Our Spring Appeal
It has been a year since Covid first appeared in our midst. During the last 12 months The Together Plan has remained active and resilient against the onslaught of the continuing pandemic. In spite of the challenges faced by us and so many UK charities, we have been fighting to meet our mission – that Jewish people, no matter where they are, will never be alone.
We took a decision last year not to launch an emergency appeal but to take stock, adapt, evaluate and forge ahead with our work. Everyone in The Together Plan cohort, both here in the UK and in Belarus, realised the challenges would be great, but in the face of adversity, stalwart determination has seen us through to this point. As we move into Spring – a year on, we are now launching an appeal, reaching out to our friends and followers. With your support, we will continue building the bridge between our past and present, while paving the way to a better future, TOGETHER!
Making History Together - meet the participants
The Making History Together Holocaust Education Programme designed, created and run by The Together Plan is progressing as participants in the UK and in Belarus delve deeper into the hidden history of the Jews of the Soviet Union and specifically Belarus. In the UK the second session explored the theme of ‘identity’ and the ever-changing borders. Participants were tasked with researching certain Jews from the region that is today Belarus who have had an untold impact on the Jewish and non-Jewish world, yet so few would know of them. Religious leaders, politicians, artists, designers, business moguls and musicians. Using the hidden history, participants were encouraged to question the theme and to understand that identity is a complex multi-layered construct, and that everyone’s identity should be valued and respected. In Belarus, the cohort of non-Jewish participants is meeting in-person and working on a parallel programme. For them it is also a journey of discovery, learning about their own history which was lost because of the post-war political narrative. That narrative silenced Jews, ensuring that the Jewish narrative of suffering at the hands of the Nazis would be erased. To this day, so much of that narrative is yet to find its way into the hearts and minds of the people of Belarus, and we are hoping that our Making History Together Programme will be positive steps in that direction. What we can say is that even in this early stage of the programme, the participants in Minsk are curious, keen to learn more and to play their part to bring this history more into focus.
Humanitarian aid and Matzah on the move
With Pesach now upon us, we are once again proud to be partnering with our charity partner in Minsk ‘The Association of Families with Many Children’ and the Orthodox Jewish Union of Belarus, assisting with the logistics of bringing a ton of matzah into the country from Ukraine. With the consignment safely across the border, the precious Matzavh was brought to our warehouse in Minsk. From here allocations to communities across the country have been distributed along with humanitarian aid that was donated, sorted, packed and loaded in London by a team of dedicated volunteers. These volunteers worked tirelessly throughout the last year and through all of the lockdowns, to ensure that donations were continuously collected and processed. Shoes, clothes, toys, household items, blankets, Judaica and resources for community centres are material in-kind items of enormous value and support to individuals and communities across the country.
For many Jews in Belarus, not all seder tables will be set with a Pesach plate and all the accompanying symbolic foods. For one, Judaica cannot be purchased in the country. Some will not know how to lay a Pesach table or hold a seder. But to have access to matzah is meaningful and symbolic in its own right, and it is equally meaningful to us, that we can help to make that a reality.
A not so lost cemetery after all
In 2011, the Polotsk Jewish Cultural Educational Foundation was established. The founder was Debra Brunner, co-founder and CEO of The Together Plan. The newly registered organisation was set up to enable Jewish people living in Polotsk, in the north of Belarus, to be part of a new model of community growth. It set out to show that members could take ownership of their own community developments, not be reliant on funding or instruction from outside agencies. This was the first foray into an independent community for the members and the transition was not without its challenges. The first initiative that the community chose was a cemetery project. They asked if they could go in search of the lost Jewish cemetery in Bobynichi. Of course, we supported the idea. The community asked for no financial support for the project. They located the site and together they set about cutting back years of overgrowth, not knowing if they would find anything. The task was mighty. It was summer and being on the bank of a lake, the bugs were vicious with, the heat was intense and the work was arduous. But they were rewarded, and they slowly uncovered the cemetery – that had been for so many years abandoned and forgotten. Astounded local villagers began to join the effort grateful that Jewish people had returned. Together they reinstated headstones that had fallen, they numbered every stone, photographed them and found help to read them. They found someone who had previously done research on the cemetery and pooled their knowledge. Year on year, the Polotsk community members returned to the cemetery to clear and tend to the site. Ten years after this first discovery, the community have requested that memorial steles be placed at the cemetery listing the names of all the people buried there since many of the inscriptions are fading and will be lost forever.
