July 18, 2018

The Journey of Dorka Berger: From Childhood in the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz to Incarceration in Mandate Palestine

By Leslie Starobin

For over a decade, I have been conversing with Dorka Berger née Altman about her childhood in the Łódź Ghetto and Auschwitz and her journey to Mandate Palestine in 1946. In her Polish diary, she refers to this geographic region as Ziemia Obiecana—the Promised Land. In conversational Hebrew, she refers to it as Eretz Yisrael—the Land of Israel. The warmth of these biblical designations stands in contrast to the welcome Dorka received when she landed in Haifa. The British apprehended the young Holocaust survivor and transported her to the Atlit Detainee Camp 15 kilometers south of the port city. Disembarking from a military vehicle, Dorka surveyed the scene. “Again, barbed wire?”

Last summer I visited Dorka in Jerusalem and presented her with the book Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross. The catalogue accompanied a 2017 exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Viewing this visual tome sparked Dorka’s memory of the Altman family’s final days in the ghetto before their passage to Auschwitz in cattle cars.

One of the most striking photographs in the collection was taken during the liquidation of the Łódź Ghetto in August 1944. Ross had photographed the deportation from a crack in a wall in a storeroom across from the train depot. Afterwards, he buried his negatives in the ground so they could be dug up later to serve as indisputable evidence of Nazi crimes. In the foreground of this particular picture, a Jewish policeman clutches a suitcase. Behind him is a densely packed crowd of Jews. After seeing this photograph in the book, Dorka recalled that no Jewish policemen stood on guard when they arrived at the station—only German soldiers. “They even helped Ima get up onto the platform from the ground.” On the loading dock, a Nazi scooped jam onto square sheets of newspaper. “Everyone got a little loaf of bread—it was like a treasure that fell from the sky—and a teaspoon of jam. Everyone said, ‘Even a drop should not fall. Even a drop gives you strength. It’s jam, it’s sugar.’ They licked the paper, so nothing would be lost.”

Months after Dorka and I perused this book of photographs, her own wartime chronicle resurfaced. Long forgotten, the Diary of Dwojra Altman turned up in the archives of the Jewish Historical Commission in Warsaw. An Israeli Ph.D. student discovered a copy of it while doing research in Poland. Recognizing the surname, he reached out to Dorka’s sons in Jerusalem. They contacted my husband, who is Dorka’s nephew. I shared the diary with a native Polish speaker who assisted with the English translation.

Reading it, I discovered that Dorka had noted the date of the transport to Auschwitz—August 17, 1944. On the opening page of her diary, inaugurated on July 2, 1945 in Łódź where the Altman sisters returned after liberation, Dorka venerated her parents who perished in Auschwitz. A few pages later, Dorka acknowledged their loss and expressed her hopes for the future:

I will never see my beloved parents again. I know that all too well. But if it were possible to go to Ima’s grave, to Aba’s, to pray for their souls, or at least to cry my eyes, I would feel a lot better in my heart…. I miss them terribly…. I can’t speak of this [to] my sisters, so as not to remind them, although they are suffering as much as me…. They think about our future existence…. I would just like to leave this country, which created so much evil for me, such complete tragedy for me. Possibly in the Promised Land it will be better for me.

Exactly one year later, Dorka glimpsed the shores of Zion from the deck of the Birya, the Turkish vessel she boarded near Marseilles, France for the journey to Eretz Yisrael. As the sun rose on July 2, 1946, a cry broke out among the ma’apilim—illegal immigrants—on the ship. We stood up like one person and together we started to sing ‘HaTikva’ from all of our hearts,” Dorka said. “Now, when I hear ‘HaTikva,’ I am used to it, but then it was very emotional. Even with confused words, a thousand people [were] singing from their hearts.”

Unbeknownst to the British authorities guarding the entry to the port of Haifa, an American reporter named I.F. Stone had embarked on the journey. “The journalist took a megaphone and pointed it towards the British. He shouted to them in their language. ‘Whoever listens to such a “HaTikva” knows that you cannot defeat these people.’”

