Anna Vainer

A journey of connection: Ensuring Jews stick together despite politics

On a warm Friday afternoon in Jerusalem, a group of Ukrainian women embraced a soldier amid his swearing-in ceremony at the Kotel. These women never laid eyes on the soldier before, but they took part in the impromptu celebration when they got a notice from another woman in their community back home that the young man in question was her son who was serving as a lone soldier, and he won’t have any family members present during this joyful moment. 

With the power of a mere text, suddenly, this lone soldier who didn’t have his mother present at the ceremony was hugged and kissed by eight mothers instead.

Meanwhile, a few days earlier, a woman from Yekaterinburg, Russia, was moved to tears when she was able to embrace those who were affected by the October 7 terror attacks. Being from a vast and populous country like Russia, it was impossible for her to comprehend the idea that almost everyone in Israel has been directly affected by that horrific day and meeting with victims, survivors and first responders is a common occurrence here.

Most importantly, back in Russia, as a minority, she didn’t feel that it was appropriate, or even allowed, to openly mourn for the Jewish lives lost. Her feelings were never really given an outlet and her grief was a suffocating reminder of what happens when Jews live in a Diaspora where freedoms are limited. It was through listening to the harrowing stories of survival that she understood that the one thing every Jew in the world can cling on to is our Jewishness and, as she’s currently seeing in Russia, the institutions put in place to support and protect minorities can slip away quite easily leaving many Jews to only rely on each other in our time of need. 

On the surface, these two women shouldn’t have much in common, especially considering that they each hail from nations at war. 

But when they stepped off the plane and came to Israel, it was their shared identity as Jews that gave them the opportunity to grieve together and attempt to let their political affiliations melt away so they could look each other in the eye first and foremost as Jewish mothers.

As someone tasked with overseeing global programming for Momentum, an organization that brings Jewish mothers to Israel to encourage them to connect with their Jewish Values and the country, organizing this trip of 80 Russian, Ukrainian and Latvian women was no small feat. 

It is almost impossible for Jewish organizations to work with Russian communities these days, as President Putin has made it clear that NGOs based in America are considered foreign and hostile entities. As such, we had to reach out to local communities who were willing to work with us in a more clandestine fashion — which is far from ideal.

Meanwhile, working with the Ukrainian Jewish community was a challenge in its own right, as the country is still being bombed by Russian forces. As such, recruiting women to leave their children behind on an eight-day trip while their country was under attack posed a significant challenge as well. Moreover, with no direct flights to Israel available from Ukraine, some endured a journey that lasted over 48 hours, crossed several Eastern European countries and various military checkpoints to join us.

Yet these women — many of whom were coming to Israel for the very first time — eagerly agreed to be a part of Momentum’s Mother to Mother Unity Mission where they get to witness the resilient Israeli spirit firsthand and, hopefully, learn how to bring that fortitude back home to their struggling Jewish communities.

Working closely with the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and Combating Antisemitsim, Momentum has brought thousands of women from 36 countries to Israel since the organization was established in 2009. Hundreds came since October 7 and each of them were able to bear witness to the atrocities carried out by Hamas. 

However, as the world becomes more polarized, we’re seeing a troubling phenomenon where even being Jewish is beginning to have political connotations. In the United States, particularly on college campuses, the very idea of supporting Israel suddenly means one is against human rights and progressive values which leaves many Jews — who often vote Democrat — to feel politically homeless. In Russia, Jews are afraid to proudly stand with Israel in a political climate where Russia openly grows closer with Hamas. Even Moscow’s exiled chief Rabbi warned Jews to leave Russia while they still can as he fears they may be used as a scapegoat and blamed for the fallout of the country’s war with Ukraine. 

This very real danger of politicizing Judaism will harm the safety and freedom of Jews around the world. That is why this trip, where we brought Russian speaking women who are literally at war back home to Israel is more important than ever. 

At Momentum, we strongly believe in the virtue of “unity without uniformity.” That is, showcasing that as a global family we may have different traditions, opinions and, yes, political values, but at the end of the day, we are Jewish and must not let our differences divide us.

That is why we worked hard to bring these women, many of whom are largely unaffiliated with the Jewish community, so they can understand that they too are welcome in our big tent and there is much to celebrate despite these trying times.

This is a matter that hits close to home for me. Growing up as a Jew in Kyiv, Ukraine, our local national identity and language did not matter much. We were all distinctly Jewish, living in a Soviet regime and were intuitively drawn to our own kin. It didn’t matter what country’s borders we belonged to, we were Jews. 

I’m reminded of a quote from Pirkei Avot that reads, “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

We have no other choice, and nobody will do the work of bringing us together but us as a unified people. Wars, as horrible as they are, always end. But the Jewish people will and must live on forever.

About the Author
Anna Vainer is Associate Director, Europe and Asia, at Momentum, a global NGO empowering women to change the world through Jewish values that transform themselves, their families, their communities, and the world.
Related Topics
Related Posts