Twenty Jewish women traveled from Pittsburgh to Eastern Europe in an effort to appreciate history and observe current life in Latvia and Russia.
The June 16-23 women’s philanthropy mission, which was coordinated by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, was “meaningful” both in its ability to showcase “where the dollars given to the JDC or Jewish Agency go,” and in providing an opportunity “to meet and talk to the members of Jewish communities in other parts of the world,” said Teddi Horvitz, the trip’s co-chair.
Broken into two parts, the weeklong expedition began in Riga, Latvia, before moving to St. Petersburg, Russia. Days later, several participants extended their stays with a subsequent excursion to Moscow.
Having the chance to tour the region and meet young Jewish leaders countered many assumptions, explained Sue Berman Kress, chair of women’s philanthropy.
“There’s a narrative we remember that [as a Jew] you needed to leave Russia, but when we were in St. Petersburg we saw what happened to the families who didn’t leave and for one reason or another are acknowledging their Judaism and have come back, and it’s wonderful,” said Berman Kress, who traveled along with her 20-year-old daughter.
For many of the attendees, there was a common heritage in Eastern Europe.
“It’s a place where so many of us have our ancestral history. It’s a place that so many of our ancestors left for one important reason or another, and now we get to go back and see what Jewish life looks like there now,” Berman Kress added.
That sense of return particularly resonated with Essie Garfinkel, a participant who traveled with three of her daughters-in-law.
Decades prior to last week’s mission, Garfinkel and her husband were among a group of seven Pittsburghers who, in 1986, traveled to the former Soviet Union in hopes of aiding Jewish Refuseniks.
Back then “Jews were in terrible straits. It was a dark time,” Garfinkel said. “Jews were being put in prison and not allowed to leave.”
While diplomatic efforts were being made both in the United States and internationally to remedy the situation, on-the-ground tactics were occurring as well. The Garfinkels and their five fellow travelers clandestinely worked in concert with other covert groups to assist Soviet Jews.
Lists were kept as to what residents there needed, and each visiting delegation would pick up where the previous left off. Whether it was bringing jeans to sell on the black market or medicines that were typically unavailable in those parts, the actions were dangerous, Ray Garfinkel explained.
Apart from transporting items, risky operations included secret ceremonies where the Pittsburgh contingent, which included two rabbis, visited Soviet Jewish residents at home and performed illegal religious weddings, Essie Garfinkel noted.
“We would hold a talis over their heads and the rabbis would conduct the ceremony,” she said. Given what transpired and what was at stake, that trip was “a life-changing experience.”
Three decades later, Essie Garfinkel recounted those stories during bus rides and evening discussions with fellow travelers.
To have those tales transmitted in such setting was remarkable, said Horvitz, who journeyed with her mother on the Eastern European mission.
On the one hand, here are these accounts that are being shared, and on the other hand, “here we are meeting openly with Jews and talking in synagogues and talking to teenagers who go to day schools or participate in their JCCs,” Horvitz said. “I grew up in the 1980s and knew about the Refuseniks, but to hear the stories from people back then, from some of the women who were really involved in the Refusenik movement, and to hear their experience of going to Russia and secretly meeting with Russians,” it was really special.
Whether listening to events from the 1980s, or learning the interests of younger travelers who were unfamiliar with that period, the recent mission provided a unique and intergenerational experience, Berman Kress said.
“The group dynamic was one of the special parts of the mission,” agreed Jessica Brown Smith, Federation’s senior director of development. Each participant was able to perceive matters “through a slightly different lens, but we were able to bond and talk about what is our response as women and leaders in the Jewish community.”
During a closing conversation, reflections were shared.
Senior participants expressed how moved they were by the interest of their junior peers, and younger travelers noted how inspired they were to “see the commitment and dedication from the older women who were involved in the community either through Federation or other organizations,” Horvitz said.
Such is the goal of Federation missions, explained Adam Hertzman, Federation’s director of marketing.
“A trip like this is an amazing chance for the donors to connect with each other and their Jewish heritage, but also a way to understand in a more personal way how meaningful the Jewish Federations of North America’s support for surviving Jewish communities is,” he said.
Whether it is touring Eastern Europe or participating in a different mission, “the idea of the trip is to do some sightseeing and visit places that are interesting and fun and offer some Jewish sightseeing, but also to see the impact of the work that is at the core of what Federation does, which is to reconnect people with Jewish life in a way that’s meaningful to them, whether that’s in Pittsburgh or in Jewish communities around the world.” pjc
Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@