltz was amazing, both the Jewish Center there and the home visits. Going to see the homes - small, well kept, poor but proud - was heart-warming. This was the Shtetl. The dirt roads, the gardens of potatoes, and “kitchens” smaller than most of our guest bathrooms awed me as a remembered by Bubie’s struddle and milikah—how did she do it in such a small place?! I could close my eyes and “see” Shabbas of 100 years ago in these small and well-loved little homes.
Summer Camp for kids with special needs on the Dniester River was another experience. I “taught” baseball, one of my favorites—and both handicapped wheelchair-bound and walking children played together. Although all the games were “tied”, clearly, I felt like the “winner”.
My Mission-mates were outstanding. We became more than colleagues, we formed friendships that I am sure will last. So, to Lauren, the speech therapist (and her daughter Brooke), Inbar, the psychologist, and Miri, the physical therapist, Lena and Octav, the translators, and Natasha, the coordinator! I want to thank all of you for truly making the experience in Moldova one of both mitzvahs and magic.
Susan Orloff, a JHI June mission member, occupational therapist from Atlanta, Georgia.