Throughout the 1970s and 80s, my Jewish community in Philadelphia was very active in the Soviet Jewry movement. In school we learned about refuseniks (Jews who were denied permission to emigrate), and wrote letters to our elected officials demanding support for their freedom. We went to local rallies protesting the imprisonment of those whose “crime” was their Zionism or their seeking to express their Judaism. Several members of my synagogue traveled on missions to the USSR, risking their own safety by smuggling in kiddush cups, siddurim (prayer books), and even boxes of matzah before Passover, which they delivered to local Jewish communities.
Like many of my peers, I was “twinned” at the time of my becoming a Bat Mitzvah with a Soviet youth who was forbidden to celebrate her own passage into Jewish adulthood. These twinning ceremonies, which began in the 1970s, matched Jewish adolescents throughout the United States with Soviet Jews, who would symbolically become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah through the religious ceremonies of their American counterparts.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the B’nai Mitzvah twinning phenomenon this week, as the 100th anniversary of the first American Bat Mitzvah Ceremony, of Judith Kaplan, on March 18, 1922, comes at this time of escalating war in Ukraine. Most regretfully, I do not remember the name of my twin, nor any details of her life and family. I wonder what, if anything, it meant to her then that a stranger on the other side of the world was advocating for her access to religious freedom by means of what was a relatively new privilege for Jewish girls in my own community. And I wonder where she is now, if she is one of the ones who stayed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Has she been part of the grassroots efforts that dramatically changed the landscape of Jewish life over the past three decades? And is she now fleeing a home and a center of Jewish vitality that was unimaginable at the time that she and I were twinned?
Today, the philanthropic dollars and volunteer hours that were directed at rebuilding Jewish life in the former Soviet Union are instead being used to evacuate those communities, and to provide humanitarian relief to all people—Jews and non-Jews alike—whose physical lives are under attack. Today, we are again using Jewish spiritual frameworks, such as this week’s pre-Purim #Fast4Ukraine, to demonstrate solidarity with all those suffering and to protest this war. But, remarkably, for some the ultimate dream of this moment is not a permanent departure from these countries, but rather a safe escape followed by a safe return.
In this heartbreaking 45-second video, Rabbi Refael Kruskal, head of the Tikva Children’s Home in Odessa, leaves the local synagogue with tears in his eyes as he prepares to evacuate the Home’s orphans. His words, spoken in Hebrew, are not prayers for a safe journey, nor for a new life in another country, but rather for a return to Odessa and its synagogue. He starts his message with the Aramaic “Hadran” prayer that is traditionally recited at the conclusion of a tractate of Talmud study, and which articulates a hope to return to study it again. In his message, Kruskal recites a variation of the prayer: “Hadran alach beit knesset b’Odessa—We shall return to you, synagogue of Odessa.”
Incredibly, with this choice of words, Kruskal not only marks the end of this chapter of Jewish community in Ukraine but also expresses a hope to return to it. Thirty years ago, the idea of Jews desiring a return to Odessa would have been unimaginable, extraordinary beyond belief. Now, Kruskal’s Hadran, his hope for return, is possible because of the committed activism of the 1970s and 80s—writing letters, organizing rallies, going on missions, even matching B’nai Mitzvah twins. It is a testament to these particular efforts, and, more broadly, a reminder that change is possible—be it the change of a social movement that gave women access to Bat Mitzvah rituals or the change of a political movement that fundamentally reshaped world Jewry.
Inspired by these reminders from our past, let us pray that once again our efforts will bring about transformation—that they will change fear into joy, war into peace.
Tomorrow we will recite the words of Psalm 90 (17) as part of our Shabbat liturgy:
וִיהִ֤י ׀ נֹ֤עַם אֲדֹנָ֥י אֱלֹהֵ֗ינוּ עָ֫לֵ֥ינוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂ֣ה יָ֭דֵינוּ כּוֹנְנָ֥ה עָלֵ֑ינוּ וּֽמַעֲשֵׂ֥ה יָ֝דֵ֗ינוּ כּוֹנְנֵֽהוּ׃
May the favor of the Lord, our God, be upon us; let the work of our hands prosper, O prosper the work of our hands!
Let the work of our hands build a world to which we all would want to return.