January 8, 2009

Briefing from Asher Ostrin - Executive Director FSU Programs

Below is a briefing from Asher Ostrin, Executive Director of JDC Programs in the Former Soviet Union. This week he shares the story of one town and the determination to keep Judaism alive within the community.

Dear all,

Several weeks ago I wrote about the Yesod JCC, in the format of a before and after study. Three years after Yesod opened its doors, it was time to look at its impact on the life of the Jewish community. We did that through a description of Jewish life in St Petersburg prior to Yesod's opening, and now.

I'd like to utilize that "before and after" format again this week, but in a very different way. I want to widen the chronological scope, to look at the changes in the life of a specific community over the span of several generations. The community I want to look at, through the lens of a dear colleague, friend and teacher of all us on the FSU team is Orsha, a town in the "periphery" of Belarus. Stanley Abramovitch was recently there and wrote some reflections on his visit. In order to fully appreciate what he wrote, one needs some background on Orsha and its "neighborhood".

Prior to the Second World War, Orsha belonged to Poland. In a radius of several dozen kilometers one could reach towns with names that are long forgotten to most Jews, but which once were spoken in many Jewish circles with reverence reserved for holy cities.

Thirty one kilometers to the west is Volozhin. It was always a small town, and perhaps that is why it was chosen by Reb Chayim, a student of the Gaon of Vilna, to be the seat of his Yeshiva. In its day, the Volozhin Yeshiva was at the top of the "Ivy League" of the yeshiva world. Almost all of the great Ashkenazi rabbis of the 19th century were alumni of that yeshiva. Commentaries on Bible and Talmud that were produced there are still studied today.

The yeshiva's impact was not limited to the religious world. Many of the leaders of the haskalah movement that strove to create a secular Jewish culture, started their intellectual searches in Volozhin. The poet laureate of the Jewish People, Chayim Nachman Bialik is probably the most famous, but by no means the only example.

Traveling further west from Orsha, one comes to Radin. There, in the early 20th century one could find the authoritative codifier of Jewish law in that period, a rabbi known as the Hafetz Hayim. In addition to his works on halakhah, he was very interested in promoting ethical behavior, both by promulgating laws and through personal example. He wrote a treatise on gossip (that we could all learn from today). His material support came from a grocery store that he owned in town, but which he kept open only two days a week so as not to unfairly compete with other groceries nearby not run by luminaries and therefore not able to attract as many customers.

There were other cities in the area of Orsha that each had its own claim to Jewish fame. This part of the world pulsated with Jewish life for hundreds of years. The region produced Jewish scholars and poets. All of the nearby towns were predominantly Jewish before the War. Time was marked by almost all of the inhabitants by the Jewish calendar. Yiddish was the lingua franca for Jews and non Jews alike. Market days always included Thursdays so the residents could prepare for Shabbat. And so on.

It is in this light that you should read Stanley's description of Jewish life in today's Orsha, a description that could easily apply to today's Volozhin, Radin or any of the other previous centers of Jewish life.

To my mind you can read this report in one of two ways. It is laced with the pain of the contemporary situation. Places that once hosted Jewish scholarship are now bereft of any learning. The Jews who remain in Orsha are victims of the 20th century- ignorant of Jewish sources, and of the beauty of Jewish life. A Jewish wedding, a Pesach Seder, a Yiddish poem- all are alien to people living where once all of these things informed daily life.

But there is another way to read Stanley's triptych. That is not to be depressed by comparing it to what once was, but to read it with a sense of wonder. That despite it all- despite the Stalinist purges, the Nazi occupation, and the attempts by the Communists to obliterate any vestige of Jewish life, these Jews are still here. Here, and determined to not only keep the flame of Jewish life alive, but to nurture it to the extent they are able.

Orsha, and Radin and Volozhin and the various other cities- once Jewish to their core- will never witness the rich Jewish life they once hosted. That is gone from these sites forever. But they are seeing something equally noble in its own way, and it is JDC's privilege to play a role in these efforts. Together with them we will not change history, but we can influence its direction. If the prospects for a real Jewish renaissance were once non-existent, these Jews are determined not let that rule their lives. They gather together on Shabbat and Jewish holidays in defiance of the laws of assimilation; they have Jewish discussions in Jewish social settings in defiance of the despair that is only natural. Each tiny, remnant Jewish community is its own statement about the eternal nature of Jewish existence.

