Through Travels with JDC, Connecting My Family to the Global Jewish Story

When Kathy Kanter took a family heritage trip to Belarus, she found herself forging even deeper connections to her global Jewish family.

By Kathy Kanter - JDC Ambassador | December 8, 2020

Kathy, second from left, on a home visit outside of Budapest, Hungary.

I’ve been lucky enough to travel to Belarus, Hungary, Ukraine, and Bosnia and Herzegovina with JDC. My first experience — to Grodno, Belarus, the birthplace of my paternal grandmother Sarah Staver — was magical right from the start. In my mind, Grodno was always some mythical shtetl that existed in some alternate, lost universe. It was hard for me to imagine that visiting there was possible, but one day, my friend and JDC representative Alex Shklar told me three important things: Grodno still existed, it was a big city, and she could get me there.

Kathy’s grandmother and four of her brothers.

I put the idea in the back of my mind until July 2018, when we had a family reunion to celebrate my dad’s 90th birthday and my parents’ 70th wedding anniversary. My dad, who recently passed away in September, was the last of his generation, and this reunion was also a chance for me to meet my cousin Gaylen, my grandmother’s brother Sam’s granddaughter and another relative with a link to Grodno. I’d heard about Gaylen my entire life — my grandmother had even begged me to ask her to be a bridesmaid in my 1979 wedding. That’s been a family joke for 40 years.

It was with the reunion on my mind that my husband Fred and I set out for Belarus, armed with not only the memory of my grandmother and uncles, but the newfound love of my cousin, too.

We spent our first day in Grodno with Marina Gatskan and Nadia Chezhegov, our delightful and enthusiastic JDC representatives and guides. Though neither my grandmother nor my dad had shared much about “life in the old country,” I did hear about the Staver Shul, which was supposedly built by my great-grandfather. Thinking this was another myth or an attempt at a claim to fame, I was very surprised when Marina and Nadia presented me with a list of Grodno synagogues and their addresses — with the Staver Shul listed among them!

The only other piece of information I had was an address listed on the manifest of the ship my grandmother and uncles had traveled on. We were pleasantly surprised to discover it had been a Jewish-owned tobacco factory before World War I. Though there’s no one left to ask, perhaps my family had worked there! And believe it or not, the address of the former location of the Staver Schul was just across the street.

Kathy with JDC client Yaakov Fruman in Grodno, Belarus.

We continued to wander the streets of present-day Grodno — not a shtetl, but a major Belarusian city. The director of its JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center took us on a home visit to Yaakov Fruman, who uses a wheelchair and hasn’t left his apartment in five years. His caregiver visits him several times a week, bringing him groceries and taking care of all his needs. Yaakov was about the same age as my father, and I was struck by the thought that, had my grandmother not left Belarus, he and my dad could have been classmates.

My husband and I were traveling on to Israel in two days, and we promised Yaakov we’d meet up with his niece there — and we did, spending a delightful afternoon together in Jerusalem. To complete my Grodno journey, I decided to leave some pink yarmulkes from my daughters’ b’nei mitzvah at the current Grodno synagogue. It felt important to complete the circle. 

I’ve come to realize that the major theme of my travels and involvement with JDC is connections.

Kathy, center, at a Warm Homes visit in Minsk, Belarus. Warm Homes is a JDC program that alleviates loneliness for vulnerable elderly Jews.

Even before I got to Belarus, there was my son Jeremy’s 2006 wedding to Irina, who he’d met in Israel and who was born in Ryazan, Russia — a city of about 520,000 people three hours southeast of Moscow. After finishing high school, Irina made aliyah to Israel; her family stayed behind. Once I got involved with JDC, I learned that Irina attended Szarvas, the JDC-Ronald S. Lauder Foundation international Jewish summer camp in rural Hungary and that Irina’s grandmother back in Russia received JDC food packages. When we arrived in Belarus, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that Irina’s sister and brother-in-law drove 11 hours through the night from Russia to greet us “because we were in the neighborhood.” That’s a strong connection!

In the years that followed, I continued to travel around Central and Eastern Europe with JDC. The highlights of these trips were the home visits, visiting Heseds and JCCs, and meeting with representatives of the region’s Jewish communities. Everywhere I went, I met young people who told me incredible stories of their reconnection to Judaism. Many of them had only learned they were Jewish as teens, and I was so impressed with their courage in deciding to learn about and embrace their Judaism — often against the wishes of parents and grandparents who were still hiding their own Jewish heritage.

Kathy, center in blue, poses for a photo at the 2019 AJT conference in Ukraine with other JDC donors and teens from across the former Soviet Union.

In November 2019, Fred and I were lucky enough to attend the opening ceremony of the Active Jewish Teens (AJT) conference in Ukraine. AJT was founded in 2014 by local teens and JDC, and it’s powered by a partnership with the Genesis Philanthropy Group and part of the BBYO global movement. Across the former Soviet Union, more than 3,200 Jewish teenagers participate in AJT teen clubs in 63 cities.

AJT’s goal is to foster local Jewish identity and community, and it places a big emphasis on learning and volunteering. I witnessed the joy and excitement of these kids, including BBYO members from the U.S., and their enthusiasm was contagious as they greeted each other, danced together, and ushered in Shabbat. I was reminded again of the power of connections when I realized that some of these Jewish teenagers had traveled 14 hours by train to take part in this event.

We focus so much on the destruction of Jewish communities during the Holocaust and under communism, but these young people are connecting with their peers to rebuild.

I know for a fact that most American Jews are unaware of this rebirth of Jewish life that JDC is so involved with. We focus so much on the destruction of Jewish communities during the Holocaust and under communism, but these young people are connecting with their peers to rebuild. It’s time we learned about their courage and recognized and applauded them as the future of world Jewry.

With every new place I’ve visited with JDC, my connection with my global Jewish family has only strengthened. In Hungary, I met the director of Camp Szarvas, where my daughter-in-law was a camper over 20 years ago. In Ukraine, I met a woman who’d escaped during World War II to Ryazan, Russia, my daughter-in-law’s hometown. At the home of a JDC client, I recognized the food on the table — the same dishes my daughter-in-law and mother would have served me! And I’m the proud babushka (grandmother) of two half-Russian, bilingual granddaughters who travel to Russia twice a year to visit their other grandparents. 

They, along with everyone else I’ve met on my JDC travels, have helped enlarge and complete my circle of global Jewish connections.

Kathy Kanter is a JDC Ambassador. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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