At 25, Lena Pysina is already an agent of change in her Ukrainian city of Cherkassy.
As the “next generation” coordinator for Project Kesher, she is furthering the empowerment of young Jews by helping coordinate worship services, a Jewish kindergarten, a meals program, and Jewish studies classes for adults.
For young adults and families who may have only recently been told by a dying grandparent that they are Jewish, Kesher — a Jewish women’s organization that promotes Jewish identity as well as human rights and women’s concerns in the former Soviet Union — helps them recover a lost past.
“Young people start to be proud they are part of something. They are starting to find their values,” she said in an April 12 talk at the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life in Whippany. “I come here to say Jewish life is alive in Cherkassy, and we are doing a lot of work.”
Pysina visited the Partnership — the educational arm of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ — on the Aidekman campus in Whippany as part of a 10-day fund-raising visit to New York and New Jersey. She told her audience, leaders of UJC MetroWest’s Women’s Philanthropy, that 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, her efforts are paying off in a city where 1 percent of its 300,000 residents are Jewish.
Cherkassy receives support from UJC MetroWest.
According to Pysina, many Cherkassians “probably don’t know they are Jewish. Some people were not told by their parents because it was a difficult time in the Soviet Union.”
The 3,000 Jews are served by two groups: a traditional community led since the early 1980s by the Chabad-Lubavitch hasidic outreach movement, and a “Progressive” Jewish community, analogous to the Reform movement, launched with the dissolution of the Soviet Union a decade later. Pysina calls herself a “proud” member of the latter.
Unlike Chabad, the Progressives do not have a synagogue or a rabbi. Nonetheless, she said, “we observe Shabbat, we have a Jewish kindergarten, we celebrate Jewish holidays, we have Sunday school, we have a meals program, and people have become very interested in Jewish studies.”
She estimates that 20 to 25 people worship regularly at the Progressive services, and the number jumps to 100 on the High Holy Days.
“We are not a lot, but we are active,” she said. “I cannot say it is hard to be Jewish, but it is hard because there are a lot of mixed marriages.”
Pysina said she is especially proud of the two-week Jewish family summer camp for the Cherkassy region. The camp is staffed with counselors from the Ofakim-Merchavim region of Israel — UJC MetroWest’s Partnership 2000 community — and from MetroWest itself.
“It helps to build a community,” Pysina said. “Not only do children have fun, but they become close with their parents and their friends in the Jewish community, and people have become very close afterward.”
About three years ago, she said, Jews in their late teens and early 20s started moving away.
“It was really difficult. But now — don’t ask me how — people come and say, ‘I know my grandparents were Jews,’ and we are starting a new generation again. We now have 60 children in kindergarten and mostly after they attend Jewish Sunday schools, and after Sunday school they are coming to the youth club, and after youth club they are coming to the students’ club, and with their parents they attend Shabbat services.
“So I think we are growing and growing.”
Asked whether she experiences any anti-Semitism in Cherkassy, Pysina said, “I myself haven’t seen it, but we had some Nazi signs on the Chabad synagogue and awful signs on a garbage place saying, ‘This is a place for Jews.’”
When such incidents occur and can be photographed, the pictures are turned over to the police.
“They are usually painted over,” but the police “will not do anything” unless someone is caught in the act.
The Progressives’ nondescript worship space, in an office building, has not been a target. “Our building is situated between a court and a prison,” she said. “So we feel safety.”
Pysina studied to be a graphic designer, but switched plans and studied for a year at Paideia, the Institute for Jewish Studies in Stockholm. She now dedicates her life to Jewish education.
It was quite a departure from the way she was raised.
“My Jewish life did not look like anything,” she said. “My father, he is not [Jewish] and he is not religious at all. My mother, she was not so involved in Jewish life. But we had no Jewish roots. Since Soviet time they disappeared. We just knew we were Jews. My aunt was very involved, and from the last 10 years she is leading our community.”
It was she who persuaded her niece to attend Sunday school, and, said Pysina, “I liked it very much.”
Her involvement in things Jewish has had a definite impact on her father. She hung a mezuza on the doorway to her bedroom, rather than the front door, “because I didn’t want to disturb my parents.”
But it did not stay in place for long. “My father took it off and put it on the main door,” she recalled. “He said, ‘If this is what I am, let us make ourselves as good as you.’ That was really touching.”