A more than 20-year relationship is changing. Or strengthening may be a better word.
The Baltimore-Odessa Partnership, the first such sister city relationship for any American city with a city in the former Soviet Union, is making strides to connect on more and deeper levels.
It all started last spring, when a group of hand-selected volunteer leadership accompanied a handful of Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore top professionals on a mission to Odessa. What they found there, according to Brett Cohen, who co-chairs the Associated’s Baltimore-Odessa Partnership committee, was a young and vibrant Jewish Odessa.
“Jewish homes, Jewish culture are beginning to thrive again,” said Cohen, 33. “There are people who want to stay there, and we should be supporting those cultures and groups that want to develop.”
Cohen explained that in the past the Baltimore-Odessa Partnership was largely based on our city’s financial support of the aging community there.
“We have a ton to be extraordinarily proud of,” said Michael Hoffman of the Baltimore-Odessa Partnership. As the Associated’s chief planning and strategy officer, Hoffman said the Associated has helped Odessa’s Jewish community by providing opportunities for Jewish renewal and by solidifying through funding the city’s important social services infrastructure. However, he said, after the mission, Baltimoreans were excited for what else could be.
“We walked away feeling inspired about what was happening there,” he said.
Since May, new energy was put into vamping up the Baltimore-Odessa committee. Cohen and co-chair Andrew Razumovsky were indentified to lead the committee. Today, some 30 people sit on the committee, ranging in age and origin. Even a group of former Soviet-born people are taking part.
Razumovsky, for example, is originally from the Republic of Georgia. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1997 with his wife and 4-year-old son. They each came with only one 50-pound suitcase. His first furniture was secured through Operation Housewarming. He bought his car with a loan from the Hebrew Free Loan Association of Baltimore, and he secured his first job with the help of then Jewish Vocational Services.
A computer scientist, Razumovsky was able to find work within his first few months in the country. Today, he owns a computer company and contracts with the federal government.
As a young Jew, he said, “people were scared” to admit they were Jewish. In Georgia, there was not organized Jewish community, and so the concept was not a part of his world view. When he came here, he did not understand what it meant to be philanthropic or be involved with the organized Jewish community. Now, he said, he has started to understand. His role with the partnership is one way he is giving back.
“They [the Russians] are the third generation now,” said Hoffman, who estimates there are approximately 20,000 former Soviet-born or second- and third-generation Russians in Baltimore. “There is [still] a tremendous sense of Russian cultural pride, and we are trying to tap into that in positive, meaningful ways.”
Razumovsky and Cohen have indentified three focus areas for the committee: leadership development, Jewish identity building and the promotion of arts and culture.
Earlier this month, on Jan. 6, close to 100 people turned out for the partnership’s first formal program this year, a showing of the film “Refusenik.” The movie, a retrospective documentary chronicling the 30-year movement to free Soviet Jews, included a panel discussion by community leaders and former Soviet immigrants.
The campaign to free Soviet Jews is a major event in Jewish history. By 1992, one-and-a-half million Jews had left the Soviet Union to live in freedom as a direct result of what was likely the most successful human rights campaign of all time. Shoshana S. Cardin of Baltimore was chair of the National Council on Soviet Jewry at the time. She succeeded in convincing former Soviet leader Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev to denounce anti-Semitism as negative, anti-social behavior, a position that became a government policy. She met with President Ronald Reagan, President George H.W. Bush and numerous other international leaders.
Today, the committee is building personal connections between the people on the ground — in Baltimore and Odessa. This concept has worked with the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership, said both Cohen and Hoffman, and now they think it can work between Baltimoreans and the people in Odessa. Cohen and Hoffman said they think Baltimore has much to gain from Odessa.
“What we are getting from there is an extraordinary sense of Jewish culture and pride. We are looking to find ways to import Odessa’s passion for Jewish culture and expression,” said Hoffman.
In the meantime, the group is planning a second mission abroad. Interested Baltimoreans can travel to Odessa and Prague from May 19 through May 26. For more information, contact Stephanie Hague at email@example.com.
“I think we are going in the right direction,” said Razumovsky. “Baltimore and Odessa are different [from one another], but at the same time, there are things we can learn from each other. … The future of our global Jewish community will be based on the Jewish experiences we have together.”