Once a week, Michael Kakiashvili sets out on an eight-hour drive to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi to purchase kosher meat for the six remaining Jewish families in the western town of Oni. When his entire family made aliyah to Israel, Kakiashvili stayed behind to guard the town’s Jewish cemetery, and ensure the local synagogue was kept alive.
A large photo of Kakiashvili standing in what could be mistaken for an overgrown garden – but is in-fact the Jewish cemetery of Oni – on a backdrop of snow-capped mountains and a glossy blue sky, is hung on the white walls of a modest, but captivating exhibition at Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People, in Tel Aviv.
The exhibition, “In Search of Human Grace”, seeks to document the side of Georgia’s Jewish community that is often overlooked, and hopes to attract philanthropists that will donate money to its struggling Jewish families.
“Documentary photography is a way of presenting images of the community in an efficient and interesting way, to raise the awareness of Jewish communities around the world in the minds of Israelis,” said Benny Levin, a hi-tech executive and founder of Jdocu, the group behind the exhibition.
In Search of Human Grace is the culmination of seven days spent in Georgia by the Jdocu group of six top Israeli businessmen who dabble in photography and photojournalist Eli Atias, who serves as the team’s professional guide and is also the curator of the exhibition.
The group was taken to neglected towns in Georgia by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. There, they met Jews who are among the many receiving aide from the JDC.
Following the mass aliya of Georgian Jews in the 1970s and 80s, and the continuing aliyah that has taken place since then, Georgia’s Jewish population has dropped from its peak of 100,000 to a meager 3,200, according to the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. While most of the community lives in Tbilisi, many are scattered through smaller, poorer cities and towns.
“During the first few days [of our visit], we kept trying to ask the question, ‘Why don’t you make aliyah?” Atias told Haaretz. “If you are so unfortunate, living under such conditions, why don’t you make aliyah?” he repeated. But, through their interactions with community members - during discussions over hot meals where plate after plate was piled into a heap, and during adventures into abandoned synagogues where tefillin were left strewn on a table as though the place were shut down in the middle of a service – the Jdocu group discovered that these people could not let go of their grasp of what they once had. One woman wanted to make aliyah, but her son was in a Georgian jail and she was not prepared to leave him, while another woman is married to a non-Jew who was unable to move to Israel with her, explained Atias. “Each and every person had a reason to stay. That was the most amazing thing we experienced, on a personal level, during our journey to Georgia,” he added.
Each year, the Jdocu group intends on travelling to another Jewish community, to document their stories and raise funds back in Israel and America. Next year, Jdocu is headed to Cuba, where the group hopes to be joined by new members currently being sought out.
All the photos on display at In Search of Human Grace are for sale, and proceeds will be donated to the people who appear in the images purchased.
“This photo is particularly important,” said Atias, pointing to an image of a 16-year-old blonde girl standing among brunettes in a classroom. “The only Jew in her class,” explained Tali Idan, a seasoned financial executive in the hi-tech field. He had taken the photo during Jdocu’s visit to the southeastern city of Rustavi. “We want to send her to university,” said Atias.
In another image, the girl can be seen in her house, beside two walls covered in books. And in yet another image, her mother is pictured gazing out a hole in a wall beside a toilet. That toilet, explained Idan, is the only one on the apartment block floor, facilitating the teenager’s family and neighbors.
“This incredible exhibition at the new Beit Hatfutsot is truly inspiring work to Jews around the world, examining the story of how a once thriving Jewish community struggles to adapt to a new reality,” said Irina Nevzlin Kogan, President of the NADAV Foundation, which supports Beit Hatfutsot. Jdocu is also supported by the Jewish Funders Network.
In Search of Human Grace opened on March 20, and will run through April 20 at Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People, Tel Aviv. The opening event is scheduled for March 27. Exhibition opening hours: Sun–Tue: 10 am – 4 pm; Wed-Thurs: 10 am – 7 pm Fri: 9 am- 1 pm. All proceeds are donated to the Georgian Jews pictured in the photos.
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