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Minsk!

Shalom (peace and greetings) from Minsk again. I've been here just over a week, and have only now been able to sit down for a few minutes to process re-entry.

I left Newark on the 11th and arrived in Minsk (via Frankfurt and Vienna) on the evening of the 12th of November. The Minsk airport -- with air heated only by cigarette smoke, but then rechilled by the looks on the faces of the soldiers and customs officials -- is hardly my favourite place in the world. But, unlike my first arrival in Minsk almost two years ago, I could talk with my customs officer this time. She briefly looked over my mountain of luggage and released me into Belarus.

The Minsk congregation has some kind of meeting nearly every night, so the night of my arrival I had a quick dinner with the Winograds (the missionaries who lead the congregation -- my current bosses) and then we headed to that night's meeting.

I had landed in the midst of a week-long seminar by Messianic Jewish Rabbi Jamie Cowen (of Richmond, VA) about the history of the Jewish people. The normal congregational meeting schedule had been suspended to allow us to have classes every evening. For every session, about 50-60 folks from the congregation, hungry for the history, sat taking notes as fast as they could.

One of the questions discussed at the seminar was: How did a movement that started out as a Jewish sect turn into something that was so radically anti-Jewish for so many centuries... and sometimes still is? I wonder how many of us know the answers to this question. I thought I had a pretty good grasp on it, but was surprised at some aspects of it. For the students in the room with me much of the information was brand new.

The course was a bit shocking to me sometimes. I knew that there was a list of atrocities and lies against Jews throughout history, but had never heard or read firsthand accounts of such things, nor did I realise how widespread and multifaceted antisemitism has been. I was amazed at the different ways God protected the Jewish people through so many attempts to destroy them.

Antisemitism is no joke in Belarus. Another quick history lesson for those of you who haven't heard it already: This was part of the "Pale of Settlement" instituted by the Tsars; after Jews fled from persecution in Western and Central Europe, they were forcibly settled in Belarus, Ukraine, and Poland, away from the centers of Russian power and nationalism. Pogroms and then the Holocaust took a huge toll. Now that Soviet authorities are no longer hiding it, it's become clear that about 800,000 Jews perished during the Holocaust in Belarus alone. There was at least one concentration camp in Minsk, and Minsk and the other major Belarusian cities had ghettos. My landlady's father evaded the Nazis and joined the Partisans -- guerilla fighters -- and she's quite sure that he would not have lived otherwise.

The Soviet era here was no friend to Jewish people either, just as it was no friend to any people of faith... And now the Belarusian government is still holding on to Jewish synagogues throughout the country that were seized during that period. Neonazism also has recently been on the rise in Belarus. It's normal to see swastikas and various neonazi slogans on elevator walls or stairwells of apartment buildings. Last night our youth had a prayer meeting in one of the parks, and a few of the youth ran into some skinheads. What to do? We walked around the park and prayed.

So, in a desperate attempt to lighten things up a bit in this email, I would like to note that we were walking around the park and praying.

This is interesting on two counts. First, the recently-passed law about "religious freedom" does not say anything against informal outdoor prayer meetings. Though we still don't know how the laws about meetings in private homes will be enforced, the youth of this congregation have been having several outdoor prayer meetings this summer and fall. Every Tuesday and Thursday they get together early in the morning in a city park to pray, and last night we did it in the evening. They're discreet meetings because they are still in a legal grey area, but it will be very difficult for anyone to stop a bunch of kids from getting together in the park and praying, or walking arm-in-arm down the street calmly praying and singing worship songs.

The second interesting item about this is that it's November, and it's Minsk. There should be several inches of ice and snow on the ground, and a wind that doesn't let us stay outside for long before we start to lose feeling in our extremities. That was what it felt like for my first day or so here, but lately we've been having a surprising warm spell. A few days ago it was actually warmer in Minsk than in Philadelphia, according to weather.com. The warm spell has actually lasted for nearly a week now, long enough for all the snow to melt... and it was even dry enough for a while there that the mud solidified!

This is a very big deal.

For me, it has made re-entry several times easier, because it's much easier to recall the streets and intricacies of a city when every step doesn't have to be a trudge. I'm sure I'll have to break out the MWW (Minsk Winter Walk) again soon, but for now I'm enjoying the solid ground.

The other major readjustment, of course, has been the language. Thanks to all who have been praying about this. On my first day or so I was a little taken aback by just how much Russian I had forgotten, but it quickly came back and I'm now about where I was before I left here in January, and am even picking up some new words and phrases. My mind is constantly working on it, but it's been fun.

The night I arrived and said all my hellos, several people mentioned that it was as if I had never left. I do keep getting that feeling. I know I have changed a lot since January (for the better, I dare to think), and it's clear that most here have grown a lot too. There are also a lot of new faces. But even with the new folks, I feel like I never stopped being a part of this congregation.

So, all in all, readjustment hasn't actually been much of an adjustment. Again, thanks for your prayers.

I'm living with a lady from the congregation (Tamara) and her young son (Dima), so I have a younger teenaged "brother" who's a groovy kid (though of course no-one could replace Zach). I wanted a better taste of Belarusian life, and I'm definitely getting it... The smell of boiled cabbage is almost always in the flat, there are three mirrors in the entryway (so that you can make sure you look fabulous before going out into the wind, and guests can make sure they look fabulous before eating your cabbage), and things tend to be old and cracked, but usable. My room is small but I found room for all my stuff, and I even get a little desk for working on my computer.

So, one more story before I go. Somehow, my laptop (which is my primary tool for much of the work I'll be doing here) lost function in the Delete and Down keys while I was flying over here. I discovered this just after arriving, and had horrible flashbacks of January 2001, when I couldn't even turn my computer on once I arrived in Minsk! (For those of you who don't know, the computer I had last time I was here was a challenge all year -- check out laptop. That machine seemed to be held together with bubblegum, and interestingly ceased working completely once I returned to the USA, just after I transferred my files to my desktop there.

A couple of weeks before leaving the USA, I had found a great deal on eBay (of course) and bought a new laptop. Everything had worked wonderfully until I landed in Minsk! The last thing I wanted was for computer adventures similar to last time around. After I tried a few things to get the keys to work, to no avail, I told a friend here about it. She told me to pray over the keys. I realised that (duh!) the machine last year practically ran on prayer, and always did end up working when I really needed it to. So I went home that night and prayed over the keys. I tried them again and nothing happened. The next time I turned the machine on was the next evening. I had been struggling through the step-by-step instructions (in Russian) for my internet account setup for about fifteen minutes before I realised that I had been using both the Delete and Down keys freely the whole time. They both continue to work perfectly.

So, again, thanks for praying in whatever area you're praying. The Winograds have given me the initial list of my projects, and some of them are rather big projects, so, well, it'll be fun. Ooga booga! (For some reason they look at me funny when I say that here...?)

- 21 November 2002

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