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Across the Former Soviet Union Women’s Network Marks 15 Years with Trip and Gift of Torah Scrolls

July 2, 2004
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When the members of Project Kesher came to the former Soviet Union to celebrate their 15th anniversary of working on behalf of women in the region, they brought some sacred gifts with them. Six Torah scrolls, some of them originally from the region, crossed the Atlantic to find new homes in provincial communities of the former Soviet Union, many of which have not had a Torah scroll for decades.

One of the scrolls that was donated to the Vinnitsa community in Ukraine came from a synagogue in Helena, Ark., where only eight elderly members are left from the community that arrived there in the 1840’s.

“I hope this scroll will help the congregations of my town to get together around this wonderful gift,” said Larisa Geller of Bobruisk, Belarus, when accepting the scroll that was going unused in New York City until Holocaust survivor Sandra Brand brought it to Project Kesher.

The donations of the Torahs was just the highest-profile a! spect of last month’s Project Kesher trip.

One of the highlights of the visit was a five-day trip down the Volga River for the 250 activists from both North America and the former Soviet Union.

Interspersed with seminars on combating domestic violence and international trafficking in women, the boat trip made stops in provincial Russian towns along the river where the group organized events to boost Jewish spirituality and activism.

This was hardly a luxury cruise, and 150 American Jewish women aboard paid $1,800 each for the trip, covering the cost of the cruise for themselves and for 100 participants from the former Soviet Union.

Supported by Jewish women activists in the United States, Project Kesher has become one of the most successful Jewish women’s groups in the four former Communist countries where it operates. The group has become deeply involved with public efforts to stop international trafficking in women and to alert public opinion in Russia and s! urrounding countries to the problem of domestic violence.

According to U.N. statistics, more than 500,000 women from the former Soviet countries have been sent to more than 50 countries during the past 10 years.

Each year in Russia, domestic violence alone results in some 14,000 deaths of women who become victims of their male partners.

Evelina Shubinskaya, a Project Kesher activist from the central Russian city of Tula, was one of the pioneers of the anti-violence movement in her community.

Her Jewish group is now a member of a coalition of 18 local non-profits and government organizations that provide social, medical and psychological support to victims of domestic violence.

“Project Kesher groups now reach well beyond the Jewish community in combating domestic violence and trafficking,” Gershon said.

Svetlana Yakimenko, Project Kesher’s director in the former Soviet Union, said the organization unites some 3,500 women in 165 groups in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova.

“We unite the women who are active, respon! sible for their lives and the society they live in, and we help them to change spiritually and financially,” Yakimenko said.

The group provides loans of between $600 to $2,000 to help women who are small-business owners.

The group’s activists say that to operate a successful women’s movement in the former Soviet Union is a special challenge given the social status of women in these societies.

“To become what they are now, our activists have had to overcome much more than American women activists,” Yakimenko said. “These are the societies where the word ‘feminism’ itself is often perceived as a negative term.”

During the Soviet era and afterward, women have had to step into high-profile roles because of economic necessity rather than choice, so some of the assumptions of Western feminism do not apply.

But Project Kesher activists say women often lose out to men when applying for better jobs, and they generally are less prepared for the tough conditions of ! the capitalist job market of today’s Russia.

“Our women are genera lly better educated but less in demand in better-paying positions,” said Nina Klotsman, an activist from Cherkassy, Ukraine, who runs a women’s Jewish community center in her town. It is believed to be the only such center in the former Soviet Union.

Supported by the World ORT Union, her center and a dozen other Project Kesher chapters in the area established computer classes where women learn skills that help them support themselves and their families.

During the cruise up the Volga, the U.S. and local participants took turns teaching each other.

American women taught a class on Jewish music; Russian women taught a Jewish cooking class, showing their counterparts how to make Russian blintzes and other favorites. The U.S. women brought with them a blank chupah and a decoration kit and presented the result of the joint work to the small Jewish community of Kostroma, Russia.

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