This posting was contributed by Asher Ostrin, JDC’s Director of FSU Operations
1) I returned yesterday from a very brief visit to Georgia. While there, I divided my time between Gori and Tbilisi. The goal was to get a clear picture of the current needs, and to attempt to project forward the scope of our involvement in the aftermath of the summer hostilities. We are now in a position to look at needs, and should have something prepared for JDC consideration shortly. In the meantime, some immediate reflections on what I saw.
Wherever I went and from whomever I met, both within the Jewish community and from the international arena, I heard praise heaped upon JDC, and particularly its staff. International NGOs (with non-Jewish sponsorship), diplomats, government officials and local Jews all spoke in glowing terms of our colleagues. They received kudos for the thoughtful and deliberate manner in which they acted, their insistence on putting concrete actions ahead of interviews with the press, and perhaps most telling, the fact that "JDC is still here" to deal with the longer aspects of the clean up. All this made a tremendous impression on all with whom I spoke. I strongly urge those of you who can to be at the board meeting on Monday, to hear a first person account from our colleague Shauli Dritter who was with Amir Ben Zvi and Yitzik Averbuch in the field, occasionally in the line of fire, during the War. His account is a chilling one, and spells out in great detail a wonderful JDC story of rescue in its broadest sense.
At one level, Georgia today is playing out a script from "The Mouse That Roared". It clearly lost a battle with a power much greater than itself, and is now the object of massive amounts of funds for reconstruction. During my visit, NATO ministers were arriving, as European Union ministers were leaving. This, shortly after visits from Dick Cheney and IMF officers. All left promising significant funds for the Georgian economy. Estimates I heard were in the neighborhood of 3 billion dollars.
In Tbilisi there is no sense of a war footing. There was minimal physical damage to the city, and life continues apace. Prices for food and utilities are up slightly, but everything is available. In previous visits to capitals of countries involved in war- e.g. Baku when Azerbaijan fought Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh, or Kishinev when battles were fought after Transdniester declared independence, the feeling was much different. There was a sense of a war footing, soldiers and military vehicles were ubiquitous, and visitors were subject to harangues by officials and locals about "how right we are and how evil the other side is". This was absent in Tbilisi.
An hour away in Gori, which was surrounded by Russian forces (Gori is just south of one of the two break away republics (South Ossetia) and suffered from Russian shelling), the situation is a bit different. There the scars of war are visible, although only if one knows where to look. Work crews are repairing the handful of buildings damaged by Russian shelling, and work is expected to be completed before the onset of winter. Several Jews lived in buildings that suffered damage- JDC found temporary housing for them and will help these families find employment and school options.
The issue for the government is the problem of refugees- people of Georgian ethnicity who fled from villages with mixed populations in the areas taken over by the Russians. There are an estimated 100,000 refugees, living now in tent camps, serviced by international NGOs. This is a big challenge, as it is unlikely that they will be able to return to their homes. The ethnic hatreds in the region run so deep that a slur from 400 years ago by one group on another is literally a causis belli today. So there is no going back.
There are a few displaced Jews. JDC knows of them and is dealing with them. There are other issues that effect the Jewish community, although in ways we would not have anticipated. For example, schools and kindergartens are being used to house refugees. As a result the school year has not begun. The Jewish community, with JDC help, will be opening a kindergarten for the community's children.
Residents of the community are suffering from post trauma. A family camp is being organized to give families a release, and the Hesed in Gori has increased its roles to assist both materially and psychologically those suffering from post traumatic stress. There is concern that there will be a round of price rises, and there is talk that some people will not agree to connect their homes to the municipal gas lines because of a fear of an inability to pay the new tariffs. The Hesed will ensure that Jews are not among them.
Two scenes remain in my mind from the brief visit.
The first was a walk around a housing complex that was shelled on the outskirts of Gori. It is a large apartment building, and was crawling with work men. The damage was not great, but the building still required repair, particularly its façade. The entire outer wall was taken down, so that from the street you could see into the each of the apartments, probably 80 in number.
From what we could see everything was bare. The Hesed director who accompanied us told us that the buildings were abandoned early on, and looters emptied them. And then he pointed to one apartment exactly like all of the others- naked but for one solitary piece of furniture visible from the street: a bookcase, full to the brim with books. Still there, because clearly no one was interested in this booty. "There were two Jewish families in the building- that's the apartment of one of them", as he pointed to the otherwise empty apartment, but for a collection of books!
The second thing that stays with me was a meeting I had with our local staff before I left for the airport to return. By all accounts they behaved in a way that brought tremendous credit to them and to JDC. They worked around the clock, and never once hesitated when a need arose for their contribution. They demonstrated concern for every single Jew who was at risk, and acted as the consummate professionals they are. For me it was particularly moving in that their nationalities were of no concern. There were Jews of Georgian extraction, and Jews of Russian extraction, working together. We should not take for granted the transcendent nature of their Jewish identities in this situation. So I wanted to thank them, and let them know that in the eyes of JDC leadership, and their colleagues, they will take pride of place along with so many JDC staff who have been called on throughout our history to go above and beyond the call of duty.
What remains with me today was the response to my words from the welfare coordinator of our work in Georgia. He declared: "It is we who should say thank you to JDC. You gave us the possibility and the means to help. Without you we would have looked on helplessly. This organization said to us that that cannot happen, and for this we are grateful".
2) Over the last few weeks the weeklies have addressed the issue of creating a Jewish civil service- ways to attract and retain capable professionals. We have looked at professional training for them, ways to showcase their work in order to give them recognition, and the more general issue of how to demonstrate to them the esteem in which they are held by colleagues around the world.
