Natasha Slabodyanik tells us to take a marker and map ourselves out on a piece of paper. In the upper left, she tells us, draw a picture of yourself. Inside write three traits that you like about your personality. Outside, write three traits that you like about your appearance. In the center write all the names of the women who are most important to you. And so on.
This is not what I expected.
I’m covering a conference of Project Kesher, an organization that has trained some 20 women from the former Soviet Union in Jewish community-building, women’s health and sexuality and economic empowerment. These core members, who work mostly in the smaller cities and towns of Ukraine, meet regularly to plan projects in their own communities and elsewhere—a unique set-up because the leaders are local, not American or Israeli, and the ones in charge are women, not men. Kesher publishes a newsletter that goes to more than 5,000 women world-wide. It held its first conference in 1994 in Ukraine and since then has held 17 more in the FSU.
This weekend’s conference, held in Chicago, is the first ever in America. It is a chance for the organization’s American women to meet a handful of the FSU activists, and for both sides to brainstorm plans for the future. I thought I’d hear about social action and community organizing. But on this first night, we sing Jewish and ’60s folk songs, women spontaneously hug, and I feel like I’m back in summer camp.
A heated discussion erupts after we’ve finished our drawings about whether it’s all right for feminists to focus on what they like about their own appearances. It’s funny that in this room of successful, activist, engaged women the one thing that most seems to absorb us, that rattles us to passionate depths, is this question of how we feel about how we look. I try to imagine the men of the Joint Distribution Committee engaged in a similar conversation. I can’t.
At times, I am caught up in the emotion. I stand in a circle next to Irina, a woman I met during my own travels in the FSU, and she squeezes my hand. We sing a niggun, sad and sweet. Slabodyanik brings challah covers decorated by the women in the FSU to our last group meeting, and I experience a connection to women I’ve never met. A few times, I admit, I cry.
Other times, the process feels too self-consciously female, the passion a little forced. But if the means are emotional, the goal is practical. The point is to make real changes in women’s lives.
So during the conference, one seminar focuses on how to help women start up small businesses; how to apply for grants, what’s the minimum needed to start a credit union, which ventures—mayonnaise, knitwear, aerobics—will succeed. Another, led by Planned Parenthood, looks at improving sex ed and women’s health in the FSU. We discuss, for instance, the pros and cons of teaching women to do breast self-exams when there isn’t anywhere to go for treatment if they do find a lump.
But the process of creating leaders to carry out these programs is a much more ambiguous task than raising money to start them or exporting Americans to run them. It’s much harder to get women to say what they want for their own communities, and then have them put those desires into action.
Many of the American women understand. They’ve had to struggle to find their own voices. Marcia Cohn Spiegel, a major force in the Jewish Renewal movement once married to an alcoholic, worries about the effects empowering women will have on families in the FSU, where there are no shelters and little discussion of domestic abuse.
“It’s a dangerous area we’re treading on. It reminds me of who I was 50 years ago in my own marriage. I didn’t become the first woman president of a Reform synagogue because I knew my marriage couldn’t withstand it,” she said.
“When I was a young girl, 70 years ago,” said Elsie Goldstein, a political radical for most of her life and the oldest Project Kesher member in attendance, “women were too involved meeting the needs of their children, their husbands, to think about their own needs…I think that in the former Soviet Union many women are still struggling to achieve that right to be themselves.”
That’s why so much energy is devoted to forming relationships. It’s a foundation on which American and Russian women can develop trust. It creates a network of support for women working in isolated communities. It’s a model for community-building for these women to bring back to their own communities.
“If women aren’t bonding, we have them sit around and paint their toenails together. We’re willing to be as female as we need in order for the women to feel trusting,” said Svetlana Yakimenko, the NIS director of Project Kesher. “My country got used to important bosses who told us all our lives what to do,” she said. But at Project Kesher’s conferences in the FSU, no one is allowed to speak for more than 10 minutes at a time or usurp the power.
“Sometimes what we do feels so female, the results so intangible,” says Karyn Gershon, Kesher’s executive director. But, Gershon insists, the results Project Kesher has achieved really are quantifiable.
Recently, Gershon said, “The JDC looked at their leaders [in Ukraine] and discovered that a disproportionate number of them were trained by us, and that our women had the best-kept books, were the most responsive, and had the most beautiful cheseds.” After working on the margins for most of its existence. Project Kesher just this year was approached by three leaders of the JDC with a request for more information about Kesher’s model of leadership training.
For years, attempts to build local leadership in the FSU were crippled as waves of Jewish activists emigrated. And the FSU is a region mired in corruption. Knowing who among the self-proclaimed Jewish leaders will prove to be a trustworthy partner is a daunting task for organizations entrusted with huge sums of money, facing enormous need.
While international Jewish organizations here have found local partners to work with, a certain distrust lingers. Because one group, the outsiders, have the money and the power, and another group, the locals, do not, Jewish life the FSU can at times feel, even if benignly so, colonial.
Even at Project Kesher’s conference, you can feel the slight condescension in the well-meaning comments of the American women: “There but for the grace of God…” and, “She looks like she could be my grandmother, or my great aunt,” never, “She looks like she could be my daughter, or my sister.”