In a recent conversation by Skype, I asked Dorka why she didn’t bring the diary to Eretz Yisrael in 1946. “We were told [by Haganah emissaries leading the Bricha—the escape from Europe] that we would not be able to carry many things on the journey.” A representative of one of the Jewish agencies assisting survivors in Poland offered to take the journal from her and deposit it in a safe place in Warsaw.

Today Dorka regularly speaks to visiting groups at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. On the eve of the 70th anniversary of Israeli independence, Dorka described her passage on the Birya to an attentive crowd of Israelis and reminisced about her incarceration at Atlit in July 1946.

“The British soldiers were intense,” Dorka recalled in our June conversation, “but not threatening.” The British permitted nearby kibbutznikim to visit the camp everyday and mingle with the newcomers. “We loved them very much. They taught us songs in Hebrew. We would go very near to the soldiers, singing ‘Kalaniot,’” a Hebrew folk song about anemones ablaze in the valley. The bloom of the flowers matched the red of the soldiers’ berets. The tune had become the code song to alert Jewish fighters about the advance of British forces, but Dorka and the other ma’apilim were unaware of the cipher. “We annoyed them [the soldiers]. They were nervous. Because they were nervous, it was funny for us. We were young,” Dorka said.

Then, less than two weeks after Dorka arrived in Mandate Palestine, the Irgun bombed the King David Hotel on July 22. At Atlit, Dorka heard few details about the explosion other than something “big” had happened in Jerusalem.

A few weeks later, Dorka moved to the contested city. A representative from Agudat Yisrael, one of the ultra-Orthodox political parties facilitating Jewish immigration to Mandate Palestine, arrived at Atlit and requested to bring Dorka to Jerusalem to study. At Penina Bet Yakov, a girls’ boarding school, female teachers greeted her. “They say here comes a new girl. She speaks Polish. Who wants to be her friend? Another time a Hungarian girl arrives. The next time a Romanian girl arrives.” Then a German girl entered the classroom. “She looks at me. I look at her.”

A year earlier, when Dorka began chronicling her wartime memories, she could not have imagined reconnecting with this schoolmate from the Łódź ghetto. To her confidante—the diary, Dorka had disclosed, “I don’t have any friends. They all fell victims of Majdanek and Auschwitz. I’m the only one from my class still here, possibly by accident, or saved by a miracle.”

The two survivors became lifelong friends.

With the discovery of the Diary of Dwojra Altman, I am compiling an essay—juxtaposing singular excerpts from the journal with edited passages from my recorded conversations with Dorka. While I write about her wartime experiences, I often look at Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross. No matter how chilling the deportation scene is, an educator at Yad Vashem points out in a video, Ross’s picture “cannot show us what happened inside the cattle cars or what happened when the Jews of Łódź arrived at their final destination—Auschwitz. For this historical information, we rely on the testimonies of survivors.”

 

New Media and Fourth-Wave Feminism

By Shlomit Lir

Almost 10 years ago, I initiated a conference at Bar Ilan University, The Internet as a Platform for a Feminist Social Revolution, where I brought forth a view of new media’s potential for initiating a great feminist change. At the time this view was not uncommon among women activists who specialized in internet technologies and were aware of the power of the net to disseminate ideas to the public. I had been writing at that time about the internet as a tool for the fourth wave of feminism, and as a way of overcoming the traditional gatekeepers which excluded women and their ideas from the social discourse. I was fascinated by the ability to have a public arena for the voices of women and for forming support groups in private digital forums that allow the sharing of stories, experiences and feelings.

Looking back, I am much less optimistic. It is not that I think that the vision manifested in the conference’s title was completely erroneous, or that the net is not an initiator of a new feminist wave, but I recognize the power of the backlash. I am more aware that it is possible to use the net to mislead the masses and reproduce oppressive mechanisms and that feminists turning to the internet as a means for change need to be prepared.

In 2011, in Israel, the internet played a major role in what came to be known as the “Camps Protest” — a mass demonstration which brought, at one point, a half a million people to the streets in a march against the high cost of housing. The protest was inspiring not only because it was the first mass Israeli protest organized on Facebook but also because it was instigated and mainly led by women.

