The flip side of hate is community.
I saw that in Brooklyn on Sunday, as I represented UJA at events coordinated in response to the recent spate of violent attacks against Jews. These included a meeting of Jewish and non-Jewish leaders in Crown Heights, where we were joined by the Brooklyn district attorney and NYPD deputy chief.
Another highlight was the Stop the Hate rally, organized by City Councilman Chaim Deutsch. It featured 12 passionate young speakers, from 9 years old to college age, representing many faiths, ethnicities, and abilities. Asian. Jewish. Muslim. Black. Latino. Children with disabilities. All refusing to be defined by hate. Eloquent and fiercely determined, they inspired all the adults in the room with the vision of a brighter future, built on a diverse and welcoming community.
Then on Monday, I traveled to Minsk with our overseas partner, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and other federation executives to see the work UJA supports in a community that also refuses to be defined by hate.
Situated in what was once the “Pale of Settlement,” Minsk was Belarus’s largest Jewish community, with a rich and varied Jewish life, until the Nazis murdered 90% of the country’s Jews.
Those who survived the Holocaust, only to be trapped under communism, faced another kind of hatred. I asked one woman if she knew she was Jewish growing up under the Soviet regime. Her answer: “Of course. And if we ever ‘forgot,’ the Russians would be sure to remind us.”
After the fall of the Iron Curtain, many of the younger people moved away or made aliyah. But many Jews stayed. And with the support of UJA, our partners there — JDC, the Jewish Agency, Moishe House, and Hillel — created and sustained a Jewish community in Minsk, today 26,000 people strong.
In many respects the Jewish community in Minsk is just like ours. They attend a 20,000-square-foot JCC, offering everything from “Mommy and me” classes to Jewish-themed arts and crafts to dementia support groups that would fit right into the Upper West Side. In other ways, we might learn something from their resilience and unshakable commitment to one another.
Volunteerism is absolutely essential there; it’s the engine that runs the community. Over the last four years, a flagship volunteer program run by JDC — bringing together local Jewish organizations across the spectrum — has coordinated 5,300 volunteers throughout the former Soviet Union to engage with the community, both Jewish and beyond.
Others volunteer with the JDC-run Hesed system, which takes care of nearly 8,500 elderly Jews in Belarus through a unique network of centers that dispatch volunteers and workers who are a lifeline for the isolated elderly.
We visited with Dina who was once a Hesed volunteer herself. Now she has Parkinson’s and is largely shut in, unable to navigate the stairs in her sixth-floor walkup. Her homecare aid, Tatiana, a Hesed employee, comes four times a week to cook and care for her. The gratitude Dina feels is, in her words, “indescribable.”
There are three synagogues in Minsk — Chabad, Litvak, and Reform — and they do an enviable job working together and with every other Jewish organization to make sure no one is left behind. We packed mishloach manot (Purim packages), and the card on the front was signed by multiple Jewish groups (which I imagine makes the hamantaschen even sweeter…).
That sort of unity often feels more elusive in a community as large as ours. But it’s there, waiting to be ignited.
I felt its spark in Crown Heights, sitting around a table crowded with Orthodox and progressive Jewish leadership, joined by local African-American and Caribbean leaders, for the singular purpose of listening to one another’s fears and offering support.
I felt it in the words of those New York teens, bravely trying to shape the community they want to grow up in.
And I feel it every day, among those of us who choose to come together so that in our community, as in Minsk, hate will not get the last word.