May 9th, in former Soviet countries, is considered to be an honourable day in recognition of the defeat of Nazism. Officially known as Victory Day in the former Soviet Union, it is a public holiday and parades, military uniform and columns of tanks are all part of the spectacle. It is a day devoted to recognising and commemorating the strength of the Soviet Army in the defeat of the enemy. In the run-up to the Victory Day proceedings this year The Together Plan, in collaboration with the Daumana Street Synagogue in Minsk and the Belarus Jewish Orthodox Union, took the opportunity to take a moment to honour Jewish heroes, brave survivors who witnessed untold horrors and endured so much loss. In a country where there are no kosher foods available to be bought in any shops, the three trusted partners collaborated to ensure that kosher gifts were procured, which our volunteers delivered, along with specially printed cards, to survivors of the Minsk Ghetto and righteous gentiles. These people, now in their eighties, were child survivors, escapees of the ghetto, most of whom survived in the forests outside of the city as partisans. The community of ghetto survivors are enormously grateful for the support, assistance and attention that The Together Plan brings them and this day was no exception. ‘Chesed’ is the Hebrew word meaning ‘kindness or love between people’. The Jewish community from this part of the world has been subjected to the massacres of the Holocaust, the deconstruction of Judaism as a religion under communism and the destruction of cultural Jewish life under Stalin. What the Belarus Jewish community of today needs is chesed and we are doing all that we can to ensure that these survivors, who endured so much, are not forgotten, are cared for and are fully valued within the community. Click here to watch our short video.
When The Together Plan charity was one year old, in 2014, Debra Brunner, co-founder and CEO decided to join a business networking group in north London. The aim was to help amplify the message and to spread the word of the charity and its mission. The organisation she stepped into was BNI (Business Network International) a global referral marketing network. Debra is now in her seventh year of membership. The concept of BNI is ‘givers gain’ in other words if you bring business to the members, they will want to help you in return. The system allows you to create credibility through participation and contribution, and Debra and The Together Plan are today very visible and indeed credible in this high profile business group. The members have contributed enormously to the charity, in many ways – through donations, contributions of aid, pro-bono professional advice and services. In return, Debra recommends her fellow members to her networks. Membership is a commitment, with meetings taking place every Friday at 6am (for the last year on Zoom) and as part of the commitment, members take time to meet and understand each other’s businesses better.
In early May, Debra had a meeting with Josh Leitner, founder of Evertex Linens who manufacture and supply table linens, accessories and printed textiles to the events trade. Obviously, the last year has been hard and with no events, Josh started turning his fabrics into masks. Josh, a member of the Orthodox Jewish community was incredibly interested in the work of The Together Plan, and with his deep knowledge of the significance of the religious leaders that came from Belarus, he offered to write some blogs. You can read Josh’s first blog here about the Gaon of Vilna.
With their 121 over, Debra suggested that at the next BNI weekly meeting, they swap their 45 second presentations to the members. Josh agreed. Knowing that Josh to be an avid Shtisel fan (catch it on Netflix if you haven’t already), Debra delivered the following ‘ode’ at the business meeting that week:
When Covid struck a year ago, and the events world it did crash,
Poor Josh’s orders one by one they vanished in a flash.
With not a phone call, text or tweet, the team devoid of tasks
A light bulb moment struck Josh, and he turned to making masks.
They burnt the candle at both ends, they noshed and droshed a bissel
And when the masks were made, Josh stopped a while to binge on Shtisel.
So now as lockdown’s ending and the pub wheels are a churning
It’s time to think of getting back and Josh’s thoughts are turning
To new ideas and avenues, Josh won’t sit on his tuchus,
Mrs Josh she must be proud, I hope she’s schepping nuchus.
The cloth we put on tables we now put on the nose,
So Josh let’s see what’s next, you will surprise us I suppose.
So that’s it folks, the time is up, my job here now is done.
And Josh, at Evertex for you the work has just begun.
The Together Plan – is so much more than a charity helping the impoverished in Belarus.
Sure we know about the aid that is sent, and the donations made, but that is just a fraction of what Debra and her amazing team have set up over the last 10 years. A Spanish-American philosopher, George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are destined to repeat it.”
Like a giant slinky, history (and I am not just referring to Jewish history) is totally interconnected. In Proverbs King Solomon says there’s nothing new under the sun. In fact, everything that we commemorate and observe is both a memorial, a tribute of the past historical events, but also vital lessons for the future.
