WALTHAM – Thirty years ago, Sallie Gratch, a social worker and peace activist from Evanston, Ill., was part of the international women’s peace march in Russia. At the time, following the success of the movement to free Soviet Jewry, Jewish communal organizations were focused on supporting Jews who were emigrating to the U.S. and Israel.
In Russia, Gratch met Svetlana Yakimenko, a teacher in Moscow, and other Jewish women who were not leaving their country. She had a sense that it was equally important to connect with and support these women whose Jewish identities had been squelched for decades.
With that goal in mind, in 1989 she founded Project Kesher, a New York City-based Jewish feminist organization. Yakimenko became the founding director of Project Kesher Russia.
Five years later, Project Kesher held its inaugural international women’s conference in Kiev, a ground-breaking gathering that brought together some 300 Jewish women from the U.S., Israel, and most from Russia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet Union states where they broke through a gulf of cultural barriers and began to form relationships that would become the cornerstone of future projects.
Today, the thriving organization operates in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, and Israel, and supports grassroots projects that foster Jewish identity and education and empower women to be active in Jewish and civic life. Many of its programs address gender equality, health, and domestic violence.
Last month, Project Kesher announced it has donated its archives to Brandeis University, a trove of letters, conference programs, photographs, and published articles, as well as Gratch’s personal handwritten travel notebooks from the early years of the project.
The announcement and the anniversary were celebrated last month at “She Can Do Anything: Feminism and Jewish Life in the Post-Soviet States,” a Brandeis conference that included panel conversations with Gratch, Project Kesher’s executive director Karyn Gerson, and Vlada Nedak, director of Project Kesher Ukraine.
The group’s archive, which is still being processed, consists of about 40 boxes of material, according to Surella Seelig, the outreach and special projects archivist at Brandeis. It adds to the university’s American Jewish and Israeli Feminism Archive Collective, an expanding and accessible collection compilation that includes material from Lilith Magazine and the personal archives of influential Jewish women, including Israeli-American feminist leader Marcia Freedman.
Seelig described the work of Project Kesher as “an act of rebellion. These were women who stood up against oppression of women and against oppression of Judaism,” she told the Journal. “They said, ‘We have a responsibility as Jews to help other Jews.’ It was beautiful and very brave.”
The milestone event at Brandeis attracted dozens of Boston area women who were pivotal in Project Kesher’s formative years. Among them were Brandeis professor emeritatus Shulamit Reinharz, founding director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and Joyce Antler, professor emerita of American Jewish History and Culture and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the Waltham college. Both led panels at the conference. Other included philanthropist Diane Troderman; Sonia Michelson, a past board member; and Andrea Waldstein, a social worker who first met Gratch in 1989 at an international peace conference in Illinois.
Project Kesher struck a deep personal chord for Waldstein, who grew up in Haverhill, the daughter of a Ukrainian-born Jewish father who fled the country as a young boy. At around the time she met Gratch, Waldstein’s family celebrated her father’s 80th birthday by taking him on his first visit back to the Ukrainian town where he was born, she told the Journal.
A few years later, when Gratch asked Waldstein to spread the word about the Ukraine conference in Boston, Waldstein didn’t hesitate.
The conference also connected Waldstein with a woman from her father’s village who invited her back for another visit. A group of elderly Jews greeted her with buckets of flowers and joined Waldstein in saying Kaddish at the grave of her great-grandfather.
“It was so moving. I was living out my father’s mission,” she recalled.
For many years, women in Boston organized Project Kesher’s global seders, one of its signature programs, where women in the U.S. gather before Passover and call their counterparts in Russia and Ukraine who are also sitting around a seder table. Now, several thousand women participate in more than 140 seders each year, using Project Kesher’s trilingual hagaddah in English, Hebrew and Russian.
The Boston activists developed their own bicultural seder, co-led by American Jewish women and Russian Jewish women emigres in the area.
“Year after year, women would tell the stories of their journeys,” she said. At the time, Russian emigres weren’t always integrated into synagogue life. It was often a separate community,” Waldstein said.
“Through these seders, we forged friendships.”