(JTA) — When Elena Kalnitskaya of Ukraine talked about her organization’s women’s empowerment projects at a United Nations conference last month, she was presenting the face of social progress in her country.
And she was doing it as a Jewish woman — not unusual, perhaps, for an American participant in international gatherings, but worth a second look when the representatives in question are from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
Kalnitskaya and her three colleagues are from Project Kesher, a Jewish women’s organization that promotes human rights and women’s concerns in the former Soviet Union. They are the only representatives from the former Soviet Union at the weeklong conference. And, Kalnitskaya notes, Project Kesher is the only Jewish group standing up in an international forum for the rights of women of all ethnicities and faiths in a half-dozen Russian-speaking countries.
“That’s important because when people ask who we are, we say we’re Jews, and we’re here representing our countries,” said Kalnitskaya, 47, who lives in the eastern Ukraine city of Makeyevka.
Kalnitskaya spoke to JTA by Skype on Feb. 25 as she was wrapping up three intense days of meetings at the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, which brought delegates from more than 4,000 nongovernmental organizations to U.N. headquarters in New York to discuss civil society, human rights and the advancement of women around the world.
She had spent the day in a workshop on women and technology, where she talked about Project Kesher’s computer training and job skills program. The program has helped more than 17,000 people, mostly women and girls, in the organization’s 17 computer centers throughout the former Soviet Union.
It’s been a long haul for Project Kesher, which started in 1989 as a partnership between Jewish women in North America and the Soviet Union focused on bringing American activist models to bear on issues including domestic violence, human trafficking, women’s health, anti-Semitism and intolerance in the soon-to-be-independent countries behind the Iron Curtain.
In its two decades, the group has gained the respect of political leaders in the region, a development that Illinois-based Executive Director Karyn Gershon attributes to the nonsectarian nature of its work.
Project Kesher activists in Belarus who work to gain access for more women to the country’s sole mammography machine are helping all women, not just Jews, Gershon points out. That’s also true of the tolerance-building projects the group runs in Ukraine, a country plagued by xenophobia and rising violence against non-Slavs.
The activists are motivated to do this work because of the Jewish values they learn through the organization’s Jewish education programs — education dedicated to inspiring tikkun olam, or work to repair the world’s ills — a relatively new concept in the former Soviet Union.
“We have a seat at the table now,” Gershon said, noting that Project Kesher works with the Russian Parliament, or Duma, as well as with top government officials in Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia on health and social issues. “They see that the Jewish community is not insular.”
At the United Nations, Kalnitskaya and her colleagues are trying to share their most successful models of empowerment with women from Third World countries facing the same struggles against illiteracy, sexual violence and job discrimination, which have been heightened by the global economic crisis.
Olga Krasko of Belarus outlined Project Kesher’s job training success at a workshop on women and financial literacy.
“Women from Haiti and Ghana came up to me and said how much they appreciated hearing about our methodology, learning how we started,” said Krasko, of Polotsk. “Today it’s useless to talk about ending domestic violence and sex trafficking if we don’t empower women with legal and financial knowledge.”
“Here are women from Africa, Asia, learning from Jewish women from the FSU, picking up their models,” Gershon added. “We get 5,000 hits a week on our website, people downloading our materials, using our models. Worldwide, people are picking up that there are Jewish women doing this humanitarian work — and it’s not just American Jews but Jews from the FSU.”
Project Kesher was set to co-host a U.N.-sanctioned panel March 3 examining women’s strategic use of technology to build civil society and promote gender equality.
“We’ll share our experience beginning from 20 years ago, when people in Russia didn’t even have telephones,” said Svetlana Yakimenko, the group’s Moscow-based director. “Today our information is immediately available on our website, we have virtual offices and we Skype our meetings.
Late last month, Yakimenko and her colleagues were hitting the Hill, meeting with U.S. State Department and congressional figures to talk about American support for civil society initiatives in the former Soviet Union.
“The thousands of women in Project Kesher want our voices to be heard by American decision-makers,” said Yakimenko, noting that when the group’s American leadership visits the FSU, they meet with government officials in those countries together with their local colleagues.
“It’s important for political leaders in Belarus to meet our American women,” said Krasko. “And when we tell Russian government leaders that we are representing the women of Russia at the United Nations, they listen to us.”