By Keren Engelberg
Monday, October 11, 2004
Project Kesher's mandate is to spur Jewish revival in the Former Soviet Union. But the group also reaches out to women of all backgrounds, believing that interfaith connections can ease growing ethnic tensions and curb anti-Semitism.
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.
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