JDC Breathing New Life Into Jewish Communities in the FSU
Approximately 100 years ago my great-grandparents, along with various other relatives, left eastern Europe for an unknown future in a strange land. They got on ships and embarked for the “Goldena Medina,” America, the Golden Land. From time to time I have wondered about the relatives who did not leave, and what my life might have been like if my family had stayed in places like Poland, Lithuania, Russia and Estonia , countries which eventually formed part of the Soviet Union or fell under Communist control after the Russian Revolution in 1917. I have also often wondered what it might be like to be a Jew living through the fall of Communism and to search for religious and cultural identity in the post-Soviet period.
Last night I had a chance to get a glimpse into this world, at an event co-sponsored by the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee (also known as the JDC) and CJP, here in Boston. The program for the evening, which featured two speakers who had worked for the JDC in former Soviet Union countries, helping to reinvigorate and sustain Jewish life in communities which previously suffered decades of oppression under the Soviet regime. From what the two women said, it sounds like Jewish life in the FSU (Former Soviet Union) is a mixed bag, with many bright spots and a few dark ones. One of the speakers, Michelle Arkow, described how she was told to hide any signs that she was Jewish (such as wearing a magen David) when attending a soccer game because it could provoke a violent anti-Semitic attack by soccer hooligans. It also sounded like there were some great things happening in this region in terms of Jewish religious and cultural life, including the re-opening of synagogues and Jewish community centers.
After speaking to several JDC staff and volunteers last night at the event, I decided I needed to learn a little more about this organization, so I went online to check out their website. One thing I was surprised to discover is that initially the JDC began helping Soviet Jewry soon after the Russian Revolution, only to be expelled from the country by Soviet authorities, waiting until the fall of communism half a century later before they could return again to help Jews desperately in need. I was very encouraged to learn about the efforts of the JDC in the former Soviet Union, and to see that there is a dedicated staff and network of volunteers who are helping this segment of the Jewish people to regain a sense of Jewish identity and make connections with other Jews around the world. I have no idea what my life would have been like if I had been born in the FSU, or what the lives of my relatives who stayed behind were like throughout the course of the twentieth century, but I am glad to know that the JDC was there to help them in 1924, and that they are there once again, helping not just my relatives (if the family somehow was lucky enough to survive pogroms, poverty, Stalin and the Shoah) but the extended family of Israel, the family of the Jewish people.
-Daniel E. Levenson
Publisher and Editor-in-Chief