Volga Boatwomen

In June 2004, 250 women ranging in age from 15 to 84 convened in Moscow for a weeklong trip down the Volga River. All were Jewish, except a few translators, and the group included 80 women from Belarus, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine, with the rest from the United States, Germany and Israel. Participants met with activists and helped renew Judaism in the region.

The women seemed to feel like long-lost relations, in fact, Duddie Carson from the United States pulled out her family tree and found that Sara Lif shitz from Yakutsk, Russia (Siberia) with whom she was sharing breakfast actually was her cousin.

Six women had carried six torahs from the United States—from congregations, a havurah, a 92-year-old woman who survived the Holocaust, a Torah scribe on the lower East side of Manhattan—and delivered them into the arms of women from Belarus, Russia and Ukraine to bring back to their communities. As folksinger Debbie Friedman played guitar and sang, the women celebrated, dancing in the aisles of the Hermitage Theater in Moscow.

When the voyage stopped in Rybinsk, Project Kesher, the women’s organization convening the trip, conducted “Women Light the Night.” This was a mitzvah project underwritten by Joan Cohn to provide light bulbs for a central town square that, because of budget cuts, had been dark and especially unsafe for women. Participants held candles as one of the new bulbs was turned on, a moment captured perfectly by Lee M. Hendler of Baltimore in the trip’s closing skit. Hendler asked, “How many men does it take to screw in a light bulb in Rybinsk? One to welcome us. One to bless us. One to tell us how beautiful we are. And one to watch while a woman actually does the job!”