When I was a little girl growing up in Providence, my bubbe told me stories about her mother leaving Russia in 1905 and finding a better life in America. Throughout my bubbe’s life, she constantly worried about the family that had been left behind. She would always mail a dollar and a ribbon to the family in Russia for holidays and birthdays.
In 1986, my parents, Paul and Sheila Alexander, flew to Moscow with Rabbi Wayne Franklin of Temple Emanu-El on an undercover UJA mission to find and help Russian refuseniks. They carried a list of names, along with a duffel bag full of blue jeans and cigarettes to use for bartering.
In preparation for the trip, my bubbe wrote a letter in Yiddish to family members who might still be in Moscow. She enclosed a photo of my mother, along with her itinerary. We never received a response. However, on the fourth day of my parents’ stay in Moscow, there was a man wandering around the hotel lobby with a photograph, and shouting, “Sheila, vau bistu?”(Where are you, in Yiddish) My parents immediately spotted him because he looked like family! Boris was thrilled to meet my mother after 80 years of disconnectedness!
For my Bat Mitzvah, I had a “twin” who was a Russian refusenik, and I thought about how lucky I was that I could practice being Jewish while my twin, along with two generations of Russians, had to hide her religion.
The following year, in 1987, I joined my midrasha classmates and thousands of others in sending a message to Mikhail Gorbachev, then the leader of the Soviet Union. Together, we marched on the Capitol in Washington while shouting “Let our people go! United we stand! Divided we fall!”
Thanks to the efforts of the Jewish community, we were able to free some Soviet Jews and my Russian cousins made aliyah in 1991. I was spending the summer volunteering on a kibbutz, so I was the first member of my American family to welcome the Russian cousins to Israel.
Over the past 30 years, I have stayed connected with my Russian family in Israel. We have celebrated weddings together and the birth of the next generation in Israel.
We all know people who left Russia between the last two decades of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century. More than 2.8 million Jews emigrated from Eastern and Southern Europe to the United States between 1880 and 1925. In addition, more than 1 million Russians immigrated to Israel.
But the question that most people don’t consider is how many Jews remain in the former Soviet Union. There are still more than 1 million Jews living there, and 90,000 Jewish seniors are currently receiving food assistance from the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), with support from the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA).
Since I was a child, I have been concerned about our global Jewish family. That is why I have been working for the Jewish Federation for nearly two decades. I frequently tell stories about the elderly who need our support, but, until recently, I had never met them. I just knew that they needed our help. I knew down to my DNA that my great-grandmother had come to America, but her sister had been left behind. I also knew that it could have just as easily been the other way around.
I am haunted by the thought that my family could have been stuck behind the Iron Curtain without the American privileges of an abundance of food, access to a quality higher education, and freedom to practice Judaism.
I recently returned from Minsk, Belarus, where I was able to fulfill my dream of meeting the generation of Jews who have been living a very challenging life in the former Soviet Union. Although they are able to leave, many are choosing to stay: Belarus has been their home for 200 years.
Before World War II, there were 1 million Jews in Belarus (42% of the population). During the Holocaust, Belarus was decimated and 800,000 Jews were massacred. Life has been extremely difficult since that time, and today only 45,000 Jews remain. But thanks to the efforts of the JDC and the JFNA, there are currently 11 Jewish organizations creating a renewal and revitalization of Jewish life in Belarus. There are also nine active synagogues across the country.
I made the trip in October as part of a JDC Ambassadors Mission, which visited the Hesed Center in Minsk. We learned that Hesed serves about 5,000 people through every stage of life, from toddlers to seniors. We met with Hillel staff and learned how they have grown the program in the past decade from a few dozen students to over 450 participants. This is incredible – amazing! – considering that most teenagers’ parents were not able to practice their religion. Their grandparents were forced to stop practicing Judaism behind the Iron Curtain.
It is miraculous to see that these millennials are yearning to learn how to celebrate Shabbat and Passover, and all the other Jewish traditions. They also feel responsible for teaching their parents and grandparents about Jewish holidays and celebrations.
I feel good knowing that just as I was active in Brown-RISD Hillel, students in Minsk today are also excited to spend Shabbat together.
Approximately 35% of Jews in Minsk are over 60 years old. This creates a huge burden on the community to care for the seniors, especially since many live on very meager pension of no more than $180 per month. This is where the JDC is making the biggest impact and keeping this generation alive.
I was invited to visit a poor senior who was almost homebound. My guide gave me 50 Belarusian rubles (roughly $24 U.S.) and a grocery list that included kasha, eggs and flour.
After an hour making tough choices at the grocery, I purchased four bags of food to deliver. I walked up the old, rickety staircase wondering what I would see. I had been anxious about visiting a Soviet-era apartment building, about what it would look like and smell like. I had heard dozens of stories about the elderly being trapped in their apartments for years because their building did not have elevators. I knew that many seniors did not have bathrooms in their apartments, and food and medicine were luxury items.
Tamara Naumovna Kalinkina was thrilled to have me visit, and invited me to sit so that she could share her story with me. She was born in 1940 and married at age 17. Now she is a great-grandma with two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren living in Israel. At age 40, she fell and permanently injured her spine. Now she has challenges using her hands, and she is hearing impaired.
Kalinkina made the choice at age 54 to give up her impressive career as a chemistry technologist and become a volunteer for JDC at Hesed. She loved meeting with seniors and providing them with hope and a smile through a range of programs, including serving as a hostess for more than 20 years to A Warm Home, a JDC program where seniors gather in the apartments of their peers for cultural and social exchanges as well as refreshments.
At that point in her story, Kalinkina invited me to join her in celebrating Shabbat. Together, we lit Shabbat candles and blessed her challah. She was so moved that she stood up and began to sing her favorite Yiddish song, “A Brivele der Mamen,” “A Letter to Mother.”
I was overwhelmed by the experience and felt very powerfully the message that am Yisrael chai – the Jewish people are still here! They cannot defeat us!
But the Jewish people in Minsk need our support so that they don’t have to choose between food and medicine. Without those four bags of groceries, Kalinkina would have had only basic staples.
As I boarded the plane back to the US, I felt very powerful. I had seen the impact that one person can have on an entire community. One person can make a huge difference. My great-grandmother had started this cycle when she came to America and raised her family. She taught us the values of tzedakah and kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh – that all of the Jewish people are responsible for one another.
We all started in the same place before we dispersed across the world. However, we are all still one family. Therefore, we must not forget our family in Minsk so they, like us, can live their lives with dignity.
RACHEL ALEXANDER LEVY, of Providence, is a regional director for the Network of Independent Communities at the Jewish Federations of North America.