Last Wednesday, a Jewish retiree was killed in the eastern Ukraine city of Donetsk when shells fired by pro-Russian insurgents hit her home.
Over 300,000 Jews live in Ukraine. To see how they are responding since my previous contact with them in November, I contacted Project Kesher, an organization active in helping women in the region restore their Jewish identity that also provides training in leadership and social activism towards building a civil society. (Full disclosure: This is an organization that I support and have taught for overseas and in the U.S.) Their executive director Karyn Gershon responded:
I just returned from Israel, where I saw several Project Kesher leaders from eastern Ukraine who have made aliyah [immigrated to Israel]. I was really moved to know that they left the support of the Project Kesher network in Ukraine and arrived immediately into the arms of the Project Kesher network in Israel. Those who live in the rest of Ukraine are worried about family and friends throughout the country who have been harmed by the war. But, they have not expressed any interest in leaving. They remain perpetually optimistic, but realistic, about the will of Europe and the U.S. to stabilize their country and work for a peaceful resolution.
Activist Torah Study Leads to Response-Ability
At a Project Kesher briefing for supporters in late November, we learned about their “activist Torah study” approach, which has inspired Eastern European Jewish women to make caring visits to displaced Ukrainian refugees, as well as to hold tolerance-building meetings between Russian and Ukrainians. When Torah is this fulfilling, the yearning to hold and have a kosher Torah scroll within your community becomes a value. Project Kesher also organizes used Torahs for their groups to share in their communities.
Irina Skaliankina is a resident of Tula, Russia who heads Project Kesher’s Beit Binah “Text to Activism” program of Jewish learning and living. “Everything we do is because of Torah,” she said. “Torah inspires our lives and supports us through painful times.”
Skaliankina was holding reconditioned Torah, an extra one that had been sitting unused in the ark, gifted from an American congregation to a town in her region. She hugged the Torah in her arms with passion born of experiencing the love that comes from such learning.
Vlada Bystrova Nedak is a Project Kesher activist and resident of Krivoy Rog, Ukraine, a city of 80,000 where she estimates 12,000 Jewish reside, with about half active in the Jewish communnity. She stood to Skaliankina’s left, also holding a Torah similarly destined, when described how Irina’s ability to use stories from Torah and other Jewish sacred sources to help her spirits when challenging times get her down.
Ignoring “Us” and “Them”
Skliankina demonstrated the current Text to Activism model during a break out session. First she brought everyone’s fullness of spirit into the room in a manner rich in grace and enthusiasm, asking us, “What does shalom mean to you?”
Our answers included “Hello, goodbye and peace” and went beyond to include “wholeness”, “equanimity,” “a worldwide condition of safe, respectful, inclusive living for all” and more. Only then, did she turn to the text (translated here):
Our sages taught that the creation of the first human as a solitary being was to show the greatness of God. For when a human prints many coins from one mold, they are all alike, but the Holy One, blessed Be, imprints humans so that not one resembles the other.
— Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 38a
Skliankina asked, “What do you take from this?” Her simple invitation to share from our hearts led to ripples of growing, shared understanding.
We understood the passage to mean each human is intentionally created a unique individual. This requires us to respect and care for each other regardless of “we” or “them”; to appreciate that no one human is inherently more loved by “God” from birth than any other. We understood that wherever in the spectrum of gender, race or health, we are each given our unique divine imprint.
This imprint, it was suggested, might feel less like a printing press and more like the imprint of a divine kiss of life, just as midrash, Jewish commentary, describes the death of Moses as God taking his soul away with a kiss. Or that God could be understood as our source code, which is shared by all of us, leading to our experience of the unity of all being; and unique to all of us, giving life meaning as we work for a kind, inclusive world. Irina’s text study reinforced our activism for the good of all. Afterward, there was vocal resistance to the idea of “all.”
The program for the day continued with a trip to the Ukrainian Museum in Manhattan. On the buses, some questioned why: “Didn’t they hate us and kill us? Don’t they still? Why give any credibility or attention to that culture?”
The Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls taught that resistance is where the greatest potential for growth exists. The Ukrainian Museum was its own answer. At every turn, the ways in which Jewish and Ukrainian cultural traditions are interwoven were made manifest: the braided bread for greeting guests, the sacred embroidery on garments carrying meaning for leaving, the fabric with symbols that was hung beside doorways much as a mezuzah is, the matchmaker traditions, and more.
The respectful docent, who had advanced education, patiently and brilliantly took us through the exhibition. She was born in the Carpathian Mountains, and felt like a full landswoman. So much is possible when fears are relaxed and communication and understanding commence. Project Kesher had worked its magic again.