Letter from Joel Sandberg
Back from Belarus, Latvia, Estina with a report -- our colleagues Joel & Adele Sandberg --
- Glenn Richter
Adele and I spent 5 days in Belarus guided by a fantastic couple, Frank and Galina Swartz.. They run 2 non-profits, Eastern European Jewish Heritage Project assisting Jewish communities and Voluntas which assists children with disabilities.Thanks to Judy Patkin for recommending them.
Had dinner with the Israeli Ambassador to Belarus, Yosef Shagal. He said there are 50,000 Jews in Belarus, while others in the Jewish community said there were 30,000-40,000. 150,000 Jews have emigrated to Israel. Aliyah now is down to 3000 over the last 4 years as the Jews have business in Belarus and non-Jewish spouses. He said there was no anti-semitism in Belarus, not a single attack on people or property in 4 years. He said that President Lukashenko wants good relations with Israel and there are now no visa requirements between Belarus and Israel, unlike between the US and Belarus. He said that Belarus was not an anti-semitic country. He felt that sanctions instituted by the US in 2004 for voting irregularities has just pushed Belarus toward Putin.
The ambassador's suggestion for helping the Jewish community was to encourage business between the US and Belarus. He claimed that a large part of private business including construction and publishing were Jewish owned in spite of their small numbers out of a total population of 9 million. He thought dropping the sanctions and visa requirements were needed to get these business relationships going.
Met Frank and Galina's daughter who works at the American Embassy to Belarus in Minsk. The United States embassy in Minsk, just has 5 people left due to sanctions.
Met with Artur Livshyts who is the UCSJ representative in Belarus. He is a young lawyer who used to work for the Joint Distribution committee. He now has his own non-profit called The Together Plan registered in England. He says he does Jewish youth camps and social services in cities other than Minsk which are underserved by Joint.He says he is a non-establishment guy, working on self-help projects for the Jewish community rather than on handouts.
Met with the Rabbi and Irina, the education coordinator of the Reformed Synagogue in Minsk before Friday night services. The synagogue is affiliated with the Progressive movement in England. They run a children's camp that is attended by Jewish children from Ukraine and Russia also because Belarus is safe. They have 25 kids in their bar and bat mitzvah class. . We will try to arrange a twinning relationship with our Reform Synagogue in Miami with this synagogue. The kids can correspond by Skype.
Had the privilege of a 3 hour tour of the former Minsk ghetto by Frida Raisman, a wonderfully energetic elderly survivor of the ghetto and Chairperson of the Minsk Charitable Public Association and the Minsk Ghetto Survivors. She has published books on the ghetto and holocaust in which 800.000 Jews were killed in Belarus. Artur is helping her get the books translated into English and we suggested she have a kid set up a website to put all of her material on-line.
She said a major problem for the holocaust survivors in Belarus is that the German government recently allocated 3 million dollars for Belarus survivors which they never received since the money was given to the Joint for distribution.
Had a tour of the large Chabad synagogue in Minsk by the rabbi's secretary(the rabbi was in Israel). They also run a summer camp for children, but their campers have to be Halachically Jewish.
We visited Vitebsk the home and museum of Marc Chagall. Vitebsk , once a thriving Jewish community but no more.
We went to Vidsk, the town near the Lithuanian border from which Adele's grandmother emigrated to the US in the 1890s. The Jewish cemetery is totally overgrown with weeds, with very few gravestones left, all in disrepair. There are no Jews there to take care of the cemetery.
The Jews we met also felt there was not much antiSemitism in Belarus. They said that the Germans brought in volunteer killing squads from Ukraine, Lithuania, and Latvia to Belarus who were even more vicious than the Germans. Belarussians did not volunteer for these death squads. The partisans saved 10,000 Jews from the Minsk ghetto and many Jews fought along with the partisans in the forests.
There is no security in Jewish institutions. We walked into all of the synagogues which had no fences, guards, or locked doors. There are no attacks on Jews and they feel safe. I understand Leonid's points that he made in his article about anti-Semitism in Belarus, but I am just reporting what we were told.
In Riga, we had dinner with the UCSJ representative for Latvia, Misha Avrutin. He is very impressive. He spent 10 years in prison for helping the accused in the Leningrad highjacking, emigrated to the US and became a successful businessman. He spends summers in Riga where he owns a hotel on the beach. He works on specific cases when needed, helping Jewish families as he good connections with the government, and recently on a corruption case. He loves Leonid and signed up to help the UCSJ because of all the help Leonid and Natasha gave him when he got out of prison and wanted to emigrate.
In Tallinn Estonia, there was no UCSJ representative. We visited the shul, Jewish community center and Jewish museum. There are 4000 Jews in Estonia, 2000 of which identify with the Jewish community. Larry Lerner must have taken are of all of their problems in his many trips there in the 1990s.