‘Twenty-twenty’ – two simple words that will forever be seared into our memories.
What a year! Media agencies are currently creating summary reports of this most extraordinary year which will no-doubt be beamed to our screens on New Year’s Eve to remind us of what we have all been through. Here at The Together Plan, for our end of year newsletter, it was decided that our CEO in the UK, Debra Brunner would sum up how the charity navigated through the last twelve months. We hope you enjoy her article.
Dear supporters, followers, beneficiaries and those who have just come across us,
I am writing this article from our office in Bushey in Hertfordshire. Since March this year, I have been working here alone, more or less, with the exception of the occasional drop-in from a volunteer or to host a meeting, in those few fleeting moments when it was allowed to do so. I may have been physically alone, but I certainly have not been working in isolation. Far from it, and this will become clear as you read on. I bring you here a month by month roundup of how we tackled 2020, head on:
It was early March, we had all the preparations in place for an event on March 12th, but the air was buzzing with news that a pandemic was heading our way. Unsure of what to do, but sensing a rise in anxiety among those due to attend, we took the decision to cancel. People were grateful! A week later Boris Johnson announced a countrywide lockdown. Our office volunteers retreated to the safety of their homes. It was at this point that I took stock and completely appreciated the immense amount of work that our heroic back-office IT volunteer based in Amsterdam, Paul Ginsburg, had done, along with his trusted second in command Jack Baum, to ensure we had our office safely on the cloud. Everyone was able to log in from home and work remotely. The transition was seamless and pain-free. Read more here.
So at least we knew that operationally we were robust, but two of our volunteers who had, up to this point, had the responsibility of organising our charity events, were beginning to realise that their role was all but redundant. Events? What events! Of course, that had serious implications since it meant the tap had been turned off for our events income, potential donations and opportunities to build awareness. This of course was a great cause for concern.
Equally, we were deeply concerned about the world and how COVID-19 was affecting people’s lives, our communities in Belarus, and businesses, jobs, travel, the leisure industry – well basically everything and everyone, everywhere. Of the grants that we had in application, some came back saying they were not going to give in the current climate, others said they would not be giving at this time, or were diverting support to those directly affected and dealing with COVID-19.
Meanwhile, in Belarus, it seemed that little was being done in acknowledgement of the virus. We sent our office the guidelines being issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and urged our team to wear face masks and help get that message to as many people as they could to do the same. We sent recommendations for the elderly community members, ghetto survivors and those with underlying health conditions to stay home and stay safe where they could. We explained how we were starting to up our use of Zoom, and we explained that communities there could do the same.
As we were trying to understand how we might be impacted as an organisation, we received news of the death of Polina Dobkina, one of the survivors of the Minsk Ghetto, whose story we had included into the book we translated ‘We Remember Lest the World Forget – Memories of the Minsk Ghetto’. Polina was 94 when she died and just as the first lockdown was announced, so we were asked by her family in the USA to set up an appeal in her name to support the work of The Together Plan. As one door closes, so another one opens. Was Polina watching us? Did she know that we were facing the possibility of tough times? It certainly felt that way.
Our Aid Together Programme went on hold as all the volunteers were confined to their homes in the lockdown and our venue for packing and sorting our donations closed its doors.
As we realised that physical events would not be possible for some time, we decided to redefine the roles of our office volunteers. Gillian Gruder agreed to take responsibility for the archive research enquiries – from people looking for help finding family records in Belarus, and Michelle Rose began testing recipes, writing them up for the website and researching connections to Belarus. Meanwhile, Elaine Collins agreed to take on more of a lead to support the Aid Together volunteers.
We decided the first thing we had to do was put together a stay-at-home guide of things for people to do in lockdown. Meanwhile, in Belarus, Pesach was coming and there was concern that there would be no Matzah. Matzah is not available in the Belarus shops and is brought in from outside to be distributed to the Jewish communities. We were able to assist with getting a lorry of matzah from Ukraine into the country and ensure that it reached those who needed it. What’s more, we included guidelines from the WHO with every box, so that recipients also received information on how to stay safe. Click here to read more and here to watch the video.
There was a real pull together for the London marathon 2.6 Challenge. Jack Baum, our inspirational volunteer, worked his magic with the IT in record time, so that people could set up their own sponsor pages and do their personal challenges in safe spaces. We had an array of challenges both in the UK and in Belarus together raising a resounding £2500!
In May, we published a blog covering the progress that was being made by our incredible volunteer Liliane Kramer, a highly experienced Jewish educator to prepare a boy in Slutsk, Belarus for his bar mitzvah in July. Liliane, a non-Russian speaker, was assisted by two volunteer translators, Gelena Rozenberg (based in the UK) and Vlad Zaiko (based in Minsk). The bar mitzvah was going to be the highlight of our summer programme – had we been able to travel to the country. However, we forged ahead with the online learning. The summer camp was off, but the bar mitzvah was still very much on.
Our Youth for Youth members rallied and became more connected in the virtual world than they had ever been before. It seemed that COVID was bringing us all closer together giving rise to our hashtag #apartbuttogether and our youth volunteer, Maeve Silver agreed to take the role of Youth for Youth Coordinator. Read more here.
In June, Ulyana Babko, from the Polotsk Jewish community in the north of Belarus and member of Youth for Youth gave a fascinating presentation on Zoom telling the story of Jewish Polotsk. Read more here. I had an interview feature in Great Companies online where I talked about why I started The Together Plan Charity with Artur Livshyts in Minsk, and we started to roll out our archive research service, to help people from Belarus look for records in archives in the country. It was something we had been doing for some time but had never advertised. Since we were unable to run any events, we decided to raise awareness of this service. Slowly the enquiries started to come in.
