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Special Mission to See Promise of Aliyah Fulfilled

Rabbi of Toronto’s Congregation Darchei Noam Joined 31 Other Rabbis

By: Cynthia Mann
Published: February 19th, 2013 in News » World
Rabbi Tina Grimberg
Rabbi Tina Grimberg, who serves the Reconstructionist Congregation Darchei Noam in Toronto, recently returned from a visit to Kiev. She went with 31 other rabbis from 20 communities as part of a Rabbinic Cabinet mission of The Jewish Federations of North America. But for Rabbi Grimberg, this experience resonated in a different way. She left the Ukraine at age 16 and returned only one other time, 20 years ago, to distribute medical supplies to young Chernobyl victims. This marked her first visit as a rabbi and a witness to the revival of Jewish life there.

“If I could have hidden my Jewish identity or thrown it away when I was growing up, I would have,” said Rabbi Grimberg, back in Toronto. Because of anti-Semitism, “It was burdensome, shameful and I hated it.” Grimberg recalled being ashamed that her grandmother once spoke Yiddish on a bus, prompting a Ukrainian woman to threaten her. Only a child, Rabbi Grimberg felt ashamed and told her grandmother never to speak Yiddish in public again. “I know I hurt her and I went back to Kiev this time to let her know I am no longer ashamed,” said Grimberg, weeping quietly.

Rabbis on the mission traveled to Kiev and Israel to see the promise fulfilled by North American Jewish Federations to help free Soviet Jewry and to give support to those who have chosen to remain, through the work of JFNA’s partners, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and The Jewish Agency for Israel.

The Toronto rabbi was “beyond floored” with the Federation-supported programs she saw in Kiev that sustain Jews and Jewish life, learning, religion and culture. “I contribute and I encourage others to contribute to Federation, but to see what it does overseas” was something else, she said. In her birthplace, Jewish Federations have “raised the living from the dead.”

The rabbis visited programs for the elderly that provide help meeting basic needs and combat loneliness and isolation. They went to after-school programs that offer counseling, tutoring and Jewish activities to at-risk children and their families. And they met with alumni of a host of Israel experience and camping programs to foster Jewish leadership and identity among the young.

The rabbis also held a service at Babi Yar, the site of the Nazi massacre of 100,000 in 1941, and met with Reform, Conservative and Orthodox colleagues.

In Israel, the group saw first-hand many of the efforts through JDC and JAFI to help the immigrants from the former Soviet Union integrate successfully in Israeli society and enjoy security and dignity in their old age. The group also met with diplomatic officials, politicians, religious leaders and journalists for high-level briefings on the political landscape and the complexities of Israeli religious life. Natan Sharansky, the former dissident hero who now leads JAFI, also met with the group.

Rabbi Grimberg spoke to Sharansky in Russian, she said, telling him, “You paved our way with your suffering” in the Soviet gulag. She also said the mission’s visits to both Kiev and Israel testified to the power of global Jewish community that Federations help nurture.

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, chair of JFNA’s Rabbinic Assembly, said the mission “exceeded my expectations.” He said the first-hand exposure to the “inspiring” overseas programs of the JDC and The Jewish Agency drove home for the rabbis the importance of the work of the Federation system. “They learned how it complements what they do to ensure the survival of Jewish community and peoplehood,” said Rabbi Weinblatt, who led the mission.

While in Jerusalem, several rabbis left the mission to join a group of women praying at the Western Wall. Israeli police detained 10 women for wearing tallitot, or prayer shawls, in violation of the Supreme Court ruling that traditional Orthodox laws govern ritual practice at the Wall. Two of the women detained were from the JFNA mission.

Jewish Federations have made a strong statement calling on the Israeli government to work out a fair solution to the issue of women praying at the Wall, and about Jewish pluralism in Israel. “Such an outcome must uphold Israel’s guarantee to grant full freedom of worship for all in Jerusalem, including rights of all Jews to pray in their own traditions at our holy sites,” according to the statement. Sharansky is, meanwhile, working to help find a resolution to the issue.
Related articles: Aliyah, Rabbi, Toronto, Darchei Noam, Mission, Tina Grimberg, Reconstructionist, Kiev, JFNA
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