It was two years ago when I first came across the unique Debra Brunner, who masterminds the twinning programme between Finchley Reform Synagogue and the Jewish community of Polotsk in Belarus , and founded The Together Plan. Her proposition was that I and a friend (Jonathan Clingman, a big name in the twinning programme) spend July to September of 2013 there going native with the local community and helping them reconnect with their Judaism, a bit like something out of The Book Of Mormon.
I'm not Jewish; why would anybody want to spend their summer holiday in Europe's last dictatorship, teaching a religion they didn't belong to for free? My reason was Russian. I had a deferred place to study it at university and had to fill my gap year with language practice. Belarus would be perfect immersion because it's practically foreigner free and none of our roles there involved speaking English. Before leaving I met up with FRS's Rabbi, went to a seder meal at Jonathan's and did some homework (who knew the festival of Kapparot involved swinging a chicken around your head?)
Those three months were eye-opening. Belarus isn't third world, but it's poor. Polotsk was charming, but full of stray dogs and buildings in need of a repair. Hospitality is second nature to the Belarusians - I'm especially and eternally indebted to the family who put us up for three whole months. Along with the local madrichim I ran events for Jewish holy days, helped out at the town's children's shelter (for children whose parents are absent or in no state to look after them), translated prayers, learnt the Hebrew alphabet in order to draw and read posters, did what I could to support Jonathan as he taught his Bar Mitzvah group, and even fasted for Yom Kippur. The biggest event, though, was the summer camp, for which a group of English madrichim fly over for five crazy days.
I've been on two summer camps - the one that year in Polotsk and the next year in Bobruisk. Not that the language barrier prevents Belarusian and English madrichim bonding and having a wild time together - but Russian speakers are put to good use providing consecutive interpretation at the morning Dugma Ishit lessons led by Finchley youth leaders, and at feedback sessions after the camp. And during afternoon camp everyone's hands are full keeping the kids busy.
Traditionally, parents teach their children about Judaism. The summer camp does the reverse. Kids go home, excited from an active day on camp, and tell their parents all about the ten plagues, or show them a handmade Chanukiah, encouraging the older generation to remember and be proud of their Judaism in a country where many are shy of it. But the biggest gift we can give Belarus is community. As a non-Jew I can say that Jews do community and youth leadership better, perhaps, than anyone else, and these are two things that the Soviet system and the current president have deprived Belarus of. It's a priviledge to work with The Together Plan.
Nick Trapp, 20, worked with The Together Plan in 2013. Read our feature on the programme here.