Housed at B'nai Israel and serving the community, Upper Fairfield County has the Kesher Project, a program that "kindles the light of Judaism in developmentally challenged adults," under the dedicated leadership of Rhea Farbman.
On the other side of the world, in the Former Soviet Union - including Ukraine, and for Russian speakers now living in Israel, our Federation has also supported Project Kesher, with a misssion to "give women and girls the tools to challenge themselves and their society."
With my experience prior to this day having been limited to hearing Project Kesher's ten minute presentation before our allocations committee, but having today spent many hours with staff, participants, and partners from Project Kesher in the Ukraine, I realized that my understanding of this impactful organization only touched a small piece of what is a dynamic and multi-faceted organization.
Throughout the day, I was shepherded by Vlada, Project Kesher's Program Manager for Ukraine, and Marina, who both leads Project Kesher's Odessa office and is a lead Health Officer for the organization throughout the region.
While I had understood Project Kesher as a women's leadership organization, running leadership training retreats (and indeed it is that), throughout the day I learned that they are so much more - providing domestic violence counseling; teaching women throughout the FSU about preventative medicine (which is not customary in the region) with a particular focus on breast cancer education (an issue that I know is close to the heart of many in our own community); running anti-trafficking seminars; offering economic and legal literacy workshops; teaching tolerance; helping to renew Jewish life; and placing torahs in congregations throughout the region. In total, more that 1,000 Project Kesher leaders work as volunteers and paid professionals in the Jewish community.
We were joined in the late morning by Inna, who represents Face Hope Love, a partner of Project Kesher in providing education to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS. I learned that Project Kesher has developed such partnerships with 1,800 regional organizations of various specializations.
The highlight, however, was the opportunity to have lunch with four mothers and their daughters who were past participants of Project Kesher's Mother-Daughter Retreat program. They spoke of how their experiences at these Shabbatonim have deepened their mother-daughter relationships and their Jewish observance. As is the case in many Jewish homes in the FSU, where Jewish life was suppressed for decades, I learned once again the extent to which parents are learning about Judaism from their children. I was also moved to learn of the great focus placed in retreat workshops on tolerance, not only beyond the Jewish community, but within as well. Indeed, those mothers and daughters represented a variety of affiliations and levels of observance. And it became evident that Project Kesher not only builds leaders, but also builds friendships and - perhaps most importantly - a supportive community.
We ended our day meeting with Rabbi Yulaya Gris, the leader of Progressive Congregation Shirat Ha-yam, herself an alumni of Project Kesher Programs. Rabbi Gris was glowing when she spoke about her congregation's Torah, received through Project Kesher's Torah Return Project. When I asked if she knew where the Torah originally came from, she told me of its journey. It had in fact originally come from Odessa, then to the U.S., then to China, then back to the U.S., and finally back to Odessa, where it is the pride of Shirat Hayam.
Having spent a day with Project Kesher, I realize to what extent we should also be proud to be part of that story, and the countless stories that emanate from this organization making a difference in the lives of mothers, daughters, and so many others in Ukraine and throughout the FSU.
At one point during the lunch, I asked if those without daughters felt left out that they were unable to participate in the mother-daughter retreats. One of the women pointed to her husband sitting on the other side of the restaurant. "Yes, him! He's jealous that he can't participate."
For at least a few hours, I felt privileged to be welcomed into the Project Kesher experience.