December 27, 2000
Comment By Chaim Chesler
(December 27) - A few days before Hanukka I had the opportunity to visit Mir and Volozhin, towns in Belarus whose names resonate with the glory of 19th-century Eastern European Jewry. Even today, the towns themselves evoke images of the shtetls - rough streets lined with wooden houses interspersed with wells and water pumps, and traveled by horse-pulled carts and plows.
But these places are no longer centers of Jewish learning - or even of Jewish living. Their Jewish communities were destroyed by Soviet antisemitism and forced assimilation, their Jewish population annihilated by the Holocaust.
In contrast to their Jewish emptiness stands the vibrancy of Jewish life and the hunger for Jewish knowledge in towns and cities where Jews still live throughout the former Soviet Union. It is a particularly apt contrast at this time of year, for the festival of lights marks the triumph of Jewish identity over assimilation, the victory of Jewish community over the pull of another culture.
For 70 years, the Jews of the USSR suffered forced assimilation. Their national identity was suppressed and they were unable to teach their heritage to their children. Since the collapse of the USSR, they have convincingly proven that their Jewish identity could not be obliterated by a dominant, hostile culture, that the Jewish spirit is stronger than the attempt to mold it into homo sovieticus.
The Jewish Agency has been working in the Former Soviet Union since 1989 to help build up this spirit and allow the Jews there to reconnect to the rest of the Jewish world. We present people eligible to immigrate to Israel with the option of aliya, explaining to them that we believe it is the best way to lead a Jewish life and ensure their children a secure future.
During these years we have facilitated the immigration of over 883,000 people. We help them prepare for their immigration through Hebrew-language ulpanim and lectures on life in Israel. In the first 10 months of this year alone, over 38,000 people attended our ulpanim.
We have helped develop special programs that encourage young Jews to move on their own to Israel to finish high school or embark on academic or vocational education. A significant majority of their families later join them.
NO LESS important, we answer the very real spiritual hunger for identity, knowledge, and a sense of belonging that is evident throughout the FSU. We have developed a wide range of informal Jewish and Zionist educational opportunities for children and youth, including summer and winter camps, after-school activities, and clubs. Over the past year, more than 18,000 youth attended these camps, while our ongoing activities in 180 clubs reach out to more than 20,000 young Jews.
We offer opportunities for Jewish youth to reap the benefits of an "Israel Experience"-style short-term educational visit to Israel, strengthening their Jewish identity.
We offer leadership training programs for young activists - and happily repeat the course year after year as the cadre of leaders is depleted by aliya.
Most recently we have introduced a Jewish identity program which helps prepare prospective immigrants for their new life in Israel by exposing them to Jewish and Israeli history, culture and traditions through lectures and a weekend seminar. For many of the participants this is the first time they have celebrated Shabbat or attended a synagogue service.
Response to the program has been extremely enthusiastic. By the end of this year 11,000 Jews will have participated in this program. We hope to enroll another 9,200 in 2001. We are also anxious to extend the program to new immigrants in Israel.
We are constantly exploring new channels to reach out to Jews who have not yet reconnected to the Jewish world, in the hope that they will choose to identify as Jews and certain that many of them will ultimately decide to move to Israel. A new focus next year will be on young children and their parents.
In 1946, the remnants of the Minsk Jewish community erected a monument on the site where 5,000 Jews had been shot on one day in 1942. It was the first such monument in the Soviet Union that included an inscription in Yiddish and referred to the specifically Jewish nature of the Holocaust.
After 1.5 million Jews had been killed by the Nazis and their local collaborators, and in the darkest days of Stalinist oppression, it continued to stand as was poetic proof of the resilience of the Jewish spirit. It showed that the world of the Mir and Volozhin yeshivot had not been entirely destroyed.
The events of the past 11 years - the ongoing wave of aliya and the resurgence of Jewish life in the FSU - prove this unquestionably. It was a comforting thought as I walked the streets of these small towns, now so poignantly bereft of their Jewish population.
The writer is treasurer of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization.
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