Global Jewish Reflections | This Elul, A JDC Leader Thinks About Jewish History and Repentance

In the month leading up to the High Holy Days, a JDC leader reflects on the meaning of repentance, and the promise of a Jewish future in the former Soviet Union.

By Asi Kaniel - Director of Jewish Renewal, JDC-FSU | August 6, 2021

Asi, left, at a conference for alumni of JDC's leadership programs in Tblisi, Georgia.

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

Through the car windows I see Cyrillic letters, names of cities and towns that fire the imagination: Воложин, Минск, Одесса, Гродно, Житомир, Бердичев — Volozhin and Minsk, Odessa and Grodno, Zhytomyr and Berdychiv.

They bring to mind an entire world that has disappeared — the young men who studied at the Volozhin yeshiva are walking there alongside the students of the Tarbut Gymnasium in Grodno, and in front of them there is a demonstration by young Bund members from Minsk; Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdychiv, who loved every human being, walks alongside the national poet Haim Nachman Bialik, followed by Isaac Babel, the genius writer who was murdered by the Soviet regime. I have been seeing these signs and places during my travels in the former Soviet Union for more than 25 years, and each time I feel sadness about the world that is gone.

Asi, right, leads an event at an AJT conference in Kyiv, Ukraine.

The blowing of the shofar at the end of the morning prayers of the month of Elul sometimes brings melancholy reflections to my mind. As a child and as a teenager, I was always excited to hear the sound of the shofar calling upon us to repent. As is the way with boys, each time I made a resolution that next year I would be better, and I also believed in it wholeheartedly. Years passed, and the belief in my ability to get rid of bad habits and change in the blink of an eye was replaced by realistic sobriety. When I hear the shofar today, I miss the innocence and hope that made it possible for me to believe each time that this time I would truly become better. And yet, even today the shofar still reminds me of the faith in our ability to repent, to change and mend our ways.

The ability to repent may seem trivial to us, but as the Midrash says, it is in fact contrary to logic: “The wisdom was asked: What is the punishment of a sinner? And it answered: Evil will pursue the sinners (Proverbs, 13:21). The prophecy was asked: What is the punishment of a sinner? And it answered: The soul that sins, it shall die (Yehezkel, 18:4). The Torah was asked: What is the punishment of a sinner? And it answered: [Let him] bring guilt [offering] and he will be forgiven. The Almighty was asked: What is the punishment of a sinner? And G-d told them, may he repent and be forgiven.”

The way of the world is that if someone did something bad, he must be punished. We cannot imagine a situation where a court would send a murderer back home and release him from punishment just because he sincerely regretted his actions and promised not to repeat them. We all understand that criminals should be held accountable for their crimes, and that it is not enough that they regret what they did. But G-d showed us kindness and made it possible for us to erase the past through thoughts of the heart alone. It is in this spirit that the Psalmist says, “For a righteous man can fall seven times and rise, but the wicked shall stumble upon evil.” The righteous among us are those who fail time and again but are able to rise after each failure. The wicked fall into their wickedness and do not correct the bad things that they caused.

Our belief in the ability to mend our ways and repair the world around us is one of the most important principles of Judaism, and it is the one that accompanies the diverse work that JDC does in the former Soviet Union (FSU). True, the yeshiva and gymnasium students no longer walk the streets of Volozhin and Grodno, and the flourishing Jewish cultural center of Eastern Europe was destroyed as a result of the Holocaust and communist oppression. Still, we believe and prove that a redress is possible, and we help Jewish communities build their own new Jewish world.

Our belief in the ability to repair the world accompanies the diverse work that JDC does in the former Soviet Union (FSU).

Teenagers who are members of Active Jewish Teens (AJT), a network of youth clubs we support; children participating in AJTjunior activities; graduates of JDC’s Metsuda, Knafaim, and Lehava leadership programs; thousands of volunteers and tens of thousands of Jews who attend Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) — all of them restore vibrant Jewish life to once-ruined cities and towns, and they do so in an innovative and special way. They help the most vulnerable, enjoy creating and consuming Jewish culture, connect with Jews around the world, and together celebrate Shabbat rituals and Jewish festivals.

For example, the Migdal Community Center operates in one of the old synagogues of Odessa. Today, Odessa’s Jewish craftsmen no longer daven there; neither do the city’s Maskilim argue in the back seats about Zionism, business, Yiddishism, and socialism. In their place, today there are small children in ballet outfits; teenagers who play chess, study the weekly Torah portion, and play Jewish music; fathers and mothers who gather to discuss the challenges facing Jewish families in today’s Ukraine; and young people with special needs who enjoy drawing, exercising, and studying with their mentors.

Asi Kaniel, left, advises a youth leader at an Active Jewish Teens (AJT). conference in Kyiv, Ukraine. For more than 14 years, Asi has served as Director for JDC’s Jewish Renewal programs in the former Soviet Union (FSU).

The same picture can be seen in more than 60 cities all over the FSU, where tens of thousands of Jews reconnect with the world and culture of their ancestors, and reshape it on their own terms.

Whenever I get to work with my fellow educators in the FSU or teach the members of the community, I am filled with pride in the important role that JDC plays in the revival of Jewish life in these countries — places like Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, and beyond. For me, the exuberant vitality of the community members, their lust for knowledge, willingness to help those in need, and fierce Jewish pride are the ultimate redress for the injustices that have afflicted the Jews of Eastern Europe.

That feels like a sort of repentance to me.

Asi Kaniel began volunteering with JDC in 1993 and has served as the director of the organization’s Jewish Renewal programs in the FSU for the past 14 years.

AJT was founded in 2014 by local teens and JDC, in partnership with BBYO, the world’s largest pluralistic Jewish teen movement. Today, AJT is powered by a partnership with the Genesis Philanthropy Group and is part of the global BBYO movement.

Across the FSU, more than 3,200 Jewish teenagers participate in AJT teen clubs in 63 cities.

Sign Up for JDC Voices Stories