On Thursday, March 27, Rabbi Robert Eisen will share insights from his recent visit to the Jewish community of Tbilisi, Georgia, as part of a “Between the Headlines: Tbilisi, Ukraine and the Global Jewish Community” briefing sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. It also will feature Danny Pins, who oversees the Africa operations of the Joint Distribution Committee, and Michael Novick, JDC’s executive director for strategic development.
“Georgia has a unique and ancient cultural heritage, and as of late, has one of the fastest growing economies in that part of the world,” Eisen wrote in a blog he kept throughout the mission, which was sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America National Rabbinic Cabinet. “Georgian-speaking Jewry is one of the oldest surviving Jewish communities in the world. The Georgian Jews have an approximately 2,600-year history in the region, and Tbilisi became a center of Jewish life. The city’s religious tolerance is reflected in its Old City, where a synagogue, mosque and church all stand within 500 yards of each other.”
Tbilisi’s Jewish community, the largest in the region, has survived the Holocaust, Soviet rule, a major earthquake, devastating war and the global economic crisis. The JDC and the Jewish Agency for Israel, with support from JFNA (including funds raised locally by the JFSA) play a major role in sustaining the welfare and Jewish institutions of the community.
“We read about the problems and the programs that are in place to help. But meeting the people, being touched by them, hugging them, brings a deeper understanding. I was moved by their courage, determination and intentionality. It’s not just about survival; it’s about their passion to live Jewish lives,” Eisen told the AJP.
On their first day in Tbilisi, the rabbis were sent to buy groceries with the equivalent of about $12, the monthly distribution for a family in need. Eisen confessed that his group went over budget, adding M&Ms and bananas to the food basket. “I cannot imagine how anyone could survive on what we bought them. However, you never would have known it.” When they visited the Abramishvili family in their dilapidated two-room house, 10-year-old Nodar opened the candy to share it with the group. He lives with his mother, aunt, grandmother and great-grandmother. The family identifies strongly with Jewish traditions and is looking forward to Nodar’s Bar Mitzvah. “I looked at our food basket and thought only of the hunger which would have been in the pit of my stomach. Their hunger reaches out from the depths of their souls,” Eisen wrote.
While in Tbilisi, the mission also visited the Hesed Eliyahu community center, the two main synagogues and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The rabbis met with the head of the Orthodox Church, the Israeli and U.S. ambassadors to Georgia, students who had been to Israel on Taglit-Birthright and Masa programs, and other beneficiaries of Jewish social services.
As Eisen summed up, the three biggest challenges facing the Georgian Jewish community are the complex economic situation (unemployment is reported between 17 and 40 percent in some age groups), the question of what to leave to whom (generational and structural changes in Jewish life), and the large percentage of unaffiliated Jews. He was struck by how similar these challenges are to those of American Jewry.
During a visit to the Hesed facility in the city of Gori, once home to 3,500 Jews and now to fewer than 400, Eisen asked a JDC representative about the rest of the Jewish community, those not in need of these services, the middle class. “The answer was immediate and decisive: ‘There are no others. Those who can, leave … those we miss, disappear,’” he wrote.
To learn more about the Jews of Georgia and insights on the global Jewish community, attend the briefing on Thursday, March 27 at 4:30 p.m., at Congregation Anshei Israel. The event is free. RSVP to Cat at the Federation at 577-9393 or [email protected].