In answer to their call for support, we at The Together Plan put forward a proposal to the US Commission for Jewish Heritage Abroad to help preserve this important Jewish site. We are as excited as Polotsk is to share that this application was successful and in the coming months we will see this memorial project coming to fruition. How meaningful it is to see a new Jewish community growing as a result of their first ever project, to save and preserve the memory of a community that was almost lost to the past.
Jewish Heritage youth clubs make a start
As the days start to grow longer and we move into the Spring, it may still be snowing in Belarus, but new shoots are starting to appear as we put new plans into play to trial Jewish heritage youth clubs in a number of communities in Belarus. This challenging and exciting initiative will play a role in encouraging young people to take an active role in the building of our Jewish Cultural Heritage Trail across Belarus. The clubs will create opportunities to meet, plan, create, explore, socialise and collaborate. In Polotsk, the community have already started to put their plans into action, and are actively involving the younger children in their programming. They have already mapped a walking tour of Jewish Polotsk – and are excited to photograph, research and document important Jewish sites and buildings with Jewish provenance in their town. In Minsk, for a group of young people at the Daumana Street Synagogue, this is a whole new initiative, They are at the beginning of their journey and over the coming weeks and months, we will support their planning as they develop their club. We are excited to see how this initiative will develop and we look forward to keeping you updated as the months progress.
Click here to watch our film of Jewish Polotsk.
Talks both international and local
With international travel almost at a standstill and many countries still very much in lockdown with strict restrictions in place, we have never been so disconnected physically. But then again, with thanks to technology and resilience, we have on the other hand, never been so connected in the virtual world. To that end, The Together Plan is connecting to people on a global level in a way that they were never able to a year ago. Covid brought so many businesses to a standstill, and by virtue, people found themselves needing to repurpose themselves or start new initiatives. In Budapest, two entrepreneurial young Jews, Dora and Sebastian, with a passion for Jewish history, heritage and culture, finding themselves in this very position, took the brave steps at the start of the pandemic to establish Qesher;
Qesher, connection in Hebrew, is a project for an unusual time, in which physical borders have become stronger, but we are more in contact than ever.
There are Jewish communities all around the globe with their own unique history, culture, places, and most of all people and stories. All of them different, but sharing so much. We would like to invite you to a virtual journey to discover some of these Jewish stories from around the world.
Qesher reached out to us at The Together Plan and invited us to give a talk about the history of the Jews of Belarus. At the end of 2020, Artur Livshyts and Debra Brunner gave their talk. It was oversubscribed and as a result, we were invited back to speak again in March. This time, we gave a slightly different talk, giving an insight into why we set up The Together Plan, sharing some of the lesser-known facts that shaped our passion for Jewish activism, before taking people on a journey into the history of Jewish Belarus. We were delighted to receive feedback the next day:
I had the pleasure of attending this session with my cousin from San Francisco. He’s actually visited Belarus and connected with family members who are still there, and I’ve managed to find family members and their descendants who immigrated to Israel and Germany.
This was really something special for us, and I wanted to thank you and particularly Arthur and Debra for an outstanding job.
Again the talk was oversubscribed, and so we have been asked to speak again on April 8th.
To book in for that talk, click here.
Meanwhile, closer to home and back in the UK, Debra Brunner gave a virtual talk for the Southend and Westcliff Hebrew Congregation. It is always a pleasure to be invited by individual communities to speak about our work, our projects and Jewish Belarus and in these times of disconnect to be afforded the opportunities to make personal connections even if it is in a Zoom room.