It’s not every day the words “brit milah” work their way into conversation, let alone in discussing a 12-year-old boy. But here in the Russian air they hang for a moment.
“Yes,” Olga Finogenova says through a translator; her son, after returning from a summer spent at a religious school for boys, wanted to undergo a brit milah, also known as a bris, or Jewish ritual circumcision.
It’s a sunny day on the Volga River when Finogenova imparts this story. We’re partaking in a conference to bring together Jewish women from the United States, Israel and the former Soviet Union (FSU). Our trip, Women Turning the Tide, A Voyage on the Volga, is being sponsored by Project Kesher, a Chicago-based organization that’s been working with Jewish FSU women for the past 10 years in the areas of Jewish renewal and women’s empowerment.
It’s a few days into our trip already (they sponsored me), but I still manage to be continually awed by the stories these women have to tell. To visit Russia is to see a country where history is just a few years old, where Moscow street signs are newly replaced to indicate a return to pre-communist street names. To speak to these women is to hear the stories of those who have lived it — have lived communist anti-Semitism and perestroika. How can I convey to them that their passion is so inspiring to someone who comes from a place where we take our Judaism — and even our food on the table — for granted? It’s embarrassing to admit, and so I don’t. I just listen.
Despite having known all her life that she was a Jew, when Finogenova first got involved with the group in 1999, it was her first real introduction to Judaism.
“Since childhood, Judaism had always been a thing that was upsetting to us. There have been many problems with being a Jew and studying Judaism,” she told me, noting that her first positive Jewish experience was with Project Kesher. Now Finogenova is the Project Kesher women’s group leader in Smolensk.
Today, Judaism is clearly an important part of her and her family’s life. Her son’s choice to have a bris at age 12 is just the most startling example. She and her son celebrate all the Jewish holidays, and also welcome Shabbat every week by lighting candles and saying Kiddush. Finogenova leads the Torah study for her Project Kesher women’s group. Her son will have his bar mitzvah next year.
Finogenova’s group in Smolensk is one of 165 Project Kesher women’s groups operating throughout Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus. While it is only one of numerous organizations working for Jewish renewal in the FSU since the fall of the Iron Curtain, it is the only organization that focuses on women.
It didn’t start out that way, according to founder Sallie Gratch. In the beginning, Gratch was interested in trying to help FSU Jews, as a whole, to organize. But in visiting small-town community leaders, she found herself surrounded entirely by men. Women were not included in official meetings, and in Briansk, for example, “the head of the community didn’t understand why we’d even want to meet with the Jewish women,” Gratch said.
Thus, it didn’t take long for Gratch to realize that the kind of organization she was trying to build — self-led, pluralistic and egalitarian — would only be possible if she started with the women. In 1994, with the help of her Russian friend and translator Svetlana Yakimenko (now Project Kesher’s FSU director), she convened the International Conference of Jewish Women, clearly defining Project Kesher as a women’s organization for the first time. Ten years later, what has emerged is an organization that focuses on the spiritual and practical concerns of Jewish women in the FSU: Jewish learning; computer vocational and leadership training; and activism in the issues the women’s groups feel most impact their lives, namely women’s health education, trafficking in women and domestic violence.
On the second day of our trip, there’s a low but energetic hum as we take our seats in the dimly lit auditorium of Moscow’s Hermitage Theater. Off to one side of the stage, six Torahs lay covered on a large podium. They have been carried the long distance from communities in the United States to be donated to six budding FSU Jewish communities and officially handed over today in what is sure to be a highlight of the week: the Torah Return ceremony.
As we settle in, folksinger Debbie Friedman and Project Kesher’s musical coordinator Azariya Medvedova play an opening song in English, Hebrew and Russian on their guitars. Various women speak, including Jewish feminist educator and spiritual leader Tamara Cohen, who offers a blessing on the women handing over the Torahs, and then on the women receiving them for their communities.
Friedman is one of a number of prominent American women leaders who have made the trip. The long list also includes Orthodox feminist movement leader Blu Greenberg and Angeleno Marcia Cohn Spiegel, Creative Jewish Women’s Alliance organizer who, like a number of women, has brought her daughters with her.
It’s a tearful ceremony, with women trying to express the emotional weight of the moment — and failing.
“All of these overwhelming feelings cannot be put into words,” says Olga Shevchuk of Vinnitsa, Ukraine, whose Torah originates from a dwindling classical Reform Jewish synagogue in Helena, Ark.
“Gratitude,” she says, is the closest she can get to putting a name to what she is feeling.
We move so organically from a state of tears to song, dance and cheers that I can’t say how it happens. Only suddenly, Friedman and Medvedova are playing again, and women have linked hands and started impromptu horas, circling around the bolted-down chairs and making their way into the area behind the seats to dance more freely. Other women embrace, caught up in the moment.
At breakfast the next morning, I sit with Carol Avins and her daughter, Claire Solomon, at a table finely set with black bread, smoked fish, blini and other Russian breakfast delicacies. They, along with Avins’ sister-in-law Nancy Solomon, carried the Torah from the Helena synagogue where the Solomon family once belonged. At its peak in the 1950s, Temple Beth-El’s membership included some 125 families, but today, only about 10 elderly members remain. I ask Avins how she felt standing up on that stage.
