As winter bears down in Belarus, it is not just the cold and darkness weighing on its Jewish community. Belarus is a nation where barely 25% of the population is vaccinated against COVID. Even though hospitals are filled with the sick and dying, many Belarusians believe the Coronavirus is a hoax. Russian and Chinese vaccines are the only options because Pfizer and Moderna are not available.
An additional worry is the uncertainty of being able to travel to Israel. The devaluation of the ruble has driven up the cost of living, and the uneasy political situation across Eastern Europe is a concern.
Despite these anxieties, Ilana Lomkin, who works for the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) in Minsk, is optimistic. “Belarus in 2021 is a different place than when I came here four years ago. Belarus had a rich Jewish life before the Shoah, but after the war Jewish life was decimated. Today it is incredible to see so many young Belarusians discovering and embracing their heritage after decades of concealing it, or simply not knowing they were Jewish. It is inspiring to see the younger generation studying modern Hebrew and dreaming of making aliyah (immigration) to Israel. We are doing all we can to prepare them for it,” Lomkin says.
Funding support from Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta brings impact and light to this community. Our dollars support The Jewish Agency’s Matmid (Permanence) Program which empowers young people to live Jewish lives and connect with their roots. Matmid teaches young people about Jewish life in Belarus before the war. Some train to become Jewish tour guides, showing people the homes of famous Jewish Belarusians like the artist Marc Chagall, Shimon Perez, and Israeli political leader Ezer Weitzman.
Another program funded by Atlanta supports a winter overnight camp near Minsk where 40-50 young people can learn about Shabbat and experience Jewish culture. The camp is usually staffed by young Israelis, and it is very inspiring for young Belarusian kids to connect with these Israelis who help teach them about life in modern Israel. “For many kids, camp is their first exposure to anything Jewish. Building Jewish identity builds a pipeline for making aliyah,” said Nir Buchler, a Jewish Agency professional who works in Washington, D.C.”
Adults in Belarus are grateful for Atlanta’s support too. The JCC and the Chesed in Minsk provide social programs, lectures, and face-to-face social services for families and older adults. The dream of aliyah is not just for the young. There is a significant rise in people wanting to make aliyah all over the world, and places like Argentina, France, and Belarus are at the top of the list. Additionally, people are aware that in Israel they will receive better healthcare and social services.
The Makarov family is thankful for Jewish Agency programs. The father said, “We would like to express our deep gratitude to the Jewish Agency’s staff in Minsk for the incredible work invested in organizing aliyah seminars and meetings with families, for preparing classes for our children. Thanks to these meetings we learned about the traditions of celebrating Shabbat, as well as Hanukkah and Pesach. Each seminar, each meeting, was “While still in Belarus, our son learned about Jewish culture and gradually incorporated Jewish, traditions and holidays into his life and now he understands what this or that ritual stands for. The Jewish Agency became a true family for us, and its values are respected for one’s neighbor, love, and a desire to help in difficult times.”