Hadassah-Brandeis Institute

Under One Canopy: The Archives of Project Kesher

April 5, 2018

By Violet Fearon

Editor's note: The Brandeis University Library Special Collections recently acquired the archives of Project Kesher, an organization which has worked for over 25 years to provide leadership training, Jewish education and support for Jewish women in the Former Soviet Union. To learn more about the collection, please contact the Brandeis Library’s University Archives & Special Collections department. HBI Board Member Elaine Reuben, who was instrumental in bringing this archive to Brandeis, and who has created, led and sustained women's organizations throughout her career, will be honored at Project Kesher's Tenth Annual Benefit on April 11, 2018.

In one sense, the story of Project Kesher is one that takes place on a global stage, a story bound up with issues of international upheaval and social change. In another way, though, it is something smaller, more personal: the story of two women from very different backgrounds who shared a hope of empowering Jewish women of the former Soviet Union after decades of institutionalized anti-Semitism and oppression.

These two women were Sallie Gratch, an Illinois social worker, and Svetlana Yakimenko, an English teacher from Moscow. Gratch met Yakimenko after participating in the Peace March through Russia and they stayed in touch through letters after Gratch returned to the U.S. During the Peace March, Gratch spoke to many Jewish women who, though they had no particular desire to leave the Soviet Union, felt a deep need for a sense of community and stability. Back in the U.S., Gratch began to organize a cultural exchange program — bringing Jewish women from around to world together to allow the ethnically Jewish women of the NIS (Newly Independent States) to reconnect with their cultural roots.

This idea — to foster relations among Jewish women worldwide in order to educate Jewish women of the former USSR about their heritage — was incredibly ambitious, not just because of the geographical distances, but the enormous cultural barriers between East and West. But Gratch held a deep-set belief that Jewishness as a cultural force would prove more powerful than the ingrained prejudices of the Cold War. She viewed Jewishness not simply as a strengthener of individual homogenous communities, but as a force that could unite people of radically different backgrounds.

Throughout the 1990s, Project Kesher held international conferences, leadership seminars, and global women's Seders to great success — both allowing Jewish women of the NIS to access cultural knowledge that had previously been forbidden and fostering a sense of shared humanity between nationalities that had previously held stereotyped and one-dimensional views of each other.

One major, early achievement was Project Kesher's 1995 Kiev conference, which brought 300 Jewish women from around the world together for workshops and discussions. A businesslike fax in the Brandeis archives breaks down the geography, recording attendees from Siberia, San Francisco, St Petersburg, Tel Aviv, Cape Town and many other locales. The initial atmosphere surrounding this was one of excitement, but also uncertainty.

In a 1989 letter to Gratch, potential host Alex Shaskolsky says he and his wife are willing to host a family, but are also concerned about cultural differences, saying "You know our homes are not as big as American — make sure those who would come here would be ready for some 'limited comfort.' " A pamphlet from the landmark Kiev conference instructs American women in the cultural differences between them and the women of the NIS: "The women of the N.I.S. do not smile as much as Americans do," and "Russians do not do business over a meal. A meal is to enjoy. They think we are weird to try to eat and work at the same time."

Despite all the concern regarding cultural conflicts, the Kiev conference was an enormous success. An American woman wrote in a newsletter after the conference, "Don't assume that because you don't understand them, these women are not at least as smart, probably smarter than you."

The eagerness of the NIS women to learn leadership skills and Jewish customs led to more international conferences: a daily log kept by organizer Marcia Cohn Spiegel at a similar seminar in Chernigov gives a more detailed view into the interactions between these groups of women. She writes, "The highlight was certainly a skit which involved many women and was a take-off on some of our discussions, including having Project Kesher in the Arctic Circle (we thought that was a joke until we realized that the woman who proposed the idea actually lived near the Arctic Circle)."

In Chernigov, the women sang songs, discussed child care and family life, sexual violence in their communities, and their dreams for the future. In one particular segment, during the end of the conference, the women of the NIS were asked what they wished to do afterwards. Their answers show the ambition and diversity of goals among them: they wanted to teach sewing (Sima); start a dating club (Tanya); have a seminar on the North Pole (Vera); host literary evenings (Ira); teach other women about contraception (Larissa); create a rape and sexual assault hotline and "Realize her power" (Irina). They talked about their desire for women's centers, rape prevention, support for rape victims, counseling, a library with books on women’s issues and health, doctor referrals and medical equipment.

Reading these logs, the number of times the NIS women bring up rape and sexual assault speaks to the unique intersection Project Kesher operated in: not just addressing anti-Semitism and a lack of Jewish education, but the incredible levels of misogyny and fear of sexual violence these women endured. The Project Kesher seminars focused not just on religious topics, but providing a safe environment for women of the NIS to air their experiences and realize their own power to shape their communities and their world. In a section of the log where the NIS women described their favorite part of the seminar, one woman said: "Visiting the memorial and cemetery and experiencing in person the horror. Understanding how a people that was 70% of the community is now only 1%, but making a difference."

On the other side of the equation, the seminars were beneficial for the Western women attending; meeting the NIS women humanized a population that until very recently had been vilified and remote. Spiegel reported, "I believe that for all of the participants from the U.S., it was a rewarding and exciting experience. We had an opportunity to interact with the women of the former Soviet Union at a deep level, and opened up areas of communication that we were advised were impossible, that the women would not reveal details of their personal lives. For those of us who had already been to the F.S.U. with Project Kesher, we were able to see the impact that earlier seminars had on the leadership skills of the women who participated."

The varied activities and events organized by Project Kesher span a wide gamut — focusing on feminism, empowerment, religious education, and many other topics; it is difficult to categorize their work. But the enduring mission and guiding philosophy of Project Kesher is perhaps encapsulated by words emblazoned on the 1995 Global Women's Sukkot Celebration prayer book: "And Women Around The World Gathered Under One Canopy of Peace."