Karyn Grossman Gershon is an alumna of the Chicago Wexner Heritage Program and the Executive Director of Project Kesher, the largest Jewish women’s organization and one of the fastest growing human rights organizations in Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine. In 2009, Project Kesher expanded to the Russian-speaking community in Israel. Karyn can be reached at projectkesher@projectkesher.org.

In 1993, I heard that a tiny non-profit called Project Kesher was convening an international conference of Jewish women in Kiev.  As an attorney putting in 60-hour work-weeks, a week in Ukraine was not on my list of priorities.  Still, the next day I signed up for an informational meeting.  Six months and a 75% pay cut later, I was Project Kesher’s Executive Director.

While I had a strong academic background and had served on some boards, I knew little about non-profit leadership and was impatient to move forward.  Project Kesher’s founder, Sallie E. Gratch, gave me advice that infuriated me, “Trust the process.”  Eventually, I put away my spreadsheets and did.

In the beginning, I traveled to Russia and Ukraine three or four times a year with a small delegation of women, taught some basic courses on Judaism and facilitation skills and then, listened to the emerging leaders who came from small communities across the region.  We loved to talk about our families and food but learned we had few shared values or processes.  Ultimately, we decided that teaching Jewish values and a commitment to civil society through text and social activism would be central to our work. We wanted the organization we were creating to model the values we wanted to live and that the leaders in the region would set their own priorities and design and implement projects as long as they were within the organization’s mission.  The American women provided a framework and funding, but handed the organization’s direction and program decision making over to our partners in the region.

Together, we began to create policies that challenged Communist traditions and reflected our emerging values.  For instance, to end the practice of hoarding organizational power, we decided that staff would be evaluated by the quality and numbers of new leaders they brought into the organization. Staff could not be promoted until they had several strong candidates in the pipeline to replace themselves.  Our leaders started to see that “power” was not finite and that, with a strong volunteer base, they could be freed to tackle increasingly sophisticated issues on a greater scale.

Because programming decisions were made by regional leaders and supported by the transparency of our process with donors, leaders willingly dissected programs and modified or tossed out the under-performing.  At one point, a breast cancer initiative missed its goals and we brainstormed why that was happening.  Our leaders revealed that almost none of them had gone for mammograms themselves faulting an inadequate state health care system; medical equipment that was hours away; and the fear that a mastectomy would undermine their identity as women.  The Project Kesher board chair and I decided on the spot that we would raise the funds to get private health insurance for the staff (an unusual benefit in this region) if they would get mammograms.  Six months later, six of the eighteen women in the room had been diagnosed with breast cancer and were getting treatment.  One has since died.  We re-designed the project addressing the barriers to diagnosis and treatment and as a result, made it one of our fastest growing programs.

When a JTA news service article entitled “All Quiet on the Russian Front” questioned why Russian-speaking Jews did not speak out when Israel was attacked, I asked Project Kesher’s leadership what they thought.  I learned that they weren’t afraid of advocating for Israel.  Rather, they had never been there, or didn’t know what advocacy for Israel would look like.  Three months later, Project Kesher took the entire staff of thirty to Israel and provided advocacy training.  Today, Project Kesher’s leaders conduct hundreds of pro-Israel programs annually. 

When the global economic crisis hit, Project Kesher’s leaders, seeing layoffs at partner organizations asked how we would respond if our funding declined.  The US board and I sent staff (about 30 worldwide) a budget and year-end projections and asked how they would cut expenses, if necessary.  They proposed graduated pay cuts but no layoffs and then, a series of strategies to increase fundraising in their region.  Now, all proposals come with ideas for CIS-initiated grants and local support.

Empowering local activists by ceding the power of funders has sometimes made it difficult to engage Americans in Project Kesher’s work.   Yet we continue to listen and trust in the process. After years of conducting successful community-based Jewish continuity, domestic violence and tolerance programs, Project Kesher is now recognized as an expert in the countries where we work.  When the Russian Duma seeks to change laws on smoking, or reproductive rights, Project Kesher is asked for input.  By pairing activists with rabbis/Jewish educators and experts in each field, our leaders walk into meetings with the most current knowledge on a topic and have a disproportionate impact on the outcome of the decisions.  When delegations to the region, Jewish or secular, include Project Kesher on their itineraries, we build our credibility in the region with government officials, non-profits, the media and funders.  When people join our board, they are personally empowered in their own activism and philanthropy because they are so inspired by the advances made by Project Kesher’s model.

God took forty years to move the Israelites from slavery to liberation.  I think she understood the power of process.