Sometimes you hear stories with so many coincidences that you find yourself saying “wow” at regular intervals. You conclude, finally, that some things were simply meant to be.
Take the case of Dr. Elaine Shizgal Cohen of Teaneck and Inna Motornaya of Volgograd.
Some things are easily explained, like the friendship they have developed over the past several years through Skype sessions in which Dr. Cohen tutors Ms. Motornaya in English.
“At the beginning, I was just trying to engage in conversation,” said Dr. Cohen, a longtime Jewish educator. “She’s a very intelligent woman. She likes to read and discuss ideas. So I would find an article in the news that might be of interest and make up exercises.”
The two women connected through Project Kesher, which has an active presence in both New York and the former Soviet Union. Its work in the FSU encompasses a large area, including Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and other neighboring countries.
Project Kesher gives “women and girls the tools to change themselves and their society,” says its website. “We invest in leadership training, in pilot projects, and in technology that allows volunteers anywhere in this vast region to replicate projects on any scale.”
“Kesher offers an alternative to Chabad in terms of another approach to Jewish life in the former Soviet Union,” Dr. Cohen said. “It’s progressive, involving mothers and daughters, retreats, some Jewish learning, and working with other ethnic groups.” In addition, “They’re involved in important women’s work, such as health care education and breast cancer screening. That’s not widely done throughout the FSU.”
Project Kesher women in each locality conceive, design, and implement their own programs, because, the organization believes, they are the ones who best understand the needs of their communities. One of those women is Ms. Motornaya, and she is eager to improve her English, to better interact with English-speaking visitors. “I give her an assignment, she reads and prepares, and — having trained as an engineer — she is very motivated to get the right answers,” Dr. Cohen said.
Dr. Cohen learned about the group through her daughter Tamara, who participated in Project Kesher’s 2004 Voyage on the Volga. During that trip, part of the organization’s Torah Return Project, the American delegation delivered six Torahs from the United States to six Project Kesher leaders in the FSU, who in turn brought them home to their communities.
One of those Torahs had belonged to Havurat Re’im, an egalitarian prayer group created some 35 years ago by families whose children attended the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County. There was not an egalitarian Conservative synagogue in the area back then. When the minyan outlived its usefulness and disbanded, its members decided to donate their Torah to Kesher. Tamara — now Rabbi Tamara Ruth Cohen — was one of the people who delivered the Torahs. She brought with her a copy of a photograph taken in her living room before her bat mitzvah.
“I brought a copy of the picture with me because I wanted them to know the story of the Torah and how much it meant to me and my community to be passing it on,” she said. Because she was not allowed to read Torah at a synagogue for her bat mitzvah, “the Torah was central to my own development as a Jew because I read from it on Shabbat morning at my bat mitzvah in the gym of the public school across from the Teaneck Jewish Center, where we were members. The cover of the Torah is one that we got in an auction at the National Havurah Institute one year. I feel it was amazing to get to share a Torah that had enabled me to become bat mitzvah with a community that now needed women [in the FSU] to have access to a Torah.”
Coincidence number 1:
The Havurat Re’im Torah went to Ms. Motornaya’s community.
Coincidence number 2:
The Cohen’s family photograph hangs on the wall of Ms. Motornaya’s Volgograd community center. (Ms. Motornaya thinks she received the photo in 2010, but does not recall who gave it to her.)
Volgograd has about 5,000 Jews. “In the center of the city there is a synagogue and the community center of Chabad,” Ms. Motornaya said. “In 2001, we established a community center in the south of Volgograd. I am the chairman of the center,” which is for both men and women.
“There was no Torah scroll in our community,” she said. “It was a big Jewish dream.” In 2005, the dream came true. “During a trip along the Volga River with American friends, our community received a kosher Torah scroll. A few years later, we were given a photo of the Cohen family” — showing that same Torah.
She later learned from Elaine that the picture was taken in the Cohen living room in preparation for Tamara’s bat mitzvah. As it happened, Tamara had done some teaching in the community during her Project Kesher visit, and Ms. Motornaya was moved by her “professionalism and spiritual comfort.” Little wonder that Ms. Motornaya “was amazed and happy when I saw Elaine on the computer monitor.”
Over the years, the two women have become friends, exchanging pictures of their grandchildren and discussing their Jewish lives. “I sent Purim costumes to her grandchildren and a picture from my recent trip to Morocco,” Dr. Cohen said. “She goes to Israel once a year. She filed for a tourist visa to visit the States, but so far things are frozen.” The two women do not discuss politically controversial topics. Still, they’ve been able to determine that “we’re both favorable to a progressive perspective on many issues and supportive of women’s leadership.
“She’s still working full time,” Dr. Cohen said of her FSU counterpart. “Children and grandchildren are important to both of us, and she travels to Moscow to be with her son’s family. Her daughter just had a new baby. She also has a brother in Pittsburgh.”
Ms. Motornaya works full time for Project Kesher in the FSU. She coordinates 36 women’s groups in 32 cities, which, in her own words, “requires a lot of time.”
She has been recognized for it. On November 2, she received an award from the governor of the Volgograd region for her contribution to the strengthening of interethnic harmony, trust, and mutual respect among the representatives of the peoples living in the region. “I was the only woman among the 15 male leaders of national communities,” she said. “Of course, this award is not only mine, but the whole project team Kesher.”
Dr. Cohen also has become increasingly active in the organization, and she has participated in several of its trips. In 2016, she was able to meet Ms. Motornaya in person during a trip to Moscow and Odessa.
As she wrote then for the Jewish Standard, “We embraced each other warmly and took part in a moving Torah return ceremony in the Progressive Synagogue in Moscow, which was filled with dancing and song. We met with local change-makers and leading activists on issues of gender equality, women’s health, domestic violence, and interfaith and interethnic tolerance, participated in tours of Jewish memory and historical interest, and sang ‘oseh shalom’ at a gathering at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”
Dr. Cohen said her connection to Kesher, and especially to Ms. Motornaya, has enhanced her life. “We always gain from new relationships and engagement with people whose life experience is different from our own.” In addition, getting back into the mode of teaching has made her feel energized. “I can still do this,” she said. “That’s a definite benefit.”
She does find it surprising that people can develop friendships through Skype,” she added. While she expected the interchange to be “task-focused, we express warm feelings toward each other and she blows a kiss after each conversation.”
And what has Ms. Motornaya gained? Not only has she found a new friend, but “I get information about people’s lives in America. I see the difference and the commonality between our countries. And the main thing is the love for your loved ones and the desire to live in peace. I tell my friends about our meetings. This is very important today, when the geopolitical situation between our countries is not very good. Communication with Elaine expanded my views, my thinking. Now I believe less in the media and more in human relationships.
“With Elaine, we have common main themes: We are Jewish, we are mothers, we are grandmothers, we love our families very much. We also love music, painting, and traveling. The main difference between us is that I don’t know English well. But with Elaine’s help, I’m moving forward with hope and God’s help. And the better I know the language, the more we learn about each other.”