The Together Plan has aligned with some huge organisations, in particular, the Council of Europe to track the history of Belarus, to rebuild some of the important landmarks and to be a cog in the rebuilding of the past to secure the future.
I spent an hour with Debra and was humbled. Adam Bateau was right, 45 seconds really isn’t enough!
I for one am proud to be a member of a BNI Group in which its nominated charity is the Together Plan.
To find out more about the services and business people Debra can recommend from table linens and mask maker, florist to caterer to wills solicitor, accountant, optician, estate agent, landlords management agency and so much more, do get in touch. Indeed if you would be interested to join Debra at her BNI business meeting and do some networking, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
As we explore the history in Belarus between 1941 and 1944 it defies logic that so few know about it or the depths of human suffering that befell this far corner of Eastern Europe – the gateway into the heart of the Soviet Union. In Belarus, everyone knows about the Great Patriotic War and the Soviet heroes who crushed the Nazi regime. Everyone knows of the tanks, the medals, the battles, the victories. But very few know about the Holocaust, the murder of the Belarusian Jewish population, the ghettos, the massacres, the mobile gas chambers, the partisans, the resistance or the non-Jews who risked their own lives to save others.
The Together Plan’s Making History Together Programme has been designed to encourage participants in Belarus and in the UK to explore this little known history. In the UK, both the young teenagers and their parents are intrigued and fascinated to be part of this journey of discovery. Some are even discovering that they have connections to Belarus themselves.
In Belarus, the non-Jewish college students in Minsk are connecting to the hidden history of their country. Hidden because it was swept under the carpet by the Stalin post-war regime. They have visited the Museum of Jewish Resistance in Novogroduk and the site of the Trostenets death camp on the outskirts of Minsk.
We asked the students in Minsk ‘Do you think more people in Belarus should learn about this history?’ They answered: ‘Everyone should. We are one people and we can be together only when everyone knows the history and respects the history so that there won’t be any antisemitism.
The April session in the UK explored ‘Power and Leadership’ which explored the role of Jewish partisans in the forests of Belarus who took up arms against their Nazi oppressors and caused major disruption to the Nazi war machine; blowing up trains and convoys, and the brave children who led people to safety out of the ghettos. The next session at the end of May will cover ‘antisemitism’ in a month when sadly this has once again on the rise. A stark reminder that there is so much work to be done. And into June the theme will be ‘Tikkun Olam’ – repairing the world beyond a shattered landscape of destruction that took place in the Soviet Union. History that we are only coming to learn about today.
We simply love it when our donations of aid reach communities in Belarus. The Aid Together programme is an absolute lifeline, and it brings positive social benefit every step of the way. It really makes us smile.
People in the UK love it because they get to declutter knowing that their donations will be reused, and not end up in landfill. Everything we can do with the environment in mind is of utmost importance to us. To that end, We recycle paper, we re-use cardboard and we upcycle redundant balls of wool, buttons, ribbons and lace which are used in Belarus to make cushions and blankets for our elderly community members and here our volunteers use some of the redundant bits and bobs to make twiddle muffs for elderly people suffering from dementia. It is a win-win at every step of the process.
In November last year in the midst of a lockdown, our resilient and dedicated volunteers loaded a 40-foot lorry to the brim with the donations that they had sorted and packed and it made the long journey to Belarus. On arrival it was unloaded in Minsk by volunteers. Last week, some of that aid reached the Orthodox Jewish community in Mogilev in the south of the country, and the community sent us this message:
Thank you for the humanitarian assistance provided, which our community members urgently need in circumstances of pandemic and economic crisis. The assistance in difficult circumstances allows the Jews of Mogilev to feel the support of the Jewish community, overcome isolation, develop friendly relations and their own initiatives for mutual assistance.
The incredible volunteers in London are a real tour-de-force and are a valued and phenomenal team who give of their time generously and willingly. They have real ownership of the Aid Together Project and we are immensely grateful and proud of their endeavours and the work that they do. The aid that they collect, sort and pack is distributed to Jewish and non-Jewish communities throughout Belarus and we are immensely proud of what we are able to achieve together to ensure that people receive this much-needed support.
Aid distribution at the Mogilev Orthodox Jewish Community, Belarus