These Jews may be uneducated Jewishly, know little about the history and culture to which their ancestors laid claim and to which they contributed so much, but they are fiercely proud, and that pride drives them to continue on where others long ago would have given up.

Remnants of a Shtetl by Stanley Abramovitch
Orsha is a small town in eastern Belarus. It now has a community of about seven hundred Jews. They are descendants of survivors who were evacuated at the beginning of the war to the eastern parts of the Soviet Union or to Siberia. Not all evacuees survived because of the unbearable conditions of life during the war. Hunger was endemic everywhere. The Soviet Union fought for its life. Much was sacrificed to achieve victory.

Those who did survive came back to their places of origin hoping to find a Jewish community similar to what they knew before the War. Only about ten percent of the former community came back. Included among them were evacuees, people who fought with the partisans and lived in woods throughout the war, soldiers and Jews from other towns who were attracted to Orsha by work possibilities. The vast majority did not return and never will. They were liquidated by the German occupying armies and by the extermination units that accompanied the army.

The system of extermination of Jews was similar in all the shtetls. The first directive was to set up Jewish ghettos, to squeeze the Jews into a few streets. The next step was to kill the potential leaders of resistance, the intellectuals, the doctors, the engineers, and the rabbis, anyone who could oppose even verbally the destruction of Jewish life. The final step was to lead the remaining Jews into the woods where hirelings from the local non-Jewish population or from the Baltic States operated machine guns. The Germans stood behind them overseeing the total destruction of the Jews from the ghetto.

Occasionally an individual escaped from the ghetto and ran into the woods to join the partisans or to hide with a non-Jewish acquaintance. This was rare because for such an act of kindness was death for the entire hosting family. There was also no lack of informers from the local population who cooperated with the Germans and informed them about the hiding places. I heard from many Jews that they never thought that a neighbor would betray a neighbor, that a neighbor next to whom one lived for dozens of years and maybe for generations would indicate a hiding place. It happened nevertheless and it happened often.

There were four thousand Jews in Orsha before the war; this was seventy percent of the total population of the town. This was common in the region. In some towns, the Jewish population was as high as 90%. Each community had its Jewish schools and welfare societies, its synagogues, its scholars, its writers, its musicians and its poets.

The president of the Jewish community in Orsha told us that more than half of the Jewish community today are Hesed clients. They need help to survive. Their pensions are woefully inadequate, and they have no savings. There are also a hundred and twenty children aged 0-17, half of whom attend Jewish summer camps. Many of them are "at risk".

The economic situation is dreadful – unemployment is high and municipal services such as schools are sinking fast. The leadership of the Jewish community of Orsha is trying hard not only to take care of the needy but also to maintain Jewish life. A small hut serves as the community center. A dozen people come on Shabbat morning for services. No one among them knows how to read the Hebrew prayers or to conduct a Sabbath service. They read part of the prayers in Russian taking turns to each read a paragraph. In the corner of the room where they meet stands a cupboard and in it lie, one on top of the other, two Sifrei Torah, real Torah scrolls. They are there to remind them what a synagogue used to contain. Now they read in Russian part of the weekly Bible portion. After the service is completed they sit around the table, enjoy a small glass of vodka, cookies or black bread.

None of them keeps Jewish traditions as prescribed but they insist on having a weekly Sabbath service. The young people come on Friday evening, play music, sing, and sometimes hear a talk on "tradition", maybe Jewish history, a story from the Bible or about an upcoming festival. Jewish life has not been completely wiped out in Orsha. This remnant is supremely aware of what was here once. They have memories and a strong desire to keep a Jewish spark alive. They do it the best way they can. They have no Jewish education and little background. But they have a will and a strong desire not to be the last link in the Jewish chain in Orsha. They will do what they can, and try to pass on to the next generation what little they know.

Music is part of their life. They have a small orchestra. The president of the community, a medical man by profession is also an accomplished musician. He organized a music group that plays regularly, a small choir, a children's orchestra and an Israeli dance group. Jewish life in Orsha, in Mogilev, in Borisov, in Bobroisk, in Grodno, in Gomel, in Pinsk or Vitebsk and in the many other small towns in Belarus has not been completely wiped out. The remnants of the Shtetls are not and never will be what they were. And yet small communities in these Shtetls are alive and refusing to be completely extinguished. As long as Jewish life continues who can foretell what the future has in store?

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