It was an eye-opener for one thousand women who flocked yesterday to Dnepropetrovsk, host city for the First Regional Congress for Jewish Women.
Convening at the Shevchenko, theater, the women, coming from a dozen cities in Ukraine, discovered the possibilities of a rich and vibrant Jewish experience available to them today. Weaving a colorful tapestry from the intellectual, spiritual and experiential strands of Jewish life, the congress, themed “Illuminating the World” and sponsored jointly by the Federation of Jewish Communities, Ohr Avner, the Israeli Cultural Center, the JDC and the Jewish Agency, spoke to the real life concerns of the participants as women, mothers, wives, educators, and people in the workplace. A Jewish fair and exhibit covered the Jewish life cycle including the chuppah, the kosher kitchen, Shabbat, mezuzah, Jewish family life, and myriad traditions that find expression in the Jewish home. Presentations by an eclectic mix of speakers—each addressing another aspect of Jewish life—sparked the curiosity of the women for whom much of this was all very new.
“The event was planned to let women network and learn that they are part of a very big and growing phenomenon,” says Chani Kaminetzki, Chabad representative to Dnepropetrovsk, referring to the flowering in recent years, of Jewish life in this region. Towards this end, Chabad Shluchos (female representatives) Ukraine-wide, each brought a contingent of 30-40-50 women from their respective cities of Lugansk, Kiev, Poltava, Dneproderzhinsk, Krivoyrog, Kremenchug, Kirovograd, and Zaporozha, among others, for the opportunity to participate in a diverse range of activities that allowed the women to explore their relationship to Judaism and the feminine Jewish experience.
The event included presentations and musical and dance performances by Jewish women, and a video-presentation on Kashrut and Shabbat. Louise Lipsitz, a representative of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston presented on educating special needs children. Lipsitz is spending three months as an educational consultant in Dnepropetrovsk as part of the JCRC’s partnership program to advance Jewish learning in the region. A simultaneous translation accompanied her much applauded presentation.
Miriam Moskowitz, the Chabad Shlucha to Kharkov, spoke to the women about her personal experience juggling the competing demands of children, work and her own spiritual development. Naomi ben Ami, Israel’s ambassador to Ukraine, flew in from Israel to participate in the Congress, and acknowledged Chabad’s remarkable contribution to the development of Jewish life in this region.
Rabbi Meyer Verzub, a native Ukrainian who now lives in Israel, shared his personal recollections growing up in a forbidding communist milieu, where the word Jew was a barely audible whisper. “I didn’t know anything about what it means to be Jewish or to live as a Jew,” he said. “I only remembered my mother cautioning me to keep the words of the Shema Yisrael forever on my lips. I did this, though I did not know, until many years later, what the words meant.”
Verzub contrasted this with the freedoms available to the audience, to live proudly, openly and fully as Jewish women today. “If someone would have told me 20 years ago, that this great theater named for the noted Ukrainian author, will be host to 1,000 Jewish women listening to rabbis speak, and learning about kashrut and Shabbat, as Jewish children will happily walk alongside their proud parents, I would have said they were hallucinating . . .”
In recognition of this blessed transformation, he urged the guests to become habituated to responding always with the words, “Baruch Hashem”—or “thank G-d”, in simple, sincere recognition of Divine providence.
Verzub, and just about every other speaker, spoke of the investment that the Lubavitcher Rebbe made during his lifetime, to sustain and then revive Jewish life in this part of the world. Dnepropetrovsk was the hometown of the Rebbe. His father, the kabbalist Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, was the city’s chief rabbi during the twenties and thirties.
Chani Kaminetzki, who together with her husband—Chief Rabbi of Dnepropetrovsk, and other fellow Shluchos from neighboring cities, worked long days to prepare to host the Congress, says participants and the organizers got a real lift from this event. “The momentum was fantastic. The exposure to Jewish life and to the breadth of Jewish activity in Ukraine that the women gained in the course of the day, was more than we had anticipated, and more than the women expected. The experience left us all on a high.”
A similar congress, she says, is planned to take place in Chimelnitzki—for women from the western area of Ukraine, around Chanukah time.