A first of its kind Global Initiative brings Russian-Speaking Jewish Students from around the World to Belarus in search for Common Hostory, Legacy, Identity.
Nine countries, 75 young Jews, 200 hours of learning with your head, hands and feet, and 1,000 kilometers of travel – this is an impressive summary of a unique educational initiative made possible by the efforts of Hillel International and the support of Genesis Philanthropy Group (GPG).
Project MEGA – which stands for “Memory, Education, Generation, Action” – was born at a local Hillel in the Belarusian capital Minsk, in order to connect young Jews with the history of their community and to help restore Jewish cemeteries, synagogues and other material evidence of Jewish life in Belarus.
While independent Belarus began less than 30 years ago, its land is steeped in the history of many nations. For Jews, Belarus has been one of the prime centers of communal and spiritual life in Eastern Europe since long before the Russian Empire and the establishment of the Pale of Settlement, which included almost of all modern-day Belarus. At the turn of the 20th century, half of the population of the major towns of Belarus were Jewish. Even under the Soviet regime, for 20 years Yiddish remained one of the official languages of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. Before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, there were almost 400 synagogues in Belarus.
The Holocaust brought about extermination of the majority of the 800,000 Belarusian Jews and wiped out most of the traditional shtetl life. After the war, the increasing Soviet state antisemitism – Stalin’s persecutions, discrimination, destruction of synagogues, erasure of Jewish history and forced ignorance of Holocaust – created a generational “black hole” of memory. MEGA and other joint initiatives by GPG and Hillel aim to close this gap and to connect the new generation of Russian-speaking Jews, wherever they reside around the globe, with their history and legacy, in order to help them to fully develop and enhance their Jewish identity and to establish their own place in the unbreakable golden chain of Jewish peoplehood.
“With the support of Genesis Philanthropy Group, we are thrilled to continuously expand the engagement of Russian-speaking Jewish students in North America, Europe, the Former Soviet Union and Israel. It is core to our vision of reaching every Jewish student,” said Jeremy Moskowitz, Vice President for International Growth and Operations, Hillel International. “The MEGA program is intensive and meaningful. Most importantly, though, it will serve as a catalyst as the students return to their schools and cities. The lasting impact of connecting these students through their shared culture, heritage and language will exponentially multiply the impact of Russian-speaking Jewish engagement at our local Hillels around the world.”
Many Russian-speaking Jews and their descendants around the world today – from Russia to Europe and from Israel to North America – trace their family ancestry to Belarus. Therefore, it was only natural for GPG and Hillel to transform the MEGA project into an international initiative and to create an opportunity for meeting and cooperation between young Russian-speaking Jews from nine different countries.
“The MEGA initiative is a powerful expression of the unique phenomenon of the global Russian-speaking Jewish community,” said Ilia Salita, President and CEO of Genesis Philanthropy Group. “Despite its wide dispersion around the world, this community is increasingly united by its roots, its common cultural background and its driving passion – to reestablish its Jewish identity by direct contact with its history. GPG is happy to support the project that combines Jewish learning with Jewish action, builds Jewish unity and encourages further journey into Jewish identity.”
For eight days and seven nights, the participants from Belarus, the United States, Israel, Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Poland travelled throughout the country, learning about its history and the history of the Jewish presence in Belarus, visiting cities and towns that had a central role in local Jewish life for centuries – Minsk, Mir, Navahrudak, Grodno, Lida, Iwye. In addition to learning about the past and meeting with the local Jewish communities, MEGA youth worked on cleaning and restoring ancient Jewish cemeteries and decrypted names, dates, prayers and blessings, carved on the matzevot – Jewish tombstones, some of them more than 500 years old.
“My grandfather died on this land. And we lost his grave,” said Iliana Svechin, from Rutgers Hillel in the United States. “By helping take care of other graves, it’s as if I’ve paid my last respects to him.”
Learning together, working together and processing their experiences, thoughts and feelings together helped to bond the group and make it into a real team, united by deepening sense of common destiny and identity.
“This is the first time I realized that the Jewish people exist outside of Israel,” said Zeev Feldman, from Hillel at Hebrew University in Israel. “I understood that if we forget about the Jews outside, there will be no Jewish people. And if they forget about us, there will be no Israel.”