On Friday evening I went to the synagogue in Tbilisi. It was a beautiful synagogue with intricate designs and stained-glass windows. During my time in Gori I saw the ruins of war, the hopelessness on people's faces and the fear of an unknown future.
When I stepped inside the synagogue, filled with the close-knit Tbilisi community, I felt the familiar pull of the Sabbath prayers. No matter where we go in the world, or what is happening, when Jews pray together on the Sabbath we are home.
On Saturday, Gregory and I visited an incredible family in Tbilisi. Ella Shvanishvili, 35, is raising five children by herself, and caring for her sick father, with the help of her mother Nelli. No one in the family is employed, and I silently wonder how these two proud women put food on the table.
Nelli Shvanishvili, age 7.
But the children, Teona, 16, Giorgi, 15, and the younger ones Tamaz, 11, Lana, 9, and Nelli, 7, bring light to this dreary place. They are cultured and well-behaved. Gregory and I brought them special treats – chocolate, snacks and drinks – and they thanked us politely before sampling and savoring every bite.
Through this family, I saw the wonder of the work the Jewish Agency is doing with the support of more fortunate Jews around the world. The children go to a Jewish day school, where they get their only hot meal of the day. They participate in the Sunday school and in holiday activities. They go to the youth club. Their only taste of real summer is at the fully subsidized summer camp.
Teona, the oldest girl, is on the Jewish Agency's Na'aleh program in Israel and is home for a summer visit. Na'aleh is an aliyah program for high school kids to go to Israel before their parents. Many times, their families make aliyah after them.
Teona is flourishing in Israel, and does not stop talking about it. She reminds me of me, at age 15, in Russia, unrelenting in my drive to bring my family to Israel. I think to myself, it is the youth who are leading now. They are the ones filled with energy, with hope, pushing the adults toward a better future for all.
"Mother," pleaded Teona. "What do we have here? You are young; you can start a new life in Israel. The children will be so happy. Grandma and Grandpa will be taken care of."
But Ella is afraid. Afraid that the misery she knows is better than the unknown of a new country. And again, like I did with the Shukashvili family, I tell Ella of the support she will receive, and the incredible opportunities she and her children will have. The choice is entirely hers.
JAFI's staffer in Georgia, Idan Peysahovich with his wife Galit, and children Tamir and Yael in Israel.
"It's hard work to make such a big change," I say. "But the minute you land in Israel, you are home."
Ella looks at her family and squeezes my hand. I squeeze hers back, knowing that she will find the courage to do what she believes is best for her children.
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This column was written by JAFI's Idan Peysahovich, blogging from Georgia.