Kiev, 1994

From May 22 through 29, 1994, 300 Jewish women from all over the world met in Kiev to “reconnect for the first time,” at an international conference of Jewish women. Approximately 200 came from small towns and provinces in Ukraine and Russia; including Siberia and Birobidzan. The women from the “West” were primarily from the U.S., plus representatives from Israel, England, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Switzerland.

Sponsored by Project Kesher, a grassroots organization created by Illinois social worker Sallie Gratch to help buttress Jewish identity in the former Soviet Union, the conference fostered networks and established ties between women from the former Soviet Union (FSU) and Jewish women from the West.

The women of the FSU, who had never seen such a large gathering of Jews, let alone of Jewish women, reported feeling astonishment, expectation, and, uncomfortably for some of us, gratitude. Many Western participants traced their family to areas represented by delegates from the FSU; my own maternal grandparents came from Kiev and Dubno, in the Ukraine.

The conference bore witness to the Jewish reclamation that has already taken place in Russia. Two professional young Russian singers, dressed in tightfitting sequined gowns, performed a medley of Yiddish favorites, including the Sophie Tucker classic, “My Yiddishe Mama.” The program was a hodgepodge—within the overblown conventions of old Yiddish theater. Yet that such a show could play in Kiev at all would have been inconceivable even a few years ago. Another emblematic moment came during Shabbat services, when Sophie, granddaughter of the Rabbi of Kiev (one of the first Jews killed at Babi Yar) sang the Shema, which she had just learned at the conference.

Jewish renewal in the former Soviet Union is not without contradictions. Anti- Semitism came up repeatedly in the druzhba (small friendship group) I attended. In the workshop I led, participants were asked to name one experience that made them proud to be Jewish. None of the women from the FSU could name such an incident. To the contrary, all told of discrimination, prejudice and threats. A distinguished professional woman in her early 60s related a 1991 incident, when all Jews in her town received letters saying, “Leave the city or you will be killed this evening.” The letters oddly told recipients to put candles in their windows, so that their homes could be identified as Jewish. “We didn’t know what to do, where to go,” the woman revealed, trembling as she relived the incident. The next day, fearing retribution, she beseeched the druzhba participants never to repeat her name, or the name of the town.

One druzhba focused on entrepreneurship; other druzhbas concentrated on providing curriculum materials. Some Western participants hoped to link their communities with sister cities in the FSU. Project Kesher plans to pair regional coordinators from the FSU with Western coordinators to implement such ideas. The “connections” have begun.

by Joyce Antler

My mother and I were one of 16 pairs of mothers and daughters in Kiev. The first evening, those of us who arrived early lit two Shabbat candles anchored to Pepsi bottles; I knew this was going to be a different kind of journey and a different kind of Jewish conference. As we sang the blessings, I felt a yearning for those who hadn’t lived to see Judaism rekindled in this land. Everything in the room, from the frayed lace tablecloths to beets and stern waiters, called on me to believe that I was really here in the Ukraine, the former capital of anti- Semitism, blessing Shabbat.

All the women who came to the conference were busy people used to long days teaching piano or university level literature, writing manuscripts or law briefs, taking care of children and parents, and shopping for vegetables. For all of us the conference was also a respite, an opportunity to sing beyond midnight with sisters and cousins from Israel and Byelorus, California and Johannesburg.

Beyond hand-me-down memories, what the women from the former Soviet Union knew about being Jewish was the stamp in their passports. We heard lectures on Zionism, intermarriage, Shabbat, Jewish women in the Bible. Pairs of Western and FSU women learned the Kaddish in order to say it together at Babi Yar. On Shabbat, our last day together, women who earlier in the week had chosen Hebrew names for themselves were called in small groups to the Torah, for an aliyah. At this grand communal event we watched grandmothers who had only known Jewish life in persecution take on the responsibilities of Jewish adults—to study, to teach others, to help the community.

My new friend Ina Petroshansky [see photo] has been lighting candles now for six months. In the last two months she has begun to say the appropriate prayer too. I encouraged her to go to Israel in a way I would never persuade an American friend. If she stays in her shtetl—as they still call it—she probably will not marry a Jew. The economic opportunities are slim. Am I right to push her? In the meantime, she doesn’t want to leave her family, so the books my mother and I brought to Kiev with challah recipes and rabbinic wisdom will help Ina put more Judaism in her own life, and into the homes of the children she teaches.

Tanya, 16, studies Hebrew at a Chabad school in Bratslov. She too came to the conference with her mother. She asked if women could be cantors. I said yes, pointed to the woman who’d just led our study session. “She’s a rabbi!” Tanya looked puzzled, then a broad smile spread across her face. Here, with women struggling to connect with Judaism, is an opportunity to introduce a tradition of inclusiveness that in the West we are still struggling to create.

by Jessica Lieberman