“I found myself unexpectedly emotional about it, especially because the community that’s giving the Torah is becoming a thing of the past,” she says. “But then I got amused…. Women were dancing around with the Torah and I thought it was the kind of celebration with the Torah that [Temple Beth-El] would never do. Their tradition is dignified and simple. This Torah kind of goes on to a new phase of its existence.”
In the weeks to come, Avins will be proven right. We will all get updates about the great celebrations taking place in the cities that receive these Torahs, their women’s groups now continuing their Jewish learning armed with real Torahs, and using the lessons of repairing the world and charity as the inspiration for their activism.
With the current state of economics in the region, many FSU women dream of marrying foreigners or of finding lucrative jobs abroad. They are promised these things, but the dream quickly turns to a nightmare as they find themselves the victims of unscrupulous businesspeople trafficking in human beings. They are sold into sexual slavery in countries where they have come illegally, and with no support system and little knowledge of their new country, they often have no way out.
“Until recently, the problem of trafficking wasn’t spoken of. It only recently became a subject of the mass media,” Elena Zyablikova tells us in one of our lectures. As the leader of Belarus’ Borisov women’s group, she has helped coordinate their campaigns to combat trafficking in women and domestic violence.
There are no laws against trafficking in women in Russia or Moldova, and while Ukraine and Belarus do have laws against it, they are rarely enforced, she says.
No statistics exist in the region on the numbers of women being trafficked (nothing showing the general state of apathy more clearly). But in Israel, for example, it is estimated that about 80 percent of people involved in trafficking are Russian-speaking, and the 432 reports of trafficking to police stations in Belarus in 2003 are considered to be just the tip of the iceberg in a region where there is a great sense of shame in coming forward.
Educating women and working for legislative gains are primarily where Project Kesher has put its efforts, including being a signatory to the advocacy group working to get the International Marriage Brokers Act passed in the United States. In addition to other measures, it would force men seeking marriage brokers to submit to criminal background checks.
More than 90 Kesher groups are also involved in programs to fight domestic violence. A recent poll indicated that 60 percent of female university students believe that it is women who make men violent. By educating the public through pamphlet distribution and lectures in schools, Kesher groups work to put an end to this tragic misconception.
They also participate in the annual 16 Days Against Domestic Violence campaign and have united with 18 governmental and nongovernmental institutions to provide free legal, medical and psychological assistance to victims of domestic violence.
With about one-fifth of all calls to police relating to domestic violence, Project Kesher’s next step will be creating coalitions with local police departments, said Evelina Shoubinskaya, a social worker at the forefront of Kesher’s anti-domestic violence programming.
Recognizing that these problems have everything to do with economic concerns, Project Kesher works to empower women through its various programs, as well. Its new micro-enterprise loan program has granted more than 90 small low-interest loans to women to build their businesses; its vocational computer training centers, co-sponsored by World ORT, assist women in finding better jobs in a region where unemployment and underemployment are significant problems; and its leadership training program teaches women to lead in their Kesher groups and the world.
The sun continues to shine for us in Rybinsk, and actually well into the night. As we travel farther and farther north, experiencing Russia’s famous white nights until almost midnight, I remember that I’d thought this place would be gray and dreary, cold and sad. Instead, I’ve witnessed rebuilding, and the warmth and joy and optimism of a people who see much work ahead, but a bright future at least, perhaps for the first time. The near-eternal sunshine suddenly feels symbolic and very fitting.
“I connected with yesterday’s prayer where Miriam stood at the edge of the river and everything was new,” Elena Knyazhitskaya says at Saturday’s Shabbat service, which included a Hebrew naming ceremony for some 22 of the women. Elena picked the name Ruth, because she, like Ruth, is not halachically Jewish. There was also a Leora (“for her there is divine light”), Chana, Leah and Eliana (“it was she who got answers”).
“I feel in my life that a lot of changes are about to happen,” Knyazhitskaya says to me.
Big changes seem imminent for Project Kesher, too. While its slow growth has been intentional — it was important to Kesher leaders that group members and potential members feel “ignited, not pushed,” according to Yakimenko — with more than 3,000 members, they’ve now built solid foundations and are ready for people to know who they are, Executive Director Karyn Gershon said.
The two largest impediments against future goals of expansion into Moscow, Germany and Israel seem to be lack of recognition and consequent lack of funding. Next year’s budget weighs in at just $650,000, as opposed to Chabad’s FSU arm, whose annual operating budget is $15 million, with $80 million set aside for new projects.
“If you can get a person to underwrite the concert, I will come to your city!” singer Friedman announces at our end-of-the-trip brainstorming meeting. Other women have also caught the fever, raising their hands to speak, promising to tell their synagogues back home about Project Kesher and to organize various fundraising events to get the word out about the work we’ve now witnessed firsthand.
“My daughter told me that you have to go to Israel to practice Judaism,” Finogenova said, “but through Project Kesher, we understood that we may lead Jewish lives here.”
For more information on Project Kesher visit,