Ukrainian Jewish Women Undertake Urgent Activism

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

Project Kesher organizes used Torahs for their groups to share in their communities.

Project Kesher organizes used Torahs for their groups to share in their communities.

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.”

IrinaVlada

Irina Skaliankina (left) and Vlada Bystrova Nedak.

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.

Veterans Day: Americans Visit Israel To Thank IDF Soldiers


FIDF supporters from the Ohio Region on the FIDF National Mission to Israel, standing next to one of the airplanes that participated in the attack of the Iraqi nuclear base in the 80’s. Photo credit Einav Rimon

TEL AVIV- November 11, 2012 – Over 50 prominent Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) lay leaders and supporters from the United States embarked on a unique seven-day journey to Israel as part of the FIDF National Mission to Israel to show their appreciation and support for Israel’s soldiers. The delegation arrived in Tel Aviv last Sunday, November 4th, 2012.

The FIDF mission, which was primarily aimed at acquainting participants with the IDF and its brave men and women in uniform, provided participants with the opportunity to spend time with IDF soldiers on various military bases across Israel. The group met with soldiers from several elite IDF bases, including the Machva Alon Educational base and the famous Nevatim Air Force base, where they met F-16 pilots. Mission participants were also given a special tour of the Gaza Border Region.

The group met with several top-level government and IDF officials, including the IDF Chief of the General Staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, at his official Briefing Room, and Lt. Gen. (Res.) Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon, Israel’s Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Strategic Affairs, and the IDF’s 17th Chief of the General Staff.

More after the jump.


FIDF supporters at an IDF Air Force Base. Photo credit: Einav Rimon.

“The Friends of the IDF delegation which has embarked on this important journey to Israel signifies the deeply rooted connection between the Jewish people, the State of Israel, and the brave soldiers who serve to protect it,”

said FIDF National Director and CEO, Maj. Gen. (Res.) Yitzhak (Jerry) Gershon.

This extraordinary mission to Israel culminated with a special FIDF ceremony, saluting the IDF commanders, at the Palmachim Air Force base. Hundreds of soldiers, FIDF supporters, and members of the IDF general staff, including IDF Chief of the General Staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, came together for an evening of celebration of and gratitude for Israel’s soldiers and the hard work they endure to protect the Jewish homeland and its people around the world.

Among the mission participants were FIDF National Chairman, Nily Falic; FIDF National Director and CEO, Maj. Gen. (Res.) Yitzhak (Jerry) Gershon; and FIDF National President, Julian Josephson.

FIDF Mission participants with IDF soldiers on a base in the South of Israel.

Friends of the IDF: Having An Impact and Changing Lives

— by Ronit Treatman

Have you ever wondered what people talk about in a bomb shelter during a war?  I found out in 1973.   The Yom Kippur War was raging around me.  My father was away, fighting on the Syrian front. In the middle of the night, the air raid sirens were sounded.  My mother, brother, and I stumbled down the stairs to the bomb shelter of our building.  Our neighbors were having a tempestuous discussion about the stupidity of the design of our air raid retreat.  One neighbor had the last word when he commented, “even if we survive a direct hit, our building’s propane tank is here with us.  It will explode, killing us instantly!”  I sat with them, watching over my infant brother and thinking about my dad.  We had no way to communicate with him.  I also thought about another neighbor who was on the front, a fighter pilot.  The next day we got the terrible news: our fighter pilot had been shot down.  He was killed in action.  His father, Albert, owned the grocery store on our street.  I adored Albert!  One month later, his grocery store was locked, and a notice had been glued to the door.  Albert had died.  “Of a broken heart,” I was told.  “Once his son died, he had nothing to live for anymore.”  At that moment, my five-year-old heart shattered as well.  I never forgot Albert or his brave son.  A few months later the Yom Kippur War ended, and my family was sent to Venezuela.

More after the jump.
Thirteen years later, I left my family behind, and flew fifteen hours from Venezuela to Israel.  I did this so I could volunteer to serve in the IDF as a Lone Soldier.  At the concluding ceremony of my basic training, tears rolled down my cheeks as I swore over my Uzi machine gun and Torah to protect the State of Israel.  Albert and his son were in my thoughts.

It has been twenty-four years since I was honorably discharged from my military duty.  I have been busy with studies, building a family, and living my life.  My oldest daughter, Devorah, was born and raised in Philadelphia.  This year, she spent a semester in Israel at the Alexander Muss High School.  It was a transformational experience!  “Everything I did was full of meaning and purpose!” she shared with me.  As a result, she has decided to volunteer to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.

Devorah will also be a Lone Soldier.  She will be in good company.  According to Major General (Ret.) Yitzhak (Jerry) Gershon, national director of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, last year there were 2,500 lone soldier volunteers in the IDF.  Forty percent of them came from North and South America, forty percent from the former Soviet Union, and the rest from Europe.  

As I proudly watch Devorah make her own choices and take off, I want to do something to help her and all the other soldiers in Israel.  What can I do when I live in Philadelphia?  I can support them through the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. The FIDF is an American nonprofit organization whose mission is to help Israeli soldiers, and the families of fallen soldiers.  It is a community of Zionists who are passionate about Israel.  

The FIDF supports bereaved families by sponsoring summer camps, trips, workshops, and gifts for widows and orphans.  Lone Soldiers are helped with FIDF sponsored flights home to visit their family.  IDF soldiers who serve in combat units and demonstrate financial need are offered scholarships for a college education in Israel.  The FIDF is paying for medical training in its IDF Medical School.  Clubs, libraries, gyms, canteens, synagogues, and well-being centers are being built by the FIDF for soldiers to enjoy during their military service.

Our local Philadelphia chapter of the FIDF just elected its first board.  There are many opportunities to be a part of this community.  The FIDF is the perfect organization for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah project.  The Young Leadership Division is appropriate for college graduates.  It is a great place for those who enjoyed the Birthright program, and wish to maintain and strengthen their connection to Israel. During the course of the year the FIDF sponsors opportunities to meet with Israeli soldiers, enjoy IDF musical ensemble performances, gala dinners, and missions to Israel.  You can check their website to see what appeals to you most.  I intend to become very involved in this organization.  I invite you join me.