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A Tale of Two Worlds

Bloomfield rabbis take part in a mission to Kiev and Israel

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Rabbi Debra Cantor lays a rock at the Babi Yar memorial.

By Judie Jacobson

BLOOMFIELD – Rabbi Gary Atkins of Beth Hillel Synagogue and Rabbi Debra Cantor of Congregation B’nai Tikvoh-Sholom, both in Bloomfield, were among 32 rabbis from all across North America who participated in a fast-paced, eight-day Jewish Federation Rabbinical Cabinet Mission to Kiev and Israel. The goal of the February trip was for the rabbis to learn – and report back to their congregations and communities – about the work being done by the Joint Distribution Community (JDC) and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) in nurturing, teaching and supporting aliyah communities in Eastern Europe – encouraging them to move to Israel, and then helping in their resettlement.
“We were Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Orthodox; we were young, middle-aged, and even retired,” says Atkins. “But we were one in our concern for Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, and its future.”
Nestled in the center of the Ukraine, Kiev was one of the largest Jewish communities in Eastern Europe prior to World War II. The group also stopped at Babi Yar, a ravine on the outskirts of Kiev where an estimated 100,000 people — more than a third of them Jews — were killed over the course of a three-day operation that took place Sept. 29 – 30, 1941.
“The most moving part of the trip was a memorial service we conducted there on a dreary, depressing morning,” recounts Atkins. “Standing by the ravine, we understood, in an infinitely piercing way, the meaning of the Hebrew verse etched on a small monument, ‘Your brothers’ blood cries out from the ground.’”

Rabbi Gary Atkins gets ready to place a flower at the Babi Yar memorial.

Rabbi Gary Atkins gets ready to place a flower at the Babi Yar memorial.

Atkins describes the Kiev Jewish community as made up of “an imbalance of young and elderly,” many of who survive only on the aid that the Joint Distribution Committee provides.
“There is no Ukrainian ‘safety net,’” he notes. “We visited individuals for whom life has been most unkind. They were touched by our caring; a visit to show a friendly face. They need the assistance they are given. The Joint also provides senior centers and educational activities for youth. There is a constant influx of young people who are discovering they have Jewish roots and feel they want to return to – or become a part of – the Jewish people. The Jewish Agency has programs to teach about Israel and facilitate aliyah.”
Since the Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Atkins points out, it has become an ally of the West and a friend of Israel. “It has allowed the Jewish community to develop,” he says. “We visited the major Orthodox synagogue as well as the just-starting Reform and Conservative communities.”
After visiting Kiev, the next stop for the group of rabbis was Israel, arriving just in time for Shabbat.
“At our Shabbat dinner we were blessed with the presence of Yosef Begun, one of the first generations of Refuseniks, whose story motivated many of us in the 70s and moved us again when we were in his presence,” says Atkins, who chose to attend Shabbat services at Moreshet Avraham, the flagship Conservative synagogue next to Jerusalem’s Agron Center and the Conservative Yeshiva.
On Sunday, the group visited a variety of absorption and community centers to see first-hand the process of kelita (absorption).
In Ashdod, they we were given an inside look at a special program designed to train young doctors from the FSU (Former Soviet Union) to become certified in Israel.
While there, Atkins was moved by a tearful plea from one young doctor seeking the rabbis’ help in changing what Atkins described as a “system that made conversion for them and their friends both nearly impossible and personally demeaning.”
“We have pledged to do so,” he says. “Almost all of us have signed a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu requesting his involvement in this process.”
Before heading home, the rabbis were briefed by a bevy of Israeli leaders, including Natan Scharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and Ron Dermer, senior advisor to the prime minister; as well as U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro.
“It was a physically tired but spiritually energized group of rabbis who boarded the after-midnight flight that brought us back to the United States,” says Atkins.

Comments? email judiej@jewishledger.com

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