Jewish Identity and Renewal
For many participants, Project Kesher is their first real Jewish experience. We help Jewish women reclaim their Jewish heritage.
The Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, ending an era of institutionalized anti-Semitism and more than seventy years of religious repression. Almost 30 years later, the emerging Jewish community continues to face many challenges. With an estimated 500,000 - 2 million Jews remaining in the region, building strong Jewish identity and developing communal leadership is essential to the future of Jewish life in the region.
Jewish women lacked the Jewish knowledge, formal training and feminist empowerment to lead social change and better their circumstances and those around them.
Project Kesher’s programs have successfully engaged a new generation of Jewish women and girls in the region. From teenage youth groups, to programs on college campuses, to working with young professionals, our programs energize young women through a unique combination of Jewish content and social activism.
Beit Binah is a training program that teaches women to become Torah study facilitators, with a focus on social activism. In 132 intensive classroom hours, facilitators are taught Bible studies, Jewish ethics & faith, and classroom dynamics to prepare for bringing their Jewish knowledge to their local communities. Project Kesher staffs the training program with Jewish leaders from the Progressive (Reform and Reconstructionist), Masorti (Conservative), Modern Orthodox and Orthodox movements to expose participants to a spectrum of religious viewpoints and observances.
Beit Binah now has more than 90 ongoing bi-monthly Torah study groups in communities throughout Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. Groups meet once a month to study text, followed by a second meeting to plan and implement social activist projects inspired by the reading.
Pictured: Rabbi Julia Gris at her congregation in Odessa, Ukraine, after receiving a Torah Scroll from Project Kesher with Olya Weinstein, Director of Education and Development reading text.
To date, over 330 Mother/Daughter pairs have graduated from our Mother/Daughter retreats. Often, our retreats provide the first exposure to Jewish tradition and learning for participants.
These retreats improve the relationships between mothers and daughters by teaching ways to solve conflicts and techniques for constructive dialogue. This program inspires and encourages the practice of Judaism and social activism, and instills a desire to improve their lives and the lives of those around them through Jewish values.
In 2018-2019, PK held retreats in in Lviv (Ukraine), Rostov-na-Donu (Russia), Kislovodsk (Northern Caucasus and South Russia), educating 84 women and girls, 42 mother-daughter pairs, from 13 cities. Activists went back to their cities and organized over 90 programs, reaching thousands.
Pictured: Mother/Daughter pair at Project Kesher’s 2017 retreat.
Project Kesher provides training to women along with educational materials for Jewish Holidays – from the High Holidays, to Passover, Simchat Torah, Tu B'shvat and Hanukkah. All information for the holidays is housed on the Project Kesher Russian language website, making it easily accessible and replicable across communities.
Passover Seders resonate strongly with these communities, with the message of freedom to live as Jews. With the end of Communism, Passover Seders were one of the first rituals widely re-introduced into the Jewish community. Now, several thousand women participate in more than 140 Seders each year.
In recent years, Project Kesher has added an Online Seder to create a virtual round table to bring women together. Through this technology, women in more than 25 cities are able to participate.
Pictured: Celebrating PK’s Global Women’s Seder in 2018.
The Alice Shalvi Jewish Learning Program (ASJLP) engages Israeli Russian-speaking women in serious Jewish learning, most for the first time.
Named for the legendary Alice Shalvi, the Israeli feminist and educator who has played a leading role in progressive education for girls and in the advancement of women, the year-long program offers monthly half-day sessions of creative and pluralistic learning options with Rabbis and Jewish educators from all movements. Each month, women from across Israel engage in study about Jewish holidays, values and text. The program connects Jewish learning with social justice. It encourages and empowers women to engage with their local women’s groups on issues that advance gender equality and religious pluralism in Israel. The connections provide a sense of community through a peer-to-peer support system.
Each year, the ASJLP participants conduct more than 100 holiday and social activist programs in their communities. Israeli Russian-speaking women now participate with more than 150 women’s groups and 2,500 women from the Project Kesher network in an annual Global Women’s Seder—a multi-generational program utilizing a Project Kesher-created Haggadah.
Pictured: From left to right: Irina Lutt, Alice Shalvi, and Olya Weinstein.
Seventy years ago, Torah Scrolls were exiled from Eastern Europe. At first, the Torahs went underground; Jews passed them from house to house and met in basements to read the Torah. Then, faced with Siberia or death, they smuggled the scrolls out of the country. The practice of Judaism sputtered out in the region.
With the renewal of Jewish life in the region, there has been a shortage of Torah Scrolls. In June 2004, Project Kesher brought six Torahs from the United States and put them in the hands of six of their leaders, who brought them home to their communities. In most cases, there had not been a single Torah in those communities.
To date, Project Kesher has since sent 37 Torah Scrolls to the region. Wherever they have gone, Jews have come forward to study, to become bar/bat mitzvah, and to celebrate together. They have served as a locus of Torah-centered activism.
Pictured: Torah presented to the Jewish community of Kursk, Russia in October 2018.
Project Kesher, inspired by the Jewish Women’s Archive in the United States, seeks to “uncover, chronicle, and transmit to a broad public the rich history” of Jewish women in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Project Kesher will document the stories of domestic Judaism that helped women surreptitiously sustain Jewish life during the Communist Era through their stories, family traditions, culture and social activism.
Finally, Project Kesher will document the stories of women who, once Judaism could be practiced freely, were instrumental in the rebirth of Jewish life in their region.
Pictured: Center, Sallie Gratch, Founder, Project Kesher, gathering with potential activists in the late 1980s, Povarovka, Russia.