Shira Pruce never imagined Project Kesher would become a humanitarian relief organization. Which is what she—the organization’s director of development and communications—told me they’ve essentially turned into since Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on February 24. As an organization with deep roots in Eastern Europe for over 30 years they had no choice but to adapt and act.
Project Kesher is an independent, feminist, and pluralist nonprofit organization forging Jewish community and connection for women living in post-Communist societies in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, and for those who have made aliyah (from any of these countries) to Israel. While the organization is based in New York, they support the work of independent branches currently operating in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Israel.
Project Kesher began in 1989, when Illinois-based social worker Sallie Gratch met Svetlana Yakimenko, a teacher hailing from Moscow. Under the Soviet Union it was forbidden to practice Judaism and many took great risks to do so in secret. Gratch and Yakimenko sought to revitalize Jewish life by reintroducing Jewish tradition. They travelled to Russia and Ukraine, taking with them, as Pruce noted, “what we might think of as the simplest Jewish concepts and Jewish materials, like a Torah.”
Though they weren’t the only organization spearheading an effort to revive Jewish life, they offered something orthodox teachings, for example, did not: a methodology that empowered women by showing them they could have a prominent role in Jewish life outside of the proverbial kitchen. They could be leaders in their community, in civic engagement
From then on they’ve continued to fulfill their mandate by running programs like Global Bat Mitzvah and by helping fund and support grassroots organizations that, “develop leadership to advocate for Jewish identity and renewal, economic self-sufficiency, and women’s health.”
Prior to the war, Project Kesher Ukraine’s activists “donated nearly 100,000 hours per year” in promoting religious (including interfaith) and racial equality, women’s rights in economic and health sectors, and justice for victims of domestic violence and human trafficking. They worked tirelessly, just as all the other branches do, to prevent these acts of injustice from occurring in the first place.
When I spoke with Pruce, Ukraine had been under siege for eight weeks. In the following conversation she expands on Project Kesher’s pre-war endeavours, revealing the steps they took to help Ukrainians on the ground when war broke out, and what it has been like since.
Who are the Project Kesher trained activists that get everyone invigorated and how do they build community and connection?
Project Kesher is a women’s organization and we’re pluralists. We don’t exclude anyone. We work with every organization and every Jewish denomination. So I think that’s a big part of how the women who are trained with Project Kesher learn leadership skills and get experience in community organizing. But there’s also the women’s empowerment and Jewish pluralist angle that attracts new people all the time.
It makes it easy in a way because it is open to everyone.
It’s low-barrier access to Jewish life and to a supportive community. One friend would just bring another friend, then another friend. That’s how we’ve grown in the past. And that’s how we’re still growing. Right now, with the war in Ukraine, we’re providing cash grants to those in need, because cash is actually the most important resource we can give in humanitarian crises, like the one we’re seeing now. And we’re not giving cash grants only to Jewish women or only to people we know. Project Kesher is a trusted name for people who need help—regardless of their religion, gender and other orientation—if they’re Ukrainian and in a bad situation.
Can you tell me more about the other branches and how you all operate in relation to one another?
They’re each independent from each other. They each have their own executive directors and their own nonprofit status. We work together in partnership. There have been times when we have been able to work collaboratively but this is not one of those times. There is no contact between Project Kesher Russia and Project Kesher Ukraine. We had to get a formal separation because that’s what is best for everyone. The work is continuing, the Jewish tradition and Jewish life stops for no one.
How do you support grassroots organizations?
We financially fund them. But we also work together in the sense that we might find something really beautiful in what, let’s say, a rabbi from America or Canada writes, and we would share it with them [the Project Kesher community in Eastern Europe]. And we might say this really spoke to us, does it speak to you? Would it speak to the women in your community? We’re not only funders, we also are in community together. We gather for Jewish celebrations online. We just gathered for Passover with our Ukraine and Israel chapters. And when it was more plausible, we used to be able to visit each other; they would come here, some would go there, and we would be able to spend Shabbat or spend a holiday or you know see each other’s families.
That’s beautiful to have that connection. It’s more than just funding, you’ve created a community.
Exactly. It’s a community, it’s a sisterhood. And I think that’s a big part of the reason that people stay involved in Project Kesher for a long time.
Maybe this is a question more suited to the time before the war, but how have you seen changes since your time with the organization in how women have been reclaiming and embracing their Jewish identity?
Before the war, the Global Bat Mitzvah was a program that we had plans for from the beginning of the year. The program encourages women and girls to do a bat mitzvah in the region. We had a couple women in New York who had never been bat mitzvahed so they did one, and then women and girls from Russia and Belarus did one ceremony together in Moscow. Ukraine had their own bat mitzvah ceremony which happened in Odessa about 10 days before the war, and we had one in Israel.
