Four years ago, we realised that we were doing Mitzvah Day all wrong. It slowly dawned on us that as a charity working to empower communities to self-develop, and for Jewish community life to revive in Belarus in the former Soviet Union, it was not OK for us to be posting our good deeds on social media as our beneficiaries looked on. It felt wrong for us to be busy collecting, sorting and packing humanitarian aid while they watched the pictures appear on social media. They would watch and wait for the aid to arrive and while we enjoyed the warm, fuzzy feeling of doing good deeds. We realised that with the best of intentions to do good, what we were actually doing was simply perpetuating dependency.
The model had to change and we took a decision that the communities in Belarus had to also be part of Mitzvah Day, not as onlookers but as active participants. It was vital that we all did mitzvot together. Surely this was the route to revival. As with most good ideas, the putting into practice was less than straightforward. First, there were the Mitzvah Day packs that we had to get to Belarus. The only way to ensure they reached their destination was to take them ourselves. Then we faced the challenges of explaining the concept, indeed what exactly is a Mitzvah. Cultural obstacles presented themselves. Jewish continuity and understanding had all but been eradicated by communism so we literally had to start from scratch. Indeed, under communism, the state provided, the family unit was broken down and everyone looked out for themselves. To reverse that, and somehow bring Jewish values to the fore was no easy task. The whole concept of Mitzvah Day enabled us to focus on the very Jewish principle of being charitable, and communal by doing good deeds.
Over time, many in the communities we work with have come to understand, embrace and include the concept of mitzvot into their daily lives and we are very proud of this achievement. This year, with COVID all around, we were unable to take Mitzvah Day packs to Belarus, but we were determined that Mitzvah Day would still take place. And indeed it did.
Our fantastic Youth for Youth cohort our young adult volunteers took the reins and put a call out to our volunteers and community members both here in the UK and in Belarus to do a good deed, any kind of good deed, to take a photo and send it to us saying where they were and what they were doing. Maeve Silver, Sam Heller and Vasily Zaitsau (who help to drive Youth for Youth) created a brilliant slide show of all the mitzvot that took place in Belarus, Ukraine, the UK and the USA.
On Mitzvah Day itself, November 15th, Maeve organised and facilitated a Zoom event on the Mitzvah of Saving a Life. Invited speaker, Isabelle Hamilton-Bower, from the Resuscitation Council UK, ran a fascinating and informative session demonstrating basic life-saving skills, with up to date guidelines on dealing with an emergency in the current COVID climate.
The session was in Russian and English with 40 participants in attendance and the event concluded with a short film presentation of all the amazing good deeds that people had been doing. More than ever, people in Belarus pulled together to help others and we are immensely proud of what we have been able to achieve. A resounding thank you to Mitzvah Day and everyone who participated and made the day so enjoyable and meaningful.
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