Project Kesher: Supporting Jewish Life in Ukraine and the Former USSR

In the mid-1980s, nuclear disarmament was the focus of peace work with the Soviet Union and United States locked in a Cold War. In 1986, as hundreds of people walked from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., in the Great Peace March for Nuclear Disarmament, I joined the marchers in Cleveland. My focus was to reach out to Jewish community centers and synagogues along the route, to speak to the greater Jewish community about the need for global nuclear disarmament. My appreciation for the power of Jewish community was awakened.

In 1987, I participated in the International Peace Walk, in which both American and Soviet participants together walked from Leningrad to Moscow. At a time when the Soviet government forbade Jewish religious practice and education, I wore a silver Jewish star necklace each day, and word soon spread among locals that there was a Jew on the peace walk.

Over the course of the next two months, I continually met Soviet Jews who came up to me, timidly looking at the Magen David I was wearing around my neck, wondering why I wasn’t afraid to wear it. I explained that I had no concerns for my own safety wearing a Jewish symbol. That was an important message to convey to people who felt they needed to hide their Judaism. People approached me to tell me about the existence of Jews in the areas the Peace Walk was walking through. In the town of Solnechnogorsk, I met Svetlana Yakimenko along the way, an English teacher from a Moscow suburb whom I learned was Jewish. She knew nothing about her heritage, other than being identified as “Jewish” in her passport. A second peace walk took place the following summer in 1988, from Odessa to Kiev. Svetlana served as my key translator at the Friday-night services that I organized throughout the walk

In 1989, with Svetlana as my essential connection to the former Soviet Union, I founded Project Kesher (“Kesher” means “connection” in Hebrew), an organization created to bring Jewish renewal to the Soviet Jewish community—to the many Jews who wanted to remain in their country. This focus was in sharp contrast to the Soviet Jewry movement, which was focused on getting Jews out of the former Soviet Union and into Israel or the United States.

In 1991, my husband Alan was granted a Fulbright Fellowship to Kiev. We lived there for six months. I used that time to understand the culture of the Jewish community and to develop trusting relationships within the local Jewish population. Especially important was to focus on listening to what the expressed needs of the Jewish population before me were.

Following my six months in Kiev and countless trips back and forth to the former Soviet Union, I realized that something larger than just me was required to put Project Kesher (PK) on the map! And that “something” was the first International Conference of Jewish Women held in Kiev, Ukraine. This five-day gathering in May of 1994 brought together 100 women from across the former Soviet Union and 100 women from the United States and other non-Soviet countries. Within a year, conference participants began to organize local Jewish women’s groups in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. Project Kesher surely had been launched!

Over the past 30 years, Project Kesher has supported grassroots organizations in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia to develop Jewish women leaders whose focus is to build Jewish communities, promote women’s rights, and advocate for peace and civil society. With an estimated 250,000 to 1 million Jews remaining in the post-Soviet states and an increasingly fluid relationship with Israel (Jews from this region often move between countries), building strong Jewish identity and developing communal leadership is essential to the future of Jewish life.

The Jewish community in this region faces many challenges, including political unrest and conflict, the ongoing war, poverty and sexism. Often, women who are isolated and lack support believe that their problems, such as poverty or gender violence, are unique when really they are systemic. Without access to information, training and community, women can feel hopeless and helpless to change their lives. Bringing Jewish women together to strengthen their connection and communication, and to empower them as individuals and community leaders, Project Kesher sends them back to their hometowns confident and ready to make an impact. With Jewish values and gender equality as their compass, they motivate their community to improve the lives of women and girls.

Leading up to the escalation of the war in Ukraine in February 2022, Project Kesher had developed a strong grassroots network with 150-plus Jewish women’s groups, comprising more than 3,500 trained leaders and 90 interfaith coalitions, advancing Jewish life and civil society in Ukraine, Israel, Belarus and Russia. Project Kesher has evolved by asking women what they need and documenting the feedback. A recurring theme in their responses has been that — due to the conservative, patriarchal nature of the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches, and many of the more prominent Jewish communities in this region — younger people are moving away from religion, including young Jews. Young people are not finding that these institutions are responsive to their needs. This is especially true for young women and girls, who often report that they are not heard and have no power in their Jewish communities. Without an alternative, they are inclined to abandon Jewish traditions and cultural identity. In many ways, their situation is not that different from young Jews in the United States.