In July, Rina Friedinzon travelled from Polotsk in the north of Belarus to Slutsk to officiate Pavel’s bar mitzvah. She brought with her the Torah that had been donated to the community – through funds raised by our Youth for Youth members. Liliane, Pavel’s teacher in the UK prepared the service and we all Zoomed in to be part of the virtual community. It was an extraordinary and miraculous achievement. Read more here.
Throughout the year we had been working on research for the Jewish Cultural Heritage Trail and we engaged the services of a historian in Israel to do additional research. Meanwhile, we put together a team of project coordinators in Belarus to help develop the heritage trail programme in; Minsk, Brest, Novogroduk, Vitebsk and Polotsk. This experienced team also started to contribute content for the heritage trail.
We ran a Yiddish event in collaboration with Yiddish House London, Yiddish Open Mic Cafe and the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, an online global event – celebrating Yiddish heritage in Belarus.
As the lockdown eased and people started to mobilise once again, our Aid Together volunteers relocated their sorting operations to our warehouse in Mill Hill. The aim was to try to catch up with lost time so that a lorry of aid could be sent before the year-end. To ensure safety, the volunteers split into two small teams headed by Suzanne Goodman and Stephanie Aptaker. Social distancing, facemasks and antibac were the order of the day – and the volunteers worked at a pace to get the donations sorted and packed.
To experience a summer with no Youth for Youth activity was simply unthinkable, so we put our heads together to reimagine what might be possible given the circumstances. In 2018, our summer programme had been a residential programme in Belarus with 40 young adults. We had called it Zoymen, which means ‘seed’ in Yiddish, to symbolise the revival of Jewish life in Belarus. This year, as we were unable to travel to Belarus we set about creating a one-day version of the summer programme in a virtual space, and we called it Zoom into Zoymen 2020. It was an extraordinary online one day event across 10 time zones from Belarus to Los Angeles. Read more here.
On August 9th Belarus held its Presidential elections and we lost contact to our office and team in Belarus – read more here. Now we were not only facing the challenges of a global pandemic but now there were fast-paced changes in the political landscape to contend with.
Determined not to be dogged by the pandemic and the politics, as part of the European Days of Jewish Culture Festival we organised an online Klezmer concert in the garden of Marc Chagall’s family home in Vitebsk. Members of the local Jewish community attended in person. Unsure whether the internet would hold, we took the risk, the concert took place and was a great success. It was indeed a magical event and included a specially recorded film of the inside of Chagall’s childhood home. To watch the recording, click here.
Equally exciting, the European Association for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage and Culture (of which TTP is a member) officially launched the European Routes of Jewish Heritage Project which will feature our trail in Belarus. Read more here.
In October, Rachel Gordon joined our volunteer team to help with the ongoing book translation work that we are undertaking on the subject of the Minsk Ghetto.
We launched the campaign to mark the Bronnaya Gora Massacre site in southern Belarus and we were incredibly excited about an archive search with spectacular results that helped us find documents going back to the 1740s. Read more here.
In Belarus, Vasily Zaitsau joined the team to support Artur Livshyts in the Minsk office. With an increase in enquiries from people looking for family records in the Belarus archives, the development of the heritage trail, and so much work to be done with communities, it is clear to see that the team will be growing in Belarus as we move forward which is immensely exciting.
In November we went into a second lockdown, but regardless, we still managed to load and dispatch 13.5 tonnes of humanitarian aid to Belarus. Volunteers came out on a cold day to help with the loading. In the current political climate, it was unclear how easy it would now be for the lorry to cross the border, but it travelled unheeded and reached its destination without issue. Click here to read more and here for the film.
The Together Plan in partnership with Jewish Child’s Day Charity and media partners The Jewish Chronicle launched the ‘Making History Together’ programme – a groundbreaking new programme which will bring the story of the Jews of Belarus into the forefront of our understanding of Jewish history. What better way to do this than through the eyes of children. See page 19 of the Jewish Chronicle online. We welcomed Leo Levine to The Together Plan as the Making History Together Coordinator. Applications are now being accepted for participation on the programme.
Youth for Youth is now in development with a passionate team at the helm, made up of Ulyana Babko in Belarus, Maeve Silver, Jack Baum, Sam Heller and Sophie Peterman in the UK and Madison Jackson in Cleveland, Ohio. Watch for exciting news in 2021.
At the beginning of December, I, along with Artur Livshyts in Minsk, gave a talk online for Qesher (based in Budapest) an online virtual learning platform telling the story of the Jews of the world. The talk was ‘The Jews of Belarus’ telling the history of the Jewish people from the 10th century to today. The session was oversubscribed and we hope to be able to repeat it in 2021.
During December we have been super busy putting together the Making History Programme which is immensely exciting and challenging. Read the article page 25 of the Jewish Chronicle.
As we come to the end of 2020, we can look back with a great sense of pride and achievement that we have managed to be so resilient and resourceful in what has been the hardest of years. We have been focused and deeply determined to stay on course. Our phenomenal team both here in the UK, Belarus, the Netherlands and the USA pulled together even though we have all been working apart. It just goes to show what is possible.
All that is left to say is an immensely huge thank you for all your support throughout the year and we look forward to you joining us as the exciting journey continues in 2021.
Wishing you a peaceful and safe festive season and a very happy and healthy new year.
All the best