This week we will look at another way we hope to engage them and validate their choice of a career. Here, though, the validation comes not from an international agency and its affiliates, but from their peers in their community.
If the tools that the professionals have available are not high quality, they will not attract the quality we all desire. If the JCC in which they work looks tired and rundown, the message it projects will be the same. Alternatively, if the physical place pulsates and swarms with people, if advertising for programming is slick and attractive, if programs are of a high quality, they will generate interest. Make it good- and the Jews will come!
Lehava is a young leadership training program that takes place in St Petersburg each year. It is similar to ones that are held throughout the FSU, and that are the object of a proposal before the JDC Board for a special investment in 2009 (which requires the exceptional step of approving a deficit budget for the year). It benefits from ongoing support from the Palm Beach Federation.
To be frank, I am a bit uncomfortable with the term "leadership training", and prefer something less "sexy" but I believe more accurate like "investment in activists". The leadership issue is a welcome by-product of the program, and, if the participants become real "leaders", this will not happen immediately. For now, the attempt is to create a critical mass of committed young people who will be magnets to others, and who will form the basis of community life now. Important contributions to community life are not limited only to leaders. In fact, one could argue that too many leaders constitute a problem!
What follows is not an attempt to describe a program, or define its goals. It is not even to attempt to measure the success of the program by the people it attracts.
Instead, I want to do something altogether different. I want to propose that if we want to entice good young people into Jewish communal service, we need to demonstrate that involvement in the community is something that is valued- not just by JDC, but by their own peers. The effort here is to show how a quality program attracts the best and the brightest, and that that validates a decision by a young person to choose a career path in Jewish communal life. "By making this choice I will meet and work with stimulating people who want to be involved in the community I represent. These are people like me, who value what I do". This, I believe, is an important statement for young professionals to make. What follows are short bios of several people who are current participants in Lehava. Each is taking full advantage of opportunities in the broader community, with career choices that are marked by an entrepreneurial spirit. They are hungry for success, and have each chosen to enrich their professional lives with involvement in the Jewish community. The decision of most of these young people to become involved in community life was not an outgrowth of their own upbringing. Instead, there was something in the community that piqued their interest; in all such instances the quality of the community offering was an important factor in their decision.
* Mikhail Gershov. 26 years old. A graduate of the management faculty of the Academy of Finance and Economics. Upon graduation he launched his own business, creating a studio called "Innovative Technologies", which is primarily involved in the world of public relations.
Mikhail was involved in Jewish life as a youngster, winning a mathematics competition that gave him a two month stint at the Weitzman Institute. After that experience, his involvement in the community waned, until last year when some friends were involved in organizing a Purim Party at the Yesod JCC. They turned to him to provide PR services pro bono. He was intrigued by their efforts, and found himself spending increasing amounts of time at Yesod activities. On one visit he noticed a poster for Lehava. He says that it coincided with a time in which he was looking for something more than total immersion in his business.
* Yana Gordina. 26 years old. Born in St Petersburg to an Army family, raised from age 5 in Dagestan, in the Russian Caucuses. She was awarded a B.A. in languages from the Dagestan State University (which you probably know as DSA- which has a major rivalry with Ohio State in football, sort of), and is now studying marketing at St Petersburg's Economics Institute. Between degrees she worked as the manager of the purchasing department of Euroset, Russia's largest mobile phone network. Today, she is the manager of a foreign investment portfolio in a venture capital firm. As an avocation she is a singer, and has developed a Jewish repertoire. Using these skills, she began organizing musical soirees at Yesod for Jewish singles in which she performs. Lehava is an opportunity for her to acquire Jewish knowledge and community organizing skills that will serve to deepen and broaden the singles' programs.
* Ekaterina Karmanova, 21 years old. She is a graduate of the University of Culture and Performing Arts in St Petersburg. She has acted on stage since age 8. She had no knowledge of any Jewish roots in her family.
Last year a group of young people organized a Chanukkah play at Yesod. They asked friends with professional training to participate. Katya was engaged by the organizers, and was very taken by the whole experience. A subsequent conversation with her parents...The trajectory of this story is well known to us already. Anxious to make up for lost time in crafting her own identity, Katya showed up for Lehava registration and announced from the outset that she will be accepted to the program, irrespective of the decision taken by those in charge! She has to make up for a lot of lost time, during which she had no knowledge of any personal Jewish connections.
* Evgeny Yablokov. 29 years old. Graduated with honors from the Pedagogical University with specialization in English and Chemistry. Based on his academic record he was awarded a (Russian) presidential grant covering tuition and living expenses at the Academy of Finance. After completing his work there he was retained as a faculty member, and teaches Business English to Russian firms connected to international investors.
Evgeny was raised knowing that he is a Jew, but the only true experiences of his Jewishness were negative. He remembers being singled out in several environments as "the Jew, Yablokov". At some point last year he led an English discussion group at Yesod (in itself testimony to the kind of quality the institution attracts). By his third visit his appetite was whetted by what he saw around him, and he initiated a conversation with the program director on ways to deepen his involvement. Attendance at holiday celebrations were the first step, and then participation in Bible study groups. Lehava, to him, is the culmination of the process- a far more intensive experience with both an intellectual and a social component.
These four examples of Lehava participants open a window into the kind of people the program attracts. Their participation is important on many levels. For the purposes of this briefing, their engagement in the program, and, by extension in Jewish life, encourages young community professionals. It reminds them that they have dedicated their lives to something that others, whom they respect, value.