Yet post-Maidan (the Ukrainian revolution in 2014), young Jewish women leaders have emerged who want to embrace their changing society and propel it forward. If Judaism is to play a role in their lives, it is critical that it be one that supports their notion of free will and empowerment to improve their society. PK is a rare pluralist organization in the region, offering information about a wide spectrum of authentic Jewish life. PK presents pragmatic programs in which Jewish values inspire social activism. This link between spirituality and reality offers a vision that speaks to many young Jews in this region and, I believe, is a reflection of the values that I have found in Reconstructing Judaism.

Since Russia escalated its attacks, Project Kesher Ukraine (PKU) has shifted from its primary focus on leadership development to humanitarian support. The well-trusted reputation that the PK network had earned through years of grassroots work meant that PK was prepared to facilitate communications with Ukrainians in need and emergency humanitarian aid at the start of the war. In the first three months of war, PKU provided food and medicine for 30,000 people, distributed cash support of more than $110,000 and facilitated some 9,000 evacuations. Project Kesher Israel took on a major role in settling Ukrainian immigrants and providing for their immediate medical, mental health, legal and educational needs.

Most recently, PKU has been delivering generators to Jewish and frontline communities across Ukraine, purchasing production supplies for women entrepreneurs all over the country who are expanding, rebuilding or relocating their businesses; providing thousands of hygiene kits to Ukrainian women, children and soldiers; sending 30 tons of food per week to recently liberated cities for 10 weeks; and continuing to build Jewish life by bringing communities together during the holidays and, most recently, translating Jewish prayers and the Haggadah into Ukrainian. (Project Kesher had originally only used Russian-language translations.) The translation of the Haggadah into Ukrainian was purposely designed to help Ukrainian Jews honor their heritage as they observed the Passover holiday. It includes contemporary commentaries and original sketches inspired by Ukraine’s ongoing fight against the Russian invasion, bringing new meaning and relevance to the Passover story.

Project Kesher Israel has been providing direct financial assistance and language classes to hundreds of Ukrainian immigrants, including many single mothers and mothers whose children are hospitalized; running seven new women’s groups for immigrants in six cities; hosting seminars for new immigrants around Jewish education, emotional support, financial literacy, career building, art therapy and feminism; inviting hundreds of women to participate in study tours; encouraging them to build community, visit new cities and learn about Israel; and helping 400-plus LGBTQ+ immigrants access legal support and apply for citizenship and benefits.

It’s important to emphasize that PK’s work in Belarus and Russia continues with leadership training for Jewish teens and adult women, year-round Jewish holiday programs, reproductive-health initiatives and gender-violence education. While the risks to the participants in these programs have risen as their governments have become increasingly repressive, PK remains committed to ensuring this lifeline of Jewish and feminist programming, and providing the funds for its implementation. Just as we continued to reach out to Jews in these countries during the Free Soviet Jewry era, we must remain connected to them now.

I am proud that so many from the Reconstructionist movement have chosen to support PK over the years; I believe that it is because we share so many of the same values. Like Reconstructing Judaism, “we help build thriving Jewish communities, empower individuals to lead lives of deeper meaning and purpose … and work to bring about a more just and sustainable world.” PK is not a large organization making decisions from abroad, but rather, a women’s organization that works from values shared with local leaders who, through our connection, are empowered with skills and knowledge of resources and thus are able to respond quickly to the evolving needs in their own communities.

Today, those who support PK continue to invest in the future of Jewish life, women’s rights and civil society in the countries where we work. Our supporters also invest in a network of women who know where resources are needed and can respond on the spot. For instance, when Dnepr, Ukraine (a major Jewish community) was bombed, PKU immediately recognized that food and clothing were being collected and distributed by many groups. Within 12 hours, PKU and our partners put up a large tent with two generators and made a $9,000 grant to a group of realtors who committed to retrofitting an office building to house 200 displaced people within 48 hours. This effective collaboration provided a lifeline to the displaced people. When one of our doctor partners entered newly liberated Kherson and found the hospital lacking an ultrasound for the many pregnant women who had been trapped in the city, PKU was able to locate an ultrasound and deliver it to the hospital within the week. In Israel, as reports continue that Ukrainian women refugees are being physically and sexually abused, PKI convened a working group including a rape crisis center, a domestic violence center, legal clinics, the LGBTQ+ center and health-care providers to come up with a coordinated response. The needs of the Jewish community and the larger Ukrainian community are daunting, and the PK network is well positioned to ensure that resources are directed effectively, consistent with our values.

The grassroots network that was created at Project Kesher’s founding in 1989 to support Jewish renewal in the former Soviet Union serves today as a lifeline to the Ukrainian Jewish and non-Jewish community.

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