The Together Plan
Get To Know Debra Brunner, founder of The Together Plan, a charity supporting community empowerment in Belarus
Debra Brunner, founder of The Together Plan
Qesher: Where does your strong connection to Belarus come from?
Debra: That's a very good question! My maternal grandparents and paternal great-grandparents, they all came to the UK from Poland, and I was married to the son of Hungarian Holocaust survivors. So, I was always interested in the Holocaust but also in the countries that became part of the Soviet bloc.
In 2008, Finchley Reform Synagogue in north London, where I am a member, hosted a program and welcomed 11 Belarusian Jewish children for two weeks over the summer and I was asked to be a host family. None of the children really seemed to know what being Jewish meant and were completely unaware of anything Jewish. It intrigued me and I wanted to know more. After their visit, our Rabbi suggested we start a twinning with a Jewish community in Belarus and I agreed to initiate that. And that's how we ended up creating links with the Jewish community in Polotsk.
What was your impression of that Jewish community?
When I started to travel to the country, I came to understand how neglected these communities were and how there was so much work that needed to be done to support them. I met Artur Livshyts based in Minsk, and he became my guide and I started to understand the real needs of the Jews of Belarus - which were highly challenging and complex.
The more I discovered, the more I visited and the more I saw, and I felt a very strong sense of connection. This is how it began. In 2013, Artur and I registered The Together Plan charity and started to work with the aim of helping communities grow and self-develop.
How did you actually start working with Jewish heritage?
After spending many years involved with Belarus, it became very clear to me that working with Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union brought up many complex challenges, but we saw that above all, people wanted and needed to talk about their history and heritage and explore their Jewish identity. We decided to build some projects around encouraging people to come together to explore this.
Then, five years ago, I attended a talk in Krakow by the AEPJ (European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Heritage and Culture), the organization managing the European Route of Jewish Heritage (one of the Cultural Routes of the Council of Europe).
The AEPJ invited us to apply to take the lead in the building of a Jewish Cultural Heritage Route in Belarus. We submitted our application making it clear that our program would need to have citizens at its heart, since our mission as a charity is community capacity building. Our application was accepted and this is now a central focus of our work in Belarus.
Zoymen 2018 Youth for Youth summer camp, Belarus
Can you tell us more about the activities of "The Together Plan"?
The mission of The Together Plan is the revival of communities in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, with a current focus on Belarus. We promote community capacity building through research, exploration, cultural events and dialogue. The Together Plan draws its inspiration for projects around three central pillars - 'past', 'present' and 'future' and each project drives a central belief which can be distilled into one line ...Jewish people, wherever they are, are not alone.
As we grow, more projects are coming to life. These include heritage clubs, preservation, exploration of Jewish sites, archive work, summer programs and youth engagement. We run a search service to help people find ancestral records in the Belarus archives. We are developing tools to connect to Belarusians in the Diaspora so that they can share their stories, recipes and photographs - which help to tell the story of the Jews of Belarus. We are translating books which were written in Russian and printed for private use, by Holocaust survivors who have never publicly told their stories. Our youth group, Youth for Youth, connects young adults between the ages of 17 and 30 in a virtual space and when we are not in a pandemic, some travel to Belarus to participate in summer programs. We are researching and building our task force for the development of the Belarus Cultural Heritage Route.
In 2020 we also launched 'Making History Together' a Holocaust Education program for 12- and 13-year-olds, which explores what happened to the Jews of Belarus and the Soviet Union.
Did you encounter any negative reactions from the local community?
At the beginning, it was definitely not easy and we had to face some tough challenges. Our approach of helping people to learn how to help themselves was not well received at the outset and it was difficult trying to bring that concept to the table. Some long-established Jewish organizations were also skeptical of our arrival and finding our place took time and a lot of staying power. It was also difficult to engage people into ideas or new concepts without funding.
So, a lot of our initial work was hard and required sheer determination, but we did change hearts and minds and finally started to show people the value of collaborative efforts and self-determination.
Jewish cemetery in Druya 2021
What plans do you have for The Together Plan in the next few years?
We will continue to work with individuals and communities in Belarus to help them become the heartbeat of the Jewish Heritage Route. We are already working with Belarusians who are learning how to create audio tours so that locals, as well as visitors, will be able to immerse themselves in the rich Jewish story of Belarus, and indeed even people who are not able to visit, will also be able to enjoy these tours from afar.
We will be developing the 'Making History Together' Holocaust Education program to grow the dialogue around the Holocaust in the Soviet Union, and we have a number of projects in progress to preserve significant sites of memory.
We strongly believe that cultural heritage is a powerful vehicle to engage citizens in dialogue around their own history, opening opportunities to have conversations with neighbors and across borders. It stimulates and encourages an understanding and respect for the value of diversity and cultural differences.
We cannot thank our incredible funders enough for bringing The Together Plan this far and we can't wait to see what the future holds with all the support we receive; from companies sponsoring us, people running, cooking and even drawing for us - to grants and personal legacies. And we strive to reach new donors every day.
As our work snowballs in its impact, the more we are able to qualify the importance of our projects. It has been a relentless campaign to get to where we are, and we have reached a significant step change on so many levels. Right now, more than ever, it is vital that we secure support, to ensure the continuation of our important work of putting citizens and community at the heart of cultural heritage.
Debra Brunner, Purim in Polotsk