MOSCOW (WOMENSENEWS)--"I gathered them to the river that flows into Ahava; and there we encamped three days," Rabbi Goldie Milgram, read from the biblical book of Ezra.
While the words may be familiar to religiously observant Jews, the occasion was remarkable.
Milgram, founder and director of ReclaimingJudaism.org and a seminar leader on how to find meaning in living through a Jewish lens, was speaking to women gathered aboard a cruise ship this summer, on the banks of the Volga River as part of an intercultural exchange and conference organized by Project Kesher.
Many of her listeners were not only used to having men lead their worship, they hadn't even legally been allowed to practice their religion more than a decade ago.
Throughout Ukraine, Russia, Moldova and Belarus, Project Kesher has, for the past 10 years, promoted Jewish renewal in the formerly anti-religious territory of the Former Soviet Union by encouraging Torah study and other Jewish learning among Jewish women.
Kesher--based in Evanston, Ill., with an annual budget of $650,000 and a full-time staff of 26 concentrated in the Former Soviet Union--also looks beyond the Jewish world.
Fighting Sex Traffic
In addition to studying the Torah, Kesher's members also work on a variety of women's rights issues. Some might combat sex trafficking in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States by working with the Moscow-based Angel Coalition.
Others might offer vocational computer training to members of the public who need it--primarily women of all faiths--through 15 computer centers throughout the Former Soviet Union by working with World ORT, the London-based Jewish organization.
In broadening their agenda to the spiritual and physical lot of all women in the region, the organizers of Kesher--which means "connection" in Hebrew--say they are pursuing the Jewish values of "tikkun olam" (repairing the world) and "tzedakah" (charity).
In crossing religious lines and taking an interfaith approach to women's advocacy, organizers are being deliberate. They see the pursuit of interfaith connections as a way to ease growing ethnic tensions and curb anti-Semitism.
"When groups work together on issues of mutual concern, relationships are formed. As a result, when anti-Semitism occurs, interfaith partners are the first to call for community support for Jews," Project Kesher's executive director, Karyn Gershon, noted in a recent e-mail.
In Chernigov, Ukraine, for example, the government had designated a synagogue that had been converted to other uses during the Communist era, to be returned to the Jewish community. To block the return, a nationalist group took over the building, and the Jewish community wasn't sure how to respond.
"When our partner groups immediately called for the government's support, it was a powerful demonstration of the relationship that had been built through the ongoing work of the interfaith coalition. The government was more responsive than it might otherwise have been," Gershon said.
The government took the building away from the nationalist protesters and allowed the Jewish community to survey the building. In the end, they decided that the building was in need of too many repairs to make it a practical space, so the government gave them another site that that has served their purposes well.
New Initiative in Ukraine
In its most recent interfaith effort, Kesher, on Aug. 31, launched a 14-group multiethnic coalition to raise awareness about women's health and safety in the Ukrainian city of Makeeva. The first initiative will be raising funds for the local clinic caring for children living with AIDS.
The Kesher-led Makeeva coalition includes the German Vidergerburg organization, which represents the city's German community.
"This represents the first time Germans and Jews work together in the city," said Kesher's FSU director Svetlana Yakimenko.
In addition to universities and AIDS advocacy organizations, the coalition includes Greek, Polish, Russian and Armenian national community groups and the local Jewish community and agency.
Finding Its Mission
When she founded Kesher 15 years ago it wasn't supposed to be a women's organization, said Sallie Gratch, of Evanston, Ill, who is now in her 60s.
In the late 1980s, Gratch, a peace activist and social worker, became interested in the Soviet Jewish community, which was just gaining the right to emigrate.
While many American Jews were sending money to help Jews leave the Soviet Union with its legally-enforced atheism, Gratch had other ideas.
"I had no quarrel with rescuing Soviet Jewry, but what about those who chose to stay?" she said. "I couldn't see writing them off."
With that in mind, Gratch, in 1989, founded Project Kesher.
During a year-long stay in Kiev in 1991, while her husband worked on a Fulbright Grant teaching law, Gratch traveled to Jewish community meetings to meet with leadership in the interest of finding the best way to help them prosper.
It was then that she saw that Soviet Jewish women needed more support.
"Men were at the forefront," in community meetings, she said, but the women were eager to speak with her once official meetings ended.
In 1994, after conducting an international conference for Jewish women, Gratch and Yakimenko decided to define Kesher as a women's organization dedicated to Judaism and grassroots activism. They would work on behalf of all women, Gershon said, because "Jewish women don't live in isolation."
Keren Engelberg is the calendar editor at the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and a freelance reporter covering women's issues, culture and arts and entertainment.
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