Fulfilling our promise, fulfilling their promise: Helping the Jews of the FSU

Fulfilling our promise, fulfilling their promise: Helping the Jews of the FSU

Avi Naiman and Lisa Beth Meisel

The halls at State School #13′ in Minsk, Belarus, are dim and stark; the walls are bare and the principal flicks lights on — and off again behind us — as we tour the facilities. Children scamper back behind closed doors when they see us and stand at attention when we peek into classrooms. A mere glance from the headmistress at a cupboard door left ajar is sufficient to send a student scurrying to the back of the class to shut it.

And then we turned the corner into the Bialik school-within-a-school, where ’75 students with Jewish backgrounds receive seven extra hours of lessons each week in Hebrew language, Jewish history, literature, and geography; where the hallways are adorned with the words to Hatikva, Shabbat announcements, and remnants of the recent Yom Ha’Atzmaut celebrations; where Israeli flags hang in the classrooms and the walls sport maps of Israel; where third- and fourth graders understand questions posed in Hebrew, and the high-school students are conversationally fluent.

This was the first of many signs we were to see of the Jewish revival blossoming in the major cities throughout the former Soviet Union, where, for so many years, it was illegal for parents to teach their children about their Jewish heritage. The sad result is that Judaism has all but skipped a generation in the FSU: while grandparents attending a communal bar and bat mitzvah celebration of 67 youths were openly joyous at the return of rituals they themselves had once celebrated, many of the children’s parents, having never learned about the ceremony, seemed like bystanders, proud of their children but detached and bemused.

Funding for Jewish renewal programming in the FSU comes from Jewish communities such as ours. However, like other examples we would witness doing our week-long visit to Minsk and St. Petersburg, it quickly became clear that the renaissance is only just beginning and the need to expand programming is great. For example, School #13′ is the only government-supported Jewish track in all of Belarus and, even within the city of Minsk, many students live too far away to attend. Furthermore, for most students, the seven hours a week of extra classes are their only exposure to Hebrew and Judaism.

But the thirst for Jewish knowledge and connection is clearly evident, beginning with what is often the first exposure they have to Judaism: a 10-day summer camp, run by the Jewish Agency for Israel, that crams in as much "Jewishness" as possible. As Natasha, a teenager attending a public non-Jewish high-school told us: "Everything I know about Judaism, I learned at camp." She then joined with dozens of other students in a spirited Lag B’Omer dance celebration.

This pattern of Jewish revival continues at the Minsk Hillel — funded through a grant from the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey — where some 400 college students from throughout the city have a home for Shabbat services, Jewish heritage expeditions, volunteer activities, and leadership training. For many, it is their only exposure to other Jews, in a country where intermarriage has now reached 80 percent. As Uri put it, "I thought I was the only Jew at school — until I found Hillel."

We also learned about the dire needs in the peripheral villages, where many elderly Jews live on their own. For some, their only link to other humans comes when the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee delivers food packages and medications, without which they could not survive. As one Chesed Mobile recipient told us, "Your support makes the difference between merely staying alive and living."

For many American Jews, the FSU is our ancestry. The Jewish agencies that have sprung up over the past 15 years to provide services to the million Jews still living there mirror the agencies we have built up in our own communities: Chesed Mobile is our Meals on Wheels; Adain Lo is our Jewish Association for Developmentally Disabled; Jewish Family Outreach Centers are our Jewish Family Services.

Whether social services for the needy or Jewish revival for the next generation, we can be very proud of what we have accomplished in the FSU, while recognizing how much more there is to do. In fact, UJA-NNJ is currently participating in a nation-wide campaign called Operation Promise. One portion of this campaign is designed to build on the successes in the FSU by raising additional funds to increase Jewish identity programming, stem the tide of intermarriage, and support the elderly in dignity. (The campaign also supports efforts for Ethiopian immigration to and resettlement in Israel.)

This is a place where we’re both saving and growing Jews, where we’re fulfilling our promise to them and helping them fulfill their promise as Jews.