I was on the ground in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, for three days, though it felt like much longer.
Before World War II, the population of Minsk and other cities in Belarus was more than 50 percent Jewish. Nearly a quarter of a million Belarusian Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, and the Jewish Agency estimates the current population identifying as Jewish in Belarus at about 20,000. Many of them are elderly and poor.
I made this trip last month with other Federation leaders to see first-hand the work of our partner, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and to better understand why we send them precious dollars our donors give to the UJA Annual Campaign.
I can tell you the three main things I learned there:
First, coming from our community, it’s easy to forget that many Jews in this part of the world live in harrowing conditions — often struggling to even pay for food and other essentials. Our interconnected Jewish federation system ensures that Jews all around the world are not forgotten, that they can live with dignity. No one gets left behind.
Second, I saw that our Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, through our partners, does life-saving work on the ground. This is a reflection of our community’s shared values. We have a concern and a sense of responsibility for all Jews, wherever they may live, and that makes me very proud.
Finally, I experienced the vitality of the Belarussian-Jewish community. Despite the low numbers, theirs is a vibrant fascinating community with very deep roots. And a powerful tradition of pride, activism, and Jewish community spirit.
Take the town of Grodno, for example. Nearly 70 percent of the population of Grodno was Jewish at the turn of the 20th century, and almost everyone spoke Yiddish. There were over 40 synagogues, a Jewish orphanage, a Jewish theater, and a Jewish hospital. But the warm and textured life created by Jews in the five centuries they had lived in Grodno was collapsing by the approach of the first World War. New laws prohibited Jews from buying land, from going to university, from changing their names to non-Jewish ones. And worst of all, the Czarist government approved of pogroms against Jews. They said it was the Jews’ fault for exploiting ordinary Russians.
Grodno (the childhood home of Meyer Suchowljansky, who later become known as the infamous gangster Meyer Lansky) was one of the first — and one of the only — Eastern European communities where the Jews met violence with violence. There were some tough Jews around there. They formed a self-defense organization, hiding weapons in their homes; they fought back against policemen who helped their persecutors; they assassinated the Russian police chief who had organized the nearby Bialystok pogrom. Grodno’s endurance earned it some reprieve from the worst effects of anti-Semitism, but the odds were not on its side. After centuries of life there, Jews were starting to contemplate their options.
Jews in Belarus and Jews from Belarus were fighters — like the Bielskis, Jewish partisans who rescued 1,236 others, surviving the war living in the forests. It was one of the most remarkable rescue missions of the Holocaust. Several of the Bielski partisans later made their home here in the Greater MetroWest community, and we were blessed to have them.
There were other Belarussian Jews who fought. Jews like Menachem Begin, born in Brest-Litovsk. Like Yitzhak Shamir in Ruzhany. Like Shimon Peres in Vishnyeva. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and Chaim Weizmann, and countless others. In many respects, the foundation of the Jewish state was created in
In Belarus, the Jewish community created vibrant, beautiful Jewish art. With Jewish artists like Moishe Segal, born near Vitebsk, who later changed his name to Marc Chagall. And in Belarus, the foundation of the American-Jewish culture was laid. With Belarussian-born Jews like Irving Berlin and Louis B. Mayer, and the children of Belarussian-Jewish immigrants like Kirk Douglas and Ralph Lauren.
I was fascinated by the real thirst for Jewish identity in Belarus. I saw Jewish knowledge, and Jewish connection — especially in the younger generations. JDC’s Active Jewish Teens program enlists teens from across Belarus and throughout the former Soviet Union to explore their Jewish heritage together and to practice Jewish values by volunteering their time to care for the elderly and work with young children. It was incredibly moving to meet these young people taking ownership of their Jewish community and its future, and at the same time caring so genuinely for their elders.
And that’s why we work so hard to develop leadership programs, youth engagement, community outreach. It takes time, energy, and precious resources to rebuild, restore, and renew. Every single federation program, at home, in Israel, in Belarus, and in every country around the world, is rooted in the core value that we all share: kol yisrael arevim ze bezeh — that all Jews are responsible one for another. Every day.
That’s why I went. That’s why our task is so sacred, so important, so filled with love. And that’s why our Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ allocates a significant portion of our UJA Campaign dollars — the dollars we raise from our generous donors — to support our overseas partners, including JDC, to provide aid and relief as well as community building projects in Jewish communities worldwide.
Because this is our Jewish story. And it belongs to all of us.
Dov Ben-Shimon is executive vice president and CEO of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. To read more about his trip and to see a video, visit www.jfedgmw.org/minsk.