Views from Jewish Women in Ukraine

March 27, 2014

By Karyn Grossman Gershon

Fresh Ideas from HBI invited Karyn Grossman Gershon, executive director of Project Kesher, the largest funder of Jewish women's programming in Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine, to blog about the political situation in the Ukraine and its effect on Jewish women. Here is what she reported:

Vlada, from Krivoy Rog, Ukraine, is representative of many of the women in the Project Kesher network when she says, "During my life, I have always thought that I would fear being Jewish in Ukraine. But, today, I am more fearful of simply being Ukrainian in my own country."

As one of the early organizers of Jewish life in her community Vlada shares that "I have always said prayers of peace for Israel. It is strange to be saying Jewish prayers of peace for Ukraine."

Jewish women in Belarus, Georgia, Russia and Ukraine have been at the forefront of coalition building in their region and they find it ironic that their skills are now being called upon to facilitate dialogue between people in Russia and Ukraine, countries that were unified during their lifetime. Initially, Jewish women in the Project Kesher network, on different sides of the border, expressed anger at each other about the conflict.

Women in Ukraine, many who have been active in the Euromaidan protests, were angry that Russian women did not defend their right to affiliate with Europe. Some women in Russia believed that parts of Ukraine were historically Russian and, if the population wanted to rejoin Russia, they should be allowed to do so. Others, pounded by government propaganda 24/7, began to believe that widespread anti-Semitism was a legitimate threat.

During the past few weeks, the internal tensions have subsided as the women began to seriously listen to what each was hearing from their government and media; and what they were seeing in their own communities. They began to remember that they were not each other’s enemies and that they needed to take concrete actions to help re-stabilize the region.

Jewish women in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine have realized that they do not have the ability to force the Russian government to be less aggressive in Ukraine but they do have the power to create public sentiment for restraint, diplomacy and ultimately, peace. Project Kesher activists have been posting programming ideas to promote a peaceful resolution on their websites.

In their roles as community leaders, teachers, social workers, etc., they are reaching out to school children, children in hospitals, youth groups, college students and other community leaders to stage peace protests, art programs for peace and community roundtables to discuss the situation. They retold the story of Esther at Purim to highlight the leadership role Jewish women have played in saving their people. They are gearing up for Passover and contemplating how their family can process the events in the region through the prism of the holiday.

In the past months, Jewish women in the Project Kesher network have asked for support to learn mediation skills to facilitate dialogue across borders and opportunities to bring together leaders at neutral sites to strategize about how Jewish women can help stabilize Ukraine and Russia and continue to make strides in advocating for women and girls.

The rights of women and girls are almost always an afterthought in this region and have certainly not been a priority under the Putin administration or the last two administrations in Ukraine. Issues like domestic violence, trafficking and rape have barely begun to be addressed in any satisfactory way and will likely get worse as the economies in these countries are impacted by the current situation.

While Jewish women share the frustration and fears of others in their region, many are trying to regain some control over their quality of life through the framework of their Jewish identity and the social activism skills they have developed in the past decade.

Karyn Grossman Gershon is the executive director of Project Kesher, the largest funder of Jewish women’s programming in Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine. Through Project Kesher's support, Jewish women in this region have created a network of more than 180 Jewish women's groups and 90 interfaith coalitions that work to build Jewish identity, promote gender equality and advance civil society.