These are life-changing events. Women were transformed by the experience, not only from learning why girls and women can and should have a bat mitzvah and the reason behind it, but they read Torah for the first time, they held the Torah for the first time. They pushed themselves out of their comfort zone and grew so much. In a lot of cases, mothers and daughters were doing it together because the mothers had never done it; daughters took Hebrew names. It was a formative experience, not only as a Jew but as a woman, as a community member.
I’m going to pivot to the war in Ukraine. When the war started, how quickly did you shift your focus and what was it like setting up the emergency fund?
The emergency fund was founded on February 24, actually on the same day as the Global Bat Mitzvah in New York. It was the first day that Russia was bombing Ukraine. We started preparing for it weeks before because the news was changing, and we follow the news very closely in the region. So when things were heating up, and troops were on the borders, we were already updating our community about what was happening. People already started leaving before Putin attacked this time. There were already areas that had been in battle for years. There was talk of how do we help people make aliyah? How do we stay in touch if a war happens? So before the writing was on the wall that this might happen, and even though we prayed and hoped it wouldn’t happen, we had been preparing at least for the emergency response. We had a lot of meetings and a lot of plans with our Project Kesher Ukraine staff. We have colleagues who are still in Ukraine. It was a slower progression than one day because we were thinking weeks ahead of time.
The situation is incredibly heartbreaking. So it is good in a way, that you all tried to forecast what could happen, but it is still unimaginable.
No one thought this was going to happen. We’re getting emergency cash grants. We are doing over 6,000 evacuations, running buses, and supporting other buses and vans. The team in Ukraine is heroic. And because we have a grassroots network of leaders in Ukraine, we are constantly getting requests from the ground. A family that needs to be evacuated can email, call, and WhatsApp. We created groups using messenger programs that are being passed around to see if anyone needs help, food, and evacuation. This is not only Project Kesher Ukraine, this is in collaboration with a lot of different organizations and individuals who are stepping up. I’ve been able to be a part of it, in the sense that I know I’m raising money that’s going directly to the grassroots organizations in Ukraine.
You also work against human trafficking and in preventing it from happening. It’s a difficult subject to talk about and not spoken about enough, can you expand on the organization’s work in that area?
Preventing gender violence has always been a big priority for Project Kesher. Talking about gender violence comes in many forms. We have been involved over the years in building a lot of awareness and momentum in this region around women’s autonomy and understanding what different forms violence can take. It’s a very big problem. Any time you have a humanitarian crisis people become vulnerable to trafficking. There are a lot of wonderful organizations that do important work in this field. We’re convening these organizations—getting them together with Ukrainians on the ground and virtually—trying to support the discussion between what is needed and what has already been created.
We have created content and shared it in Ukrainian and it has been culturally adapted. It’s information that can educate people as they’re crossing borders and as they’re travelling: What are the dangers to look out for? What are some red flags? What are ways to stay safe? From what I’ve learned in the last eight weeks is that the most important thing we can do to keep people safe from trafficking is give women money. There’s many unaccompanied minors, and women travelling with children and the elderly. The more we sustain their independence, the safer everyone who’s travelling with them will be. They will have the power to keep their people safe. Whereas if somebody doesn’t have money to figure out where they’re going to get their next meal and where they’re going to sleep, that is when they are vulnerable.
What is the best way to help those suffering from the dire consequences of the war right now?
At this time the best thing you can do is give to an organization that is working in Ukraine and with Ukrainians; make cash grants even once the war is over, people will and already do want to return home; form a long term relationship with an organization like Project Kesher.
I want to try to end our interview on a hopeful note. Has there been a moment during this crisis that has touched you and given you hope?
I’ve been fundraising for Jewish nonprofit organizations for more than 15 years and I’ve never seen generosity like this. Nothing has been comparable to how people have been coming out to support Ukrainians at this time.
Project Kesher is a small organization that has seen an increase in attention since the start of the war. They have received calls in the last few weeks from Canadians who would like to donate but are unable to because they cannot provide a tax exemption as Project Kesher does not have a Canadian Tax ID. They are hoping to solve this problem by getting Canadian nonprofit status. If you or anyone you know can help them please reach out to us at email@example.com.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Header image design by Orly Zebak. Project Kesher logo courtesy of Project Kesher.
Orly Zebak writes, designs sets and costumes, and makes art in various mediums. Her work seeks to challenge conceptions of female performativity in relation to womanhood, girlhood, and coming of age stories. In her spare time, you can catch Orly gardening—usually in her very comfortable off-brand crocs.
Orly earned her M.A. at the University of Toronto in Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies.