The rising senior has been selected to travel to Odessa, Ukraine, June 3-7 as part of a goodwill contingent that will administer a sports and wellness clinic to Jewish youth at Tikva Children’s Home.
“When this opportunity was presented to me, immediately I knew it was something I really wanted to do and couldn't pass up,” Pearl said. “When they told me I'd be working with young Jewish children who are impoverished and underprivileged there was no hesitation — I knew I wanted to do it.
“I have a feeling when I go over there, (the children) will have more of an impact on my life than I’ll have on theirs.”
During his trip to Ukraine, Steven Pearl will maintain a daily blog at UTsports.com.
“As his coach and his father, I continue to be proud of the job that Steven is doing on and off the court,” UT head coach Bruce Pearl said. “Basketball has opened up a lot of doors for him and has given him a number of opportunities to blend basketball with faith and service.”
Tikva's core mission is to care for the homeless, abandoned and abused Jewish children of Odessa. The organization provides those children with a loving home, essential social services, a first-rate education in the environs of a revitalized Jewish community and an opportunity for a brighter future through immigration to Israel.
“Tikva has grown to include three homes, two university dormitories (that house underprivileged Jewish youth), an elderly feeding program, continuing education programs — basically an entire network of community-based social services,” said Emily Lehrman, a Tikva staffer based out of the organization’s New York satellite office.
Next month’s youth sports clinic — part of an ongoing partnership between Tikva and Maccabi USA — will place a heavy emphasis on exercise and general wellness while also providing instruction on basketball, which is tremendously popular among children in Eastern Europe.
“The kids in Odessa actually try to follow American basketball,” Lehrman said. “They follow the sport as best they can through various publications and magazines.”
Odessa is a port city on the Black Sea in the formerly communist region of the USSR. In 1991, after the collapse of Communism in the region, the city became part of newly independent Ukraine.
In 1993, Rabbi Shlomo Baksht arrived in Odessa with hopes of reviving Jewish life there — more than 25,000 Jews were forced into concentration camps and murdered in Odessa and surrounding towns from 1941 and 1942.
Steven Pearl has previously witnessed the grim reminders of The Holocaust firsthand, as the Tennessee basketball team visited Terezin Concentration Camp in the Czech Republic during an exhibition trip to Europe in the summer of 2007.
“Visiting the Terezin Concentration Camp was really an eye-opener for me because it showed what my people had to go through for us to have the freedoms that we have today,” Steven Pearl said. “Reading about (the Odessa massacre) just gave me even more motivation to want to go over there and do something decent out of respect for all of those whose lives were taken away for no good reason.
“I know what I'm doing is very minor, but it’s something that is very common among the Jewish people. We give back to others, and that’s what I want to do on this trip.”
Shortly after his arrival in Odessa in the early 1990s, Rabbi Baksht established a small Jewish school there and utilized educational and social programming to reach and mend the city’s dwindling Jewish community. While working toward that goal, he discovered the plight of hundreds of local Jewish children suffering abuse and neglect, living on the streets or confined to bleak and often cruel institutional settings. In response, he secured an apartment, removed six Jewish children from a state orphanage and created a children’s home, the nucleus of what has come to be Tikva.
What started as a small community outreach program has improved the lives of more than 3,000 men, women and children. Since 2002, the number of children served by Tikva's programs has doubled, and the number of children living in Tikva's homes has almost quadrupled.
This will be Steven Pearl’s fourth basketball-related international experience.
“Basketball has opened my life up to more opportunities than I ever could have imagined,” he said. “I have traveled to Australia, Europe, Israel, and now I will be going to Russia all because of basketball. When I started playing, I had no idea I would travel to this many places and experience so many amazing things. The sport of basketball has made me into a better person, and I’m forever grateful to all the people who have helped me along the way.”
A gift-supported, not-for-profit 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization, Tikva relies on contributions from individuals, corporations, foundations and government agencies to support its activities. To donate, or for more information, visit www.tikvaodessa.org.