In our very fractious world, we are too often pre-occupied by the divisions and disagreements that separate people from each other.
This, though, is a story of a connection forged across time and over continents through the journey of a sefer Torah that traveled from Teaneck to Volgograd under the auspices of Project Kesher’s Torah Return project. It’s also the story of a friendship between two Jewish women developed through Skype conversations across thousands of miles. It is one of several such stories that have unfolded as Project Kesher has brought Torah scrolls to emergent Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union.
Those communities did not have Torah scrolls for their Shabbat and festive gatherings. Now at least some of them do.
For the past 10 months, one day each week, I have been juggling my schedule to make myself available across time zones for a one-hour session with Inna Motornaya. Inna lives in Volgograd, an ancient city 1,000 kilometers from Moscow in the southeastern, European part of Russia. The town is experiencing a rebirth of Jewish vitality and communal life. A Jewish community organizer, social activist, and Project Kesher leader, Inna has been the driving force to energize Jewish life in Volgograd, working since 2005 as the regional representative of Project Kesher in Russia. She has created 14 women’s groups and countless communal holiday and festival celebrations. Today, in Jewish communities in the regions of southern Russia and the Caucuses where her responsibilities extend, there are more than 500 volunteers who give 48,000 hours to the Jewish community.
Inna and I meet by Skype to practice English conversation and discuss articles of interest from a variety of publications. More important even than the language instruction is the warm relationship that we have developed through our weekly interactions. Inna and I have become long-distance friends.
Only recently, however, did it dawn on me that Inna would be connected personally to a Torah scroll that had made the long journey from Teaneck to Volvograd several years ago. I asked her to send us a photo and was very moved to see the evidence of our gift in the appreciative hands of the community’s leaders.
The way this Torah arrived in Volgograd reverberates back to Havurat Re’im, the egalitarian prayer group that a number of families whose children were students at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County instituted more than 35 years ago. There was not yet an egalitarian Conservative option in the area and we wanted to experience Shabbat together in an inclusive and participatory manner, so we proactively prepared biweekly services that met initially in people’s homes and backyards and eventually in a space in Temple Beth Am.
One of our members, a Jewish professional with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, found a sefer Torah in a Midwestern congregation that was closing and arranged to have it donated to the chavurah.
When Congregation Beth Sholom became an egalitarian congregation, most of the families in the chavurah joined, and so the chavurah no longer met for tefilla. For several years, the Torah scroll sat in a family’s home, secure and protected, but not in use.
Some time later, I learned about the work of Project Kesher, a progressive Jewish women’s organization, dedicated for the last 28 years to renewing Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. PK trains women to become agents of social change in their communities throughout the FSU. (For more information, go to www.projectkesher.org.)
On its website, Project Kesher explains why it launched the “Torah Return Project” by sketching out the region’s Jewish history. “Seventy years ago, Torah was exiled from Eastern Europe,” it says. “At first, the Torahs went underground; Jews passed them from house to house and met in basements to read the Torah. Then, faced with Siberia or death, they smuggled the scrolls out of the country. The practice of Judaism sputtered out in the region.”
The renewal of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union has led to a shortage of Torah scrolls. In June 2004, Project Kesher brought six Torahs from the United States and put them in the hands of six of their leaders, who brought them home to their communities. In most cases, there had not been a single Torah in those communities. Since then, Project Kesher has since sent 34 Torah scrolls to the region. Wherever they have gone, Jewish women and men have come forward to study, to become bar and bat mitzvah, and to celebrate Jewish festivals and Shabbat together.
Having learned about this initiative, I consulted with the members of Havurat Re’im, and we decided to donate our group’s Torah scroll to Project Kesher. We met for a morning shacharit service and created a farewell ceremony in the presence of representatives of Project Kesher. A new link in the generational chain between our community and this one was created when my daughter, Rabbi Tamara Ruth Cohen, participated in Project Kesher’s 2004 “Voyage on the Volga” and sent the chavurah’s Torah on its journey to Volgograd.
Recently, Inna and I had the wonderful opportunity to meet in person when I participated in an inspiring weeklong Project Kesher travel adventure to Moscow and Odessa. 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. On Shabbat morning, we engaged in text study led by a young and dynamic Project Kesher leader who lives and works in Israel, and experienced a joyful Torah service in the emergent liberal kehilla in Odessa.
That September Shabbat we read Parashat Ki Tavo. It is in that Torah portion that the farmers, bringing their first fruits to the kohanim, are commanded to recall the whole history of wandering, beginning with the familiar prayer that we read every year in the hagaddah that begins “My father was a wandering Aramean.” The prayer summarizes the historical basis of Jewish identity; it connects and unites all Jews across barriers of time and space. In the context of our Shabbat gathering for services in Odessa, this recounting of our historical experience was especially powerful, imbued with gratitude and personal meaning.
Many of us who joined together — Americans, Russians, and Ukrainians — share connections and family histories through past generations of our families, who lived and labored in difficult times, often in the same places. We felt bound to one another by our commitments to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people, wherever we live.
Elaine Shizgal Cohen, EdD, of Teaneck retired two years ago as the director of the Schecter Day School Network. Since then, she has been an active volunteer in the community, participating in the Global Justice Fellowship of AJWS in 2015, serving as a literacy tutor with Bergen Reads, and facilitating groups in the Wise Aging program.