Project Kesher is a feminist Jewish organization empowering women in the Independent States of the former Soviet Union (FSU) to build a society in which inclusive Jewish life can flourish, and where women are the instruments of peaceful change. It was founded in 1989 by Sallie E. Gratch of Evanston, Illinois.
In 1994 Project Kesher brought together more than one hundred women from the West and two hundred from the FSU in Kiev, Ukraine, at an International Conference of Jewish Women. Within a year, ignited by the connections made at the conference, women’s groups began to form in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. While they began as support groups for Jewish women who wanted to transform their own lives, women in Project Kesher’s growing network soon realized that they wanted a meaningful connection to Judaism; they and then their groups began to explore their Jewish heritage, which had been all but destroyed by seventy years of Communist rule. Until then, their Jewish identity had been primarily manifested by the word “Jew” stamped on their passports. Since the conference, these Project Kesher women have gone on to build pluralist Jewish communities and to transform their larger communities in the light of Jewish values and the principles of participatory democracy.
Project Kesher provides a model for building leadership within a network of activist volunteers. Basic to that model is training in transparent leadership and inclusive, democratic decision-making. Leaders learn how to identify and mentor their own successors as they evolve toward positions of greater vision. They are expected to bring in resources and allies and to extend power horizontally. Programs evolve organically, out of the expressed needs of the women.
Believing that working collaboratively is the most effective way to use resources, Project Kesher partners with other organizations, making its infrastructure of more than seven thousand women and 165 women’s groups available to them. Project Kesher is a founding member of the Angel Coalition, a group of Russia-based organizations that helps raise public awareness about trafficking in women and seeks ways to end this practice. Project Kesher has also worked with educators from the Institute for Jewish Studies, Hebrew University, Ma’yan and the World Union for Progressive Judaism to engage hundreds of women in the high-level study of Jewish texts and facilitation of Jewish celebrations. Hundreds of women trained by Project Kesher in Jewish communal leadership have gone on to staff organizations such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency.
Women’s economic empowerment is a core goal of the organization. Project Kesher, in partnership with World ORT, has established fifteen ORT KesherNet vocational computer centers that have provided training to thousands of women. Eighty percent of graduates have improved their economic status. Project Kesher also provides micro-enterprise loans to encourage the development of small entrepreneurial ventures by women. Borrowers are taught the value of tikkun olam and commit to repay their loans and to give back to their communities.
Project Kesher reaches out to women of many religious and ethnic backgrounds, building activist coalitions. For example, Project Kesher leaders have involved their non-Jewish neighbors in local campaigns to eradicate domestic violence and trafficking in women and to promote tolerance. Project Kesher’s programs promoting women’s health and safety and women’s economic empowerment are made available to all women.
Since 1995, Project Kesher has been celebrating Global Women’s Seders. In the early years, women from opposite sides of the world hooked up by telephone, often singing together. By 2004, Project Kesher’s Women’s Groups raised their own funds to create and distribute a Russian-language haggadah modeled after Ma’yan’s The Journey Continues. In what was described as “two thousand women sitting at one virtual table,” one hundred and eighteen women’s groups across eight time zones gathered at seders to study, discuss and celebrate together. As has become typical of Project Kesher’s empowered groups, the women spontaneously resolved to use their own freedom to ensure the freedom of others, each group committing to specific acts to improve the world in the coming year.
Project Kesher’s long-range goal is to inspire and train a new and independently sustainable feminist force for social change. Through grassroots organizing and training, Project Kesher builds an infrastructure for civic engagement, a network of activists who are increasingly capable of creating and funding their own programming to build a humane civil society informed by Jewish values. The dream of Project Kesher is to replicate this model in other regions of the world.
Project Kesher’s director in the FSU is Svetlana Yakimenko; its Executive Director in the United States is Karyn Gershon.