Featured in the Belarus Jewish News, May 2023
Belarus’s only Jewish newspaper, ‘Berega’, has this month featured an interview with our very own Artur Livshyts – co-founder and Country Director of The Together Plan. The article focuses on Artur’s relatively new role as Deputy Chair of the Jewish Religious Union of Belarus. To read the background to Artur’s miraculous story click here. Translated from Russian, we bring you the interview:
Artur Livshyts, Deputy Chairman of the Jewish Religious Union: “It’s important to just keep being yourself”
We continue our acquaintance with the representatives of the newly elected board of the Jewish Religious Union in the Republic of Belarus. Today our guest is Artur Livshyts, Deputy Chairman of the Board, a man who captivates with his energy.
— You became independent and responsible at an early age. Moreover, it happened overseas. Can you tell us more? And to what extent did this knowledge acquired in adolescence have an impact on your future life?
– I don’t think that I became independent at an early age. It happened at the right time. I was almost 13, and according to the laws of the Torah, that’s the age when a boy has his Bar Mitzvah and enters religious adulthood, in order to become a man. But I did find myself thousands of miles away without parents or friends, without knowledge of the language and with a Soviet upbringing. No one there knew any , so I adapted to the new conditions as I started to learn English, Hebrew, the history and traditions of Judaism, and the Torah in a religious school.
And after school I wanted to have time to play basketball or football. At the same time, I had to build relationships with people with a completely different mindset. It was such a tough “crash test” for my communication skills. Now I can say with confidence that I think I passed it with flying colours.
I love my homeland, and what I do is to deal with its history, people and heritage. And knowledge of the language helps to tell the whole world about it.
— Is it better to draw Jewish knowledge and traditions with a ladle or take it by the teaspoon? Which is more effective, and how was it for you?
— I consider my case to be an exception. I had to draw my knowledge with a ladle, as I knew nothing at all about Judaism until I was 13. Of course, if it had been one teaspoon at a time and from a very young age, it would have been much easier for me.
— Who were your teachers, those who guided you to where you are today? Who are you grateful to?
— First of all, it was my grandfather, who, despite the risk, maintained correspondence with relatives in America during the Soviet era. He surreptitiously taught me Yiddishkeit, even though it was all forbidden at that time. He taught me songs in Yiddish and told me who the Jews were. My grandfather was a great authority for me. Later, I was also lucky with my teachers and their influence played a big role in my life. It was also my grandfather’s brother, Noam, who helped me to come to America and gave me the opportunity to study there. It was my spiritual father, Rabbi Zalman Posner in Nashville, Tennessee, who helped me to understand Judaism and had a strong influence on my worldview. Another person to whom I am grateful for what I am doing now is Yakov Basin. Our acquaintance took place during my student years in Minsk. Despite our age difference he became a friend, a teacher and an example for me to follow. Unfortunately none of these people are alive now, but they are still alive in my heart. I believe that I have lived up to their expectations, and I think they would be proud of me.
— A good knowledge of languages and immersion in realities allowed you to set up work in a variety of directions. Could you tell us about it and focus on each of them?
— I love my homeland, and what I do is to deal with its history, people and heritage. Knowledge of language helps to tell the whole world about it. I do focus on several areas, and I take each one seriously.
First of all, it is the preservation of the Jewish heritage of Belarus and its popularisation around the world. We have a very rich Jewish history, but unfortunately not much is known about it. One of the new projects in this direction, the ‘Making History Together’ project, is educational. It is created for Belarusian and English teenagers. Its essence is that children in both countries simultaneously study the history of the Holocaust in Belarus. The project has already been implemented between the Minsk State Vocational College of Builders, which is located on the site of the former Minsk Ghetto, and students in London.
To continue the topic of Jewish history in Belarus, we are actively engaged in publishing. Our volunteers have republished and translated into English a book of memoirs of the former prisoners of the Minsk Ghetto. It is the first English-language edition about the second largest ghetto in Eastern Europe. Hardly anyone in the world even knows about it. The book has aroused enormous interest.
Additionally, a book by the remarkable historian Vladimir Melnitsky has been published recently. A unique publication “Jewish Heritage of Minsk” is the first book of its kind, a guide through our capital, which had 87 synagogues before the October Revolution! Several more books are in development, including one on all the ghettos in the country. Vladimir also runs our history club in Minsk, which is very popular.
I have been involved in projects in public organisations for a long time. And I know what an enormous amount of work it is, comparable to that of a professional in any other field. And it can be even harder, because you have to find an individual approach to people, problems and relationships, not only within the country, but all over the world.
A memorial is being built in Brest on the site of the old Jewish cemetery. We’ve been working on this project for a while now and we’ll do our best to get it done, as it has too much history to endure. We are also involved in the Bronnaya Gora project and others.
We have been helping Jewish communities in Belarus for many years. The story in Polotsk is illustrative. There we practically revived the community from scratch, and today it is fully functional: there is a Sunday school, young people come and there are programmes for different ages.
We also support the former prisoners of the Minsk Ghetto, the Association of Parents with Many Children and the Society of the Disabled. I am inspired by these people. They do what seems to be impossible. And being as they are, they find the strength and courage to follow their mission. For me, this is an example and a huge incentive to work and thereby help them even more.
— Humanitarian aid for Jewish organisations over the last 10 years is undoubtedly facilitated by you. How do you manage to do this?