The vision of a feminist social revolution that was referred to in the 2009 conference’s name did not come true that summer in Israel. However, the Camps Protest did bring about a greater awareness of social justice. At the same time, it demonstrated how women can gain public power and leadership positions through online and offline activism, but also how they can lose this power once the issues they are promoting are no longer in the public eye. Daphni Leef, who was the lead organizer of a tent camp in central Tel Aviv, moved to the background of public events once the protests where over, while Stav Shaffir, another protest leader, preserved her public influence by moving from grassroots to the establishment and becoming a member of Knesset.

The power of the internet as an engine for social change was also apparent in the Arab Spring — a grassroots protest where women played major roles in planning, promoting and participating in demonstrations. In addition to mass events, smaller protests led by women in the Arab world gained recognition through the net. In Saudi Arabia, women filmed themselves driving, despite the official prohibition, and posted the video clips to Twitter. In Iran, women are bravely removing their hijabs in public, and online platforms are being used to spread the photos of their protest around the world.

Again, the lesson is not only the ways women can use the internet to promote social change. The events show how, instead of talking in terms of a revolution which brings about social change, it is often more accurate to talk in terms of a long process – with many setbacks. After more more than 10 years, Saudi women gained a promise that they would be allowed to drive by June 2018. In Iran, no change has been perceived – yet. After great hardships, the Arab Spring paved, in some countries, new paths allowing more liberation. In others, the change is yet to come.

While some of the women activists, such as Yemeni journalist Tawakkol Karman, gained worldwide recognition for promoting change, others, like the women who led the demonstrations in Egypt, returned to what is considered their traditional roles once the protests ended.

The reality of a long and arduous process of change, in which the net is one of many factors, is also apparent in the #metoo movement. This movement, which was originally initiated in 2006 by the social activist Tarana Burke on Myspace, has leapt into worldwide consciousness in 2017.

The power of the #metoo movement is not in question. It is a milestone in feminist history, showing how it is possible to advance feminist and social progress through digital grapevines, where the voice of one woman who shares her experiences inspires others to do the same, thus, creating a critical mass that cannot be ignored — at least for some time.

The ability to create universal change in regards to sexual harassment, social justice, and welfare policies demonstrates how a discourse that was previously limited to a relatively small group of activists has the potential to become an inseparable part of the public agenda with the help of digital means.

It is undeniable that social media plays an important role in assisting women in finding a voice, becoming socially active and more publicly involved. It allows an open platform for the voices of oppressed and marginalized groups, who are often silenced by male dominance in the traditional media.

With open and accessible communication channels, women of all walks of life can share their worldview without the obstacles of geography and time. They can create interactive and immediate contact with activists from around the world in a manner which helps feminist ideas to turn viral. There is no doubt that Facebook pages, groups and blogs have become focal points for discussion and influence among feminists. Online campaigns against sexist commercials create online protest actions that bring different voices to center stage and often get immediate results. Traditional media, which does not want to lag behind, reports on the events that take place on social media, enabling feminist concepts to gain a place in the larger public conscious.

However, the greater the progress, the greater the backlash. Aside from the ability to create some of the ideal conditions for an alternative public sphere, to manage a public democratic discourse, and be a source of social change that challenges patriarchal social forms, the internet often reproduces women’s and minorities’ oppression and sometimes magnifies it.

Just as we struggled many years ago with print encyclopedias that often excluded important female voices, data shows that we continue to struggle online as the same dynamic is repeated on Wikipedia. Again, as research demonstrates, human knowledge often becomes equated with male knowledge through covert mechanisms of exclusion.

Parallel to advertising that demeans women, the internet allows free unrestricted consumption of pornography. It is all too easy to put out a false narrative that will be shared virally as if it were true, causing grave harm.  And, it too easy for fake users to create identities devoted to cyberbullying and sexual harassment online. In the wrong hands, the internet becomes a tool of ruling the masses through simplistic tweets that are designed to create an impression and heat up the crowds instead of enabling serious discussion and thought.

