Dozens of students travelled to Ukraine to volunteer on a mission to help Jewish orphans and abandoned children.
The Genesis Challenge weekend, run by Aish and the Jewish Learning Exchange, saw 56 Jewish students from across Britain visit Odessa to work with the Tikva charity. It provides care and homes for deprived youngsters.
The programme runs weekly sessions on campuses in seven cities, reaching more than 700 students. At the end of the project hundreds take part in trips to centres in Israel, Poland and the United States.
In Odessa the visit began with a presentation explaining the history of the orphanage and the backgrounds in which the children have grown up.
Groups of volunteers visited the previous home of one of the children to witness examples of the poverty and abuse that had been experienced.
At the home for infants, where children up to the age of eight live, the British students performed a concert for the Ukrainians. The following day they put on a play made up of Shabbat songs and a re-enactment of a Friday night dinner.
Tamar Lehmann, a student at Bristol University, said the trip had been “an unforgettable experience”.
“We visited two houses where children had previously lived. The squalor and extreme poverty from which they were rescued was incomprehensible. Nobody in the 21st century should be living without running water, electricity or a functioning toilet.
“My life in north west London had never looked more comfortable.”
On Shabbat the group held services in the Odessa community’s synagogue and shared meals with the children.
Ms Lehmann said: “The atmosphere in the room while we played with the children and on Motzei Shabbat was electric. Seeing how happy we were able to make the children, who have in some cases suffered so much hardship, gave us a real sense of fulfilment. I feel like I really made a difference.”
Part of the visit included a dinner and concert held at a new home for girls built by Tikva. Before heading home to Britain the group split, with the volunteers playing football with the Ukrainian boys and the girls taking part in art projects.
Birmingham University student Daniel Gerszt said the charity had created a “renaissance of Jewish life”.
“The children of Odessa taught us a lot about the importance of family and put things into perspective. In spite of the challenges these children have faced, we walked into orphanages full of life, happiness and love.”