“American women think we still live in old Russia, in old Ukraine. They think of it as the old country they left behind,” said Slabodyanik, one of the FSU activists at the conference.
“When I first came to a Project Kesher seminar as a participant, it seemed to me American women were playing with us like children,and that they were not connected to our real life. When I am here, and I see how women here organize, I can see that they know what they are talking about,” said Nina Klotsman, another of the FSU women in attendance. But, she adds, they don’t understand life in the FSU.
The core belief of Project Kesher is that women in the FSU need to decide for themselves how to create their own communities. And that guiding principal allows for the power imbalance to begin to shift back. Ultimately, the task of fostering local leadership and handing over the reigns of control is a crucial one. Eventually, to be viable, Jewish life in the former Soviet Union needs to grow on domestic soil, not in America.
Five years ago, when she was 20, Slabodyanik attended her first Project Kesher conference. Now she is a mother, the head of the Youth Family Services in her hometown, and recently returned to school for a second career in social work. After her first conference, Slabodyanik decided to return to her small city of Vinnitsa, where there are about 180 Jews, to try to start a Jewish women’s organization. Soon the group realized that if they wanted to accomplish all their dreams, they would need to join with non-Jewish women, too.
There are now some 40 women members of Action, the women’s organization they created. Action has held sex-education seminars, and has taken the first steps in starting a leadership-training school for teen girls. With one computer, they set up a computer-training center for women.
To spur the mayor to turn the heat on in a city kindergarten, Slabodyanik employed techniques she’d learned from Kesher. Action sent out postcards to all the women who occupied important positions in their city—bank directors, business owners—and they told them: “If you’re not indifferent to the future of our city, and the future of your children, come visit us.” When they came, some 20 at a time, they talked about their families and what they liked to do with their friends. They discussed what they liked to cook, and they made arts and crafts boxes together. They were willing to be “as female as they needed to be” in order to form the bonds of community. Then they discussed the elections.
When the elections came around, two months later, these powerful women told their subordinates to go out and vote. Sixteen members sit on the council. Before the last elections, only one of them was a woman. Now there are seven.
Saturday, during morning services, I have an epiphany, about women, Judaism, social activism and Project Kesher’s philosophy of creating leaders.
Five years ago, in Cherkassy, where Nina Klotsman is from, a family moved into a house and found a Torah scroll in the attic. It was missing a large section of text, had only one handle, and no covering. But the community used it anyway, because it was the only scroll they had.
Klotsman runs the women’s organization in Cherkassy, a community of about 4,000 Jews. Her group is strong in part because Klotsman is strong. In April, Klotsman attended a conference of Jewish organizations in Ukraine as the representative of the women’s group in her town. When she arrived she noticed that out of the 1500 people in the room, 60%-70% of them were women, but of the 30 people who were heading the conference, not one of them was a woman. She went to one of the organizers and she asked him, “Why are there no women at the top when there are so many women activists?” He said they hadn’t thought of it, and they appointed three women to sit on the board.
Klotsman attended her first Project Kesher conference in 1996. Last summer, during another seminar, held in Cherkassy, Klotsman told some of the American women about the scroll, and they offered to bring it to the U.S. and fix it for her. It snuck through customs in a knapsack, sat in an airport locker in Amsterdam for a few days, and finally made it safely to the U.S.
Saturday morning during Shabbat services at the conference, the scroll was retumed, with the inscription, “To the holy Jewish community of Cherkassy, from your friends around the world.” Eva Sandler, a teenage New Yorker, had donated the cost of the restoration on the occasion of her bat mitzvah. Eva’s mother, activist philanthropist Sheri Sandler, had introduced her daughter to Kesher on an earlier mission to Ukraine.
We stood in a circle and passed the Torah from one woman to another. When they held it, the women looked like they were cradling a baby. As we passed the scroll around, I thought, If we weren’t Jewish, none of us in this room would have met each other, or felt responsibility for each other. If we weren’t women, we wouldn’t be working toward common goals.
The Jewish women of Project Kesher had found support in being Jews. And they had taken that strength and moved out from it, to expand their community, to reach out to non-Jewish women, to embrace social action in the universal.
Finally the scroll arrived at Klotsman. She stood at the front of the room as several women covered her with their tallitot. We sang shehecheyanu, the blessing of new beginnings. Then we sang Sh’ma, a prayer of unity. She cried, and so did we.
Creating Feminist Leaders
Would you like to encourage women in your community to become Jewish feminist leaders, moving from curiosity to activism? A few pointers from Project Kesher’s Karyn Gershon:
- In beginner workshops, encourage women to speak publicly about themselves through questions and experiential activities, so that they become comfortable voicing their opinions.
- Help them learn non-judgmental brainstorming and consensus building.
- Offer mentoring by women leaders who have themselves been changemakers.
- Introduce some fundamental principles of Judaism that help frame their understanding of the role of leaders in Jewish life: tikkun olam (repairing the world); mitzvot (commandments/good deeds); and tzedakah (acts of justice).
Rachel Blustain is co-editor of the magazine Foster Care Youth United.