The Way Forward

In order to lead the new wave of feminism, there is a need to initiate procedures for promoting the visibility and voices of women in cyberspace. My research shows that digital literacy which seems easy and obvious to many, poses an obstacle for women who did not overcome the digital divide or who feel left behind by a world that had advanced without them. There are many voices that are still not heard and which can be lost to her-story simply because of technological gaps and discomfort. We must make these voices heard by teaching more women digital literacy and encouraging them to participate and share their stories.

It is in our power to change the discourse, not to surrender to the reproduction of old power structures, to pornography, to exclusion, and to weakening representations of women. It is in our power to be prepared for backlashes. The act of creating a new world of representations of active, powerful, thinking women — that reflects the billions of women who make the world a better place — lies on our shoulders. It is upon us to write, to show our strengths, and to produce a new visual language. The sooner we embrace technology as a tool for voice in workshops for programing and for writing online so women gain fluency and comfort in this medium, the greater the influence can be.

Technology waits for no one. As in offline reality, those who go in first make the rules. We need to make sure women are on board.

Shlomit Lir, a visiting scholar at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis, is a gender and digital media researcher. Her Ph.D., “Gendering Digital Identity: The Establishment of Voice Among Female Activists in New Media Platforms,” is based on research examining the processes of establishing the public self as an aspect of women’s entrance into the digital sphere. Lir is the initiator and CEO of Women Activists Online, an initiative designed to promote women leadership by the use of social media. Among the books she has edited are In Visible Ink (Hebrew, 2015) and To My Sister: Mizrahi Feminist Identity (Hebrew, 2007).

Mainstreaming Refugee Women’s Rights Advocacy

By Tally Kritzman-Amir

Asylum-Seeking Women as Women: Mainstreaming Refugee Women’s Rights Advocacy

For many years I’ve been working with asylum seekers, men and women, in Israel. A few years ago a client – an African asylum-seeking woman in her early 40s – came to our office. Her set of issues, not necessarily unique to her, highlighted the need for us to work differently to better serve this population.

She had kids, and was a victim of domestic violence. She was wondering whether she should report her husband’s abuse, fearing one the one hand for her children’s and her own safety, and on the other for the economic stability of the family. She was afraid that if she was to report her husband, he would be detained and she would have to support her family alone on her low wages. When she did eventually report him, the spiral she feared ensued, but it was even worse than she expected.

He was indeed detained and indicted, but the worst came after he completed his sentence. He was moved to a “residency center,” similar to an immigration detention facility. In theory, he was free to go in and out, however, he had to spend the night there, away from his children. The facility was remote and inaccessible by public transportation. Then, he was approached with a suggestion. He would receive $3,500 if he agreed to go to a third country with which Israel has an agreement to take African asylum seekers off its hands. Once he agreed to the deal, his wife – our clinic’s client – was left to provide for her children on her own, without their father. Additionally, she had no contact with her husband and no access to the bank account in his name (though her salary had been deposited in it for years), and she was unable to divorce him.

Our legal clinic was unsure what we could do for her. We were used to fighting for people’s status, but clearly this client needed so much more than that. Being undocumented was only one dimension of her personal drama. What could we do to treat the issues this woman confronted more holistically?

The life experiences of this client were not new to me.  A few years ago, I took part in a research project documenting the difficult lives of asylum-seeking women in Israel. Through that research, we concluded that the vulnerability of this population justifies their treatment as a discrete group within the asylum-seeking community, but they are rarely treated as such. That research also showed that feminist organizations are not inclined to engage with asylum-seeking women, and that advocacy to promote women’s rights is conducted within the confines of the “ghetto” of NGOs devoted to migrants’ rights and clinics. This renders asylum-seeking women unable to enjoy the rights feminism has achieved within Israeli society.

