Thursday, August 22, 2013

Mission to Minsk … and more

Lovely article in the Jewish Voice of Rhode Island
By Susan Leach DeBlasio 
Friday, 16 August 2013 20:27

PROVIDENCE – Eddie Bruckner, Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island’s vice 
president for financial resource development, and I experienced Minsk and Israel 
on a Jewish Federations of North America mission with 96 other lay and professional
 leaders from across the United States and Canada. Missions are peripatetic, 
transformational summer camps for grownups. There’s no sleep, only days and 
nights filled with inspiration, education, training, and bonding with our counterparts
 and instant new friends. The mid-July mission was no different.
Vadim Kheifets, left, Susan Leach DeBlasio, Eddie Bruckner and Vladimir Levitsky clean a cemetery. /photos | Eddie Bruckner
In Minsk and Israel, we visited programs sponsored by the American Jewish Joint 
Distribution Committee (JDC), the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and World ORT. 
Each of these organizations, collaborating on a continuum of services with the dollars 
we (and other donor organizations) raise, ensures the renewal and vibrancy of Jewish 
life all over the world.
Today, about 25,000 Jews live in Minsk, the capital of Belarus (birthplace of Marc 
Chagall, Shimon Peres and Meyer Lansky), the first country invaded by the Nazis 
and the last liberated by the Allied Forces. The Nazis slaughtered 80-90 percent of the 
Jews in Belarus, and the Communists imposed official anti-Semitism for decades after 
the war, obliterating entire generations of Jewish knowledge, tradition and communal 
life. We began our visit to Minsk by exploring Yama (“pit”), a deep depression carved 
out of the earth where 5,000 Jews rounded up from the ghetto were shot to death in 
just one day. There we recited Kaddish and heard from several young leaders of the 
Jewish community as well as its head, Leonid Levin, an architect and sculptor.  
Descending by the stairway into the pit is his statue of 27 soulful figures about to die.  
In his remarks, Levin reminded us, “Each of us could have been in that line.”  
Transporting us from those tragic moments in the pit, where “the ashes of our people” 
are buried, he summed up the successful rebirth of Jewish life in Minsk with his 
dramatic conclusion, “We are few, but we are Jews.”
Jewish life flourishes in Minsk today. There are synagogues, schools, summer camps, 
young leader and cultural enrichment programs, Shabbatons, family retreats, 
newspapers and kosher food, with a robust infrastructure of Jewish social service, 
cultural and philanthropic organizations.  The Minsk Jewish Campus, a thriving 
social, cultural and educational center, is the central address for Jewish communal 
activity.   JDC, JAFI and World ORT are partners in their efforts to promote and 
sustain Jewish identity and care for the community’s needy and vulnerable. Together, 
with support from the Alliance, they are saving a generation of young Jewish adults 
who would otherwise assimilate into obscurity.

JDC’s Hesed Rachamim Welfare Center provides medicine, food, home care, 
cultural life, companionship, winter relief and home repairs for the last generation 
of elderly victims of the Nazis and life under a Communist regime.

As Dov Ben-Shimon of the JDC explained, “Jews don’t need our help getting out of 
any country in the world today. They need our help in staying.”

Their needs arise from hunger and thirst – hunger for food and sustenance, thirst for 
Jewish community and belonging.  Eddie and I shopped for groceries for 86-year old 
Tatiana, who lives alone in a tiny room of a communal apartment. We had an 
allotment from the JDC of 100,000 rubles ($11) to spend. We bought chicken, oil, 
tea, kasha, bread and noodles.  We all contributed to add oatmeal, fruit, potatoes 
and eggs.

Astonishingly, many young people we met exploring and celebrating their Judaism 
did not learn they were Jewish until they were into their teens.  Sometimes a 
grandparent or aunt let them know, or they discovered old family papers or a 
siddur (prayer book) in a shoebox in the attic.  Yoni Leifer went to shul for the 
first time when he was 11.  
After Jewish summer camps and Hebrew school, he made aliyah, and then after 
serving in the Israeli army and attending university, he returned home to Minsk to 
work for the JDC.

In Volozyhn, we visited the world-renowned Volozhyn Yeshiva, the site of the 
Second Zionist Congress and the “Harvard” of yeshivas, attracting the greatest 
Jewish intellectuals of the time (from 1803 until 1939).  There, we met Vladimir 
Levitskiy from Moscow and other Jewish young adults participating in an 
“Expedition” program where they do community service projects across the former 
Soviet Union and learn about their Jewish heritage.  Vladimir is 21 and first learned 
he was Jewish three years ago.  Since then, he has been to Israel on Taglit-Birthright, 
traveled all around the United States, participated in a number of cultural programs 
sponsored by JDC and JAFI, and hopes to return to Israel on a MASA program.  
Together we spent several hours cleaning a Jewish cemetery next to a monument 
memorializing the mass grave of thousands of Jews killed by the Nazis.

Recognizing that Jewish adolescents and young adults need multiple touch points in 
their lives to concretize their Jewish identity, these agencies sponsor summer camps, 
Birthright trips and Jewish schools, to create a long-term immersive experience in 
Jewish life.  JAFI runs summer camps where children learn local Jewish history, 
Jewish customs and practices. At one camp, I met Kseniye, 19 and a counselor, who 
did not learn she was Jewish until she was 9 and had an opportunity to attend the 
camp.  As they learn to engage young campers in the Jewish community, counselors 
develop their own Jewish identities.
In Israel, we traveled to Haifa, Afula, Jerusalem and other areas where programs 
rescue children at risk, provide services to those in need and integrate immigrants, 
including Ethiopians, into Israeli life.  At a World ORT science and math campus 
focused on “program-based learning,” we launched rockets and enjoyed other 
experiential learning opportunities with 14- and 15-year-old scientists.
One personal highlight was a visit to a JDC-run father/son sports program in Afula. 
Fathers and sons must commit to spend 90 minutes each week together with coaches, 
counselors, and other father-son pairs. Together they practice and play soccer, but 
what they really learn are social skills, teamwork, confidence, self-esteem and
responsibility.  The program successfully strengthens the relationship between father 
and son, and their lessons spill over into all other areas of their lives, generating 
emotional wellbeing, family relationships and better school attendance and grades.
The Alliance has been ensuring a vibrant Jewish community for nearly 70 years 
both domestically and overseas. As the central address of Jewish philanthropy in 
greater Rhode Island, the Alliance provides care for people in need and support to 
Israel and collaborates to develop a strong Jewish community for the next generation.

As the great Lubbavitcher Rebbe Schneerson cautioned, “If you see what needs to be 
repaired and how to repair it, then you have found a piece of the world that God has 
left for you to complete. But if you only see what is wrong and how ugly it is, then it is 
yourself that needs repair.”

I invite all of you to join the Alliance and me this year to help repair the piece of the 
world left for us to complete.

Susan Leach DeBlasio ( is vice chair for financial resource development of the Alliance.

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