— I have been involved in projects in public organisations for a long time. And I know what an enormous amount of work it is, comparable to that of a professional in any other field. And it can be even harder, because you have to find an individual approach to people, problems and relationships, not only within the country, but all over the world. This is not only thanks to me, but also to my partners, all those who are involved in the process of making the humanitarian aid project a reality. The sponsors, the volunteers, those who work on the logistics and the Jewish communities that help. It’s a team mitzvah. I have to say that great merit goes to my colleague, Debra Brunner, and The Together Plan volunteers in the UK.
— You have undeniable organisational skills and business acumen. Do you see yourself as a businessman, a philanthropist or someone else?
— We occupy the place in life that we choose for ourselves. I have a law degree and it helps me work. Everyone does what they do best. And I can say that I am in the right place and I love what I do.
— Having a strong, Nordic character – is that what you are like? What do you accept most about yourself and what would you like to improve?
— Let’s leave the strong, Nordic character to Stierlitz. I have, I would say, a balanced nature. I can be emotional, but that cannot change my decisions. You can’t do anything being led by serious emotions.
By interacting with people of different ages, professions, mindsets and statuses all over the world, I have learnt a lot from them. And in turn, I am constantly improving my social skills in order to be effective. It keeps me on my toes. But working on yourself is the hardest work. Another important thing to learn is how to sometimes put yourself on “airplane mode”.
— It is believed that if one has real friends, one also has enemies. Do you go along with this?
— I’m lucky to have real friends. That’s true. In that sense, I am a rich man. And with all my heart, I confess my love to those people who have been around for years, and those who appeared in my life not so long ago. As for enemies, well they are a great stimulant. And while the praise of friends can sometimes be questioned, the envy of enemies deserves full confidence. I hear many ‘stories’ in close Jewish circles! Moreover, the ignorance goes so far that people who don’t even know me have an opinion of me. This only confirms the idea that if you do your job well – then you are annoying. My explanation is simple: there are a lot of “thinkers” in our “industry” and to that end everything is thought about only in their heads. In reality, because of their inherent rigidity, their projects have been gathering dust for many years now.
I don’t strive to be good for everyone. That’s why I always avoid subjective opinions and rely only on my own feelings, and my extensive work experience allows me to determine my own professional capabilities. At the same time, I am completely calm about healthy criticism, because it is normal feedback.
— Are there times when the mission is impossible? What helps to roll with the punches?
— Difficult moments are unavoidable. And here I have my own philosophy. If I can’t change anything, it’s important not to make a fuss. Sure, there are some things you can’t change. It is all about good communication and managing expectations. With limited resources we can only do what we can do. It’s important when things fail that you musn’t be afraid to try again. For example, I have always accepted the fact that failures are not given to self-doubt, but are a path to think more creatively and expand one’s area of operation. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, it seems unfair at times, but growth doesn’t happen any other way. Failure gives a special flavour to success.
I’m lucky to have real friends. In that sense, I am a rich man. What concerns enemies, they are a great stimulant. And while the praise of friends can sometimes be questioned, the envy of enemies deserves full confidence.
— Would you say you’re a knight of fortune? Is there a secret to success? What is it?
— I recently caught myself thinking that I am lucky to have good people around me. Today, I am surrounded by confident, gifted and interesting people – a kind of “Decent People Club”. And in such an atmosphere, very necessary and important projects are born much faster and implemented more effectively. I’m lucky to be engaged in my favourite business with a professional community.
— What do you see as your role as Deputy Chairman of the Jewish Religious Union?
— Above all, it is about supporting the development of the organisation, attracting resources to the union, launching new projects and optimising existing work. In general, I am used to doing more than talking. Especially since there are already plenty of ‘talkers’ in the Jewish community.
— If you had to formulate a minimum programme and a maximum programme, how would they sound?
— You provoke me to remember a joke: “What Jewish boy doesn’t want a revolution?” Actually, we’ll try to work with a maximum of effort and preferably with a minimum of loss.
Sure, there are certain gaps, but they can and should be bridged. For instance, one of them is the authority of the Union. I believe the Jewish Religious Union is a successor of the traditional Jewish community that used to exist in Belarus before the October Revolution. That is why we need to strengthen our status, apply modern approaches in our work, and develop. I really hope that my knowledge and experience will be useful in this “revival story”.
— What set of factors do you need to feel happy? Can you identify yourself as a happy person?
— Carlson answered this vital question when we all were children: “How to make people happy? Give them joy, love and some jam!”
But seriously, happiness is in the simplest things, and here, alas, everyone often doesn’t understand their happiness in their own way… But I know one quickest and most universal way to become happier. It’s doing good deeds. By doing something good for others, we do better for ourselves. It is the law of the universe: the more you give, the more you receive in return.
— If you had a coat of arms, what would be engraved on it? What design, what words?
— Show me what your coat of arms is and I’ll tell you who you are – so that’s a summary of the heraldic philosophy. So such disciplines have to be taken seriously.
I am only superficially acquainted with heraldry and do not know its language. And I can’t make up my own coat of arms “on the fly”. Apparently, the Japanese thought so too and maybe that’s why they still don’t have their coat of arms. I think I’d prefer the Japanese version for now.
As far as a motto goes, though, there probably is one, which is simple and relevant at all times: “It’s important to just keep being yourself”.