The Coalition on Asylum-Seeking Women and Children in Israel

The limits of our abilities to help such a client, together with the findings of that research, resulted in the creation of the Coalition on Asylum-Seeking Women and Children in Israel, which has been operating since September 2016. It consists of 15 NGOs and legal clinics with the main goals of promoting migrants’ and refugees’ rights, women’s rights, and children’s rights. The coalition focuses on providing legal services in different fields of law, including outside of our comfort zone of immigration and refugee law, in the unknown territories of family law. We also deal with issues of the social and economic rights of asylum-seeking women and children. This includes the submission of an amicus brief on behalf of a dozen women and children’s rights NGOs, on the constitutionality of the deposit law, a law that came into force in May 2017. According to the deposit law, 20% of the (already low) salary of asylum seekers will be transferred to a deposit made available to the asylum seeker when she leaves Israel. This economic measure had a dramatic effect on already-vulnerable women and children. Finally, the coalition’s member organizations have put together demonstrations against the recent plans to deport African asylum seekers from Israel to third countries. Such demonstrations included a demonstration on International Women’s Day attended by disempowered Israeli and asylum-seeking women and a protest march of Israeli and African children.

The Feminist Engagement with Asylum-Seeking Women

Over the years, feminist engagement with asylum-seeking women has centered on an effort to identify these women as a discrete category of asylum seekers, worthy of protection under the refugee convention. Such efforts have focused on demonstrating that the forms of persecution women typically endure are unique and that protection gaps within the refugee convention and within the definition of refugees heighten women’s risk. This is due to the absence of gender as a convention-recognized ground for asylum, and the general male-oriented convention grounds, both in text and interpretation. Feminist efforts have thus sought to argue that refugee law should protect women from acts of persecution carried out by private actors in the private sphere, often abetted by lax enforcement of state laws. Such efforts have proven to be somewhat fruitful. Since the mid-1980s, many Western democracies recognize practices such as female genital mutilation, forced marriages, child marriages, trafficking, domestic violence, sexual violence and others as recognized forms of persecution. Women who seek asylum from these types of persecution in these specific countries are often given protection, even when said persecution is not directly attributable to the state.

Recently there has been a call to further deepen the engagement of refugee law with feminist theory, to promote a feminist reading of core concepts in refugee law, such as the concept of exclusion or surrogate state protection. Such cases highlight the fact that these concepts not only disproportionately affect women, but also influence women and men differently and can thus benefit from application of feminist methodologies.

The Current Research Project

In my current research project, I draw from the work with refugees and asylum-seeking women in Israel to argue that international refugee law would benefit from an additional form of engagement with feminism. In particular, I argue that refugee law should not remain at the level of status, or even at the level of the International Refugee Law framework. Instead of simply introducing feminist theory into International Refugee Law, I suggest that the underlying commonality among all women, regardless of status, would benefit from conjoining advocacy efforts on behalf of refugee women with those on behalf women more generally.

Such a legal perspective, arising from more fundamental human (women’s) rights would encourage the development of a legal framework that would allow the promotion of a deeper protection for asylum-seeking women, changing the legal focus from questions of status in determining whether someone, male or female, qualifies for protection as a refugee, to a broader focus on an entire set of necessary civil, social, economic and cultural rights. It also creates opportunities for solidarity between asylum-seeking women and other women, including other immigrants, citizens and residents, national minorities, and general feminist and women’s rights groups. Moreover, such a linkage will allow asylum-seeking women to benefit from the progress already achieved by feminist movements regarding women’s rights, rather than marginalizing them and confining them to seeking rights exclusively as refugees.

The call for mainstreaming the discourse of refugee rights into the discourse of women’s rights offers an important theoretical contribution that goes beyond the discussion of asylum-seeking women’s rights. The overarching question is this: Is it strategically preferable to advocate for the rights of refugees via instruments of International Human Rights, rather than via International Refugee Law?

In examining this question, I find significant arguments in favor of abandoning the prevailing view that International Refugee Law is a separate branch of international law to be applied and interpreted according to its own fundamental concepts, and separately from other areas of international law. Since the adoption of other human rights instruments, namely the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 1966, as well as regional human rights instruments, and, in this context, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1979, this tendency to view refugee law separately from international human rights law has been questioned. These international conventions on human rights should be applicable to refugees, as they apply to “all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction,” (ICCPR) or “everyone” (ICCPR, ICESCR). In other words, their applicability is not limited merely to citizens, residents, lawfully staying persons, etc., and they apply not just within a state’s territory but also along its borders and in other areas where states apply coercive force.

