Chanukah Flames Fuel Women’s Empowerment in FSU

A man in Cherkassy, Ukraine outlined his hand for a anti-violence poster.

by H. Glenn Rosenkrantz

With the lights of Chanukah symbolizing visibility, perseverance and enlightenment, women throughout Russia and the Ukraine are gathering to educate themselves and others not only about the holiday, but also issues core to their lives and communities: fostering tolerance, ending violence and becoming empowered.

They are themes taken directly from the Chanukah story itself, intersecting neatly with key objectives of Project Kesher, an international organization dedicated to advocacy of women’s and human rights in countries of the former Soviet Union and in Israel.

The Project Kesher organized gatherings – in 30 cities and towns in the two countries – involve close to 1,000 participants. The meet-ups are designed to seed communities with holiday observances, and more importantly to leverage the Chanukah story to highlight issues still challenging societies more than two decades after the end of Soviet rule.

“The symbolism of Chanukah is clear,” said Rita Kashner, chair of the board of Project Kesher. “The bright flames of this holiday must illuminate the key challenges of creating, building and growing civil societies across the countries of the former Soviet Union. And just as women played key and transformative roles in the story of Chanukah, so will they play similar roles in their 21st century societies and communities.”

Project Kesher fosters more than 165 women’s groups and close to 100 multi-ethnic and multi-religious coalitions dedicated to dialogue, cooperation, understanding and community building.

This network was mobilized for Chanukah week, which coincides with the 16 Days Against Violence campaign, a global initiative sanctioned by the United Nations to bring worldwide attention to an often-underestimated affliction, especially within Russian-speaking communities. The campaign runs through Dec. 10, taking various forms in more than 153 countries, but all designed to increase awareness, encourage activism and raise voices for legal protections.

“Project Kesher activists on the ground in Russia, Ukraine and surrounding countries of the former Soviet Union are moving their communities toward action,” said Karyn Gershon, the organization’s executive director. “Issues such as domestic violence and violence against women often go unmentioned and may be invisible. Mobilizations such as these are the first steps in creating a mindset that makes it unacceptable, and empowers people in the process.”

In the days before Chanukah, 100 members of the Jewish community in Cherkassy, in central Ukraine, gathered for a pre-Chanukah Shabbaton to tackle some of these issues, mirroring meet-ups set to take place across the region during the holiday week.

Participants took part in traditional observances, such as lighting the Chanukiyah, but also discussed how the story of Chanukah informs the 21st century and issues of overcoming oppression and violence. As a sign of solidarity with humanity, women tied white ribbons around the arms of men, who imprinted their hands on a poster titled: “This Hand Won’t Hit.”

Such gestures, and the conversations drawn from them, are powerful catalysts for change, officials said.

“The ideas and lessons we draw from Chanukah teach us how it can and should impact our lives, how it should invigorate us, and how, as Jews and members of the global community, we can begin a process of self-perfection and improvement,” said Galina Polskaya, the head of the Cherkassy Jewish community.

Observances and mobilizations under the Project Kesher umbrella are taking place in Russian-speaking communities in Israel also.

At a pre-Chanukah gathering in Petach Tikvah, near Tel Aviv, participants studied the female heroes of the Chanukah tale and applied lessons to their modern lives as Russian-Israelis.

“Violence is not the way out of difficult circumstances and should not be tolerated in our homes or our communities,” said Sarah Feiman, one participant. “As women, we must lead by example to our children, our families and our neighbors.”

While Project Kesher leverages other Jewish holidays to advance discussion, change perceptions and spur action, Chanukah – and its various themes of perseverance – is a particularly relevant moment. And the 16 Days Against Violence campaign makes the message more potent.

“It is appropriate that this international campaign is taking place during Chanukah, which celebrates survival and the overcoming of challenges,” Gershon said. “Project Kesher activists who are incorporating the anti-violence message in their holiday gatherings are standing in solidarity with women of all faiths, races and ethnicities not only in their own communities, but globally. That is empowering beyond measure.”

about: Founded in 1989, Project Kesher is one of the fastest growing advocacy and human rights organizations in Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia and Kazakhstan with 165+ Jewish women’s groups and more than 90 multi-ethnic, multi-religious coalitions of women that spanning nine time zones. Project Kesher programs provide innovative leadership training programs for women and girls; Jewish educational programs and holiday celebrations; Torahs to communities where there were none; job training at 17 ORT/Keshernet computer centers; and grassroots social action and large-scale advocacy on the issues of domestic violence, human trafficking, women’s health issues, anti-Semitism and other forms of religious and ethnic intolerance. Project Kesher programs are inspired by Jewish values and designed to create pluralist communities committed to social justice and to promote civic participation across ethnic, religious and national lines. Most recently, Project Kesher has expanded into Israel working with a Russian speaking population.