This is an excerpt from the journal I kept while I was on my trip. It's one of the saddest, yet most meaningful moments from my visit. This is what your donations helped me to experience and realize--THIS is why I am so glad that I went to Belarus.
20 April 2008
Ari and I were sitting and playing with a sweet little girl after the seder we led in Baranovichi. As we were playing, her grandmother approached us with a smile (and a ponytail of fake blonde curls) to thank us for leading the seder. Our translator Ana was also with us, so she was able to translate the fluent Russian the woman was speaking. After she thanked us, she said she really liked us and wouldn't tell anyone in town that we were Jewish visitors so we would be safe and treated respectfully in the city. As she spoke, her granddaughter, who couldn't have been more than 6 years old, vigorously shook her head 'no' and said something to the effect of "don't tell anyone you're Jewish!" Her grandmother went on to say that her family has been Jewish for generations, but they've never been allowed to actually admit it to the Belorussian world, even their own close friends. Only they and government officials know (your nationality is marked on your Passport in Belarus, preventing Jews from serving in government positions, in the Army, and also from attending most universities or being hired for many jobs.) Again, she thanked us, and led herself and her granddaughter out of the room, back into the world that will never know they are Jewish.
This moment was heartbreaking and shocking. As someone who has aways been proud to be Jewish, who is willing and able to share her love of Judaism with the world, I could never imagine hiding this part of myself from anyone. The freedoms that I have as an American, especially my Freedom of Religion, is something that I've always taken for granted. I realized at that moment how lucky I am to be an American--someone who can live freely and happily doing whatever I want to do. Hearing this woman talk about hiding her Judaism from the world, not even 1 hour after retelling the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the freedoms of the Jewish people at the Passover seder, was a saddening reminder of how much work we still have to do to secure the freedom of Jews here in Belarus and in other places in the world. The question is HOW--I don't know if it's possible for us to do much to solve the dictatorship of the government or the generalizations of the people in the FSU, but knowing that I was here, and that other HUC groups will come in the future, makes me feel a little better. We are giving these people the gift of celebrating their Judaism, something they long for and appreciate SO MUCH. Even though they hardly participated or understood much of what was going on throughout the seder, I knew they appreciated the tradition and the opportunity they were given to be a part of Jewish tradition. I could see in their eyes they they understood the real meaning of Passover, and they relished every moment of the 2 hours they were given to be freely Jewish at the seder today. I hope this program continues, not only for the sake of the people of the FSU, but for the sake of HUC'ers, who will, through moments like this, learn the true meaning of freedom, as well as the responsibilities that come with our freedom.
Every morning we say ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם שעשני בן/בת חורין: Blessed are you Adonai, Ruler of the Universe, who has made me a free person. After this experience, I will never forget just how lucky I am to be able to say these words and really LIVE this freedom, loudly and proudly, for the rest of my life.