While there have been calls to interpret International Refugee Law in light of International Human Rights Instruments (as well as International Humanitarian Law), this argument goes further by asking, what would be the benefits of advocating for refugee rights – not just for refugee women’s rights – through a Human Rights framework, rather than a Refugee Rights framework? Put differently, which legal approach would be more beneficial in protecting refugees’ rights?

The exploration of this question is essentially a theorization of the work of the aforementioned coalition on asylum-seeking women and children in Israel. By embedding a theoretical legal question in the lived experience of women asylum seekers and women’s rights advocates, the expected outcome of this research stretches beyond its theoretical value to a reflection on the advocacy effort and raison d’être of the coalition.

Finally, in light of the recent shifts in the Israeli policies towards asylum seekers, the focus on asylum-seeking women and children and their integration is of high importance. This is ultimately the population that will not be resettled or deported from Israel, and thus their integration – and ability to enjoy the fruits of the feminist struggle in Israel – is an effort worth making for their own sake as well as for the sake of other women.

 

Dr. Tally Kritzman-Amir is a scholar-in-residence at HBI and a senior lecturer of Immigration and International Law at The College of Law and Business in Israel. She is a visiting fellow at The Human Rights Program of Harvard Law School.

Under One Canopy: The Archives of Project Kesher

By Violet Fearon

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 at  ascdepartment@brandeis.edu. 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 US. 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 US, Gratch began to organize a cultural exchange program—bringing Jewish women from around to world together in order 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 (Newly Independent States): “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 childcare 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.”

Make Your Own Haggadah With Gendered Themes

By Amy Powell

Just before Pesach in 2011, the New York Times reported some important news about gender and Passover: The fusty Maxwell House Haggadah, offered free in grocery stores with a purchase of Maxwell House coffee (this year there was one in my matzo box), adopted some gender-neutral language.

Rather than calling G-d a king, they used “monarch,” and changed the four sons to the four “children.”

Today, there are so many varied haggadot with more profound changes relating to gender than simply adopting gender-neutral language. Haggadot exist for a spectrum of observances, age groups and personal preferences, many with updated themes of freedom, plagues, renewal and more.

For those searching for readings and themes — and perhaps not ready to invest in new haggadot — there are many downloadable versions. HBI has compiled a few tools to help you design your own seder with an eye to HBI’s mission of developing fresh ideas about Jews and gender.

For example, JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, compiled numerous  Pesach Divrei Torah, described as “by women, for all,” in a 32-page free download titled Shema Bekolah, Hear Her Voice.

Another resource, is JewishBoston.com and The Wandering is Over Haggadah: A Seder For Everyone, their free and downloadable, contemporary and customizable haggadah. Here, you will find readings and options on anti-Semitism, mental health, immigration, feminism, labor rights, social justice, climate change, racial justice, inclusion, Israel, LGBTQ liberation and more. The contributors include The Jewish Climate Action Network (JCAN), JCRC, ADL, Ruderman Foundation, Jewish Family & Children’s Services, Emilia Diamant, JewishBoston.com, New England Jewish Labor Committee and others.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, known as the “Velveteen Rabbi,” created a downloadable haggadah, the Velveteen Rabbi’s Haggadah for Pesach, out of her desire for a seder text which cherishes “the tradition and also augments that tradition with contemporary poetry, moments of mindfulness, a theology of liberation, and sensitivity to different forms of oppression.”

Jewish Family & Children’s Services released two downloadable haggadot related to healing and wholeness: the Chaverim Shel Shalom Haggadah and the Betty Ann Greenbaum Miller Center for Jewish Healing Friendly Visitor Passover Seder.

Haggadot.com has a tool called Let’s Make Your Passover Haggadah Together, with a platform that allows you to create a custom seder, using content aggregated from more than 150 individuals, artists and 13 organizations. These can be tailored and either downloaded or printed for your seder.

I’m probably not banning Maxwell House completely. I have a soft spot for a wine stain that may have been created by people who have since passed away. It’s also useful to have multiple copies of at least one haggadah with every single verse of Dayenu! But as the four children remind us, it’s better to have a multitude of voices around the table, asking questions and heightening our awareness of what the holiday means.

Amy Powell is the assistant director of HBI.

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