JFNA Tbilisi mission: Both lightness and darkness

Esther and Don Schon, 2015 chairs of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix’s annual campaign, and Marty Haberer, chief development officer of the Jewish Community Association of Greater Phoenix, are currently on the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) Campaign Chairs & Directors Mission to Tbilisi, Georgia and Israel. Here, Don Schon reports from the mission.

At dinner, we listened to the minister of the interior and the prime minister of Georgia. Georgia’s history is startling and different. At the fall of the Soviet Union, Georgia was totally unprepared for independence. In those “dark” years, water was not delivered, electricity was unavailable and there was no economy. Georgia eventually reached out to the West and started to develop. However, one-third of Georgia lives upon less than $3 per day. They had the will to westernize, wipe corruption out of the police, military and government and open their door to immigration in and emigration out.

Georgia has never known significant nor institutional anti-Semitism. Muslims, Christians and Jews live and work together and intermarry. The interior minister spoke lovingly of his mother’s history. Having fallen in love with a Christian and marrying him, she was banished by her extended Jewish family. She allowed her son to be raised Catholic but taught him Jewish traditions and love of Israel.

The prime minister of Georgia spoke next, emphasizing that religious and ethnic bigotry was offensive to Georgian culture. The prime minister, the beneficiary of Jewish patronage and training, spoke with great respect and honor for the country’s Jewish heritage. He then went on to relate the economic needs of Georgia for U.S. investment, military training and their urgent desire for NATO protection against Russia. He was proud that Georgia enabled any Jew who wanted to return to their ancient home to do so. Tens of thousands have done so for economic opportunity and for education.

We also experienced the unique opportunity of a private audience with His Holiness the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church. He related his love for the Jewish people, his respect for their desire to return to their homeland and their contributions to Georgia. He ended by blessing us all and stated that for Georgians, a blessing from a Jew was like a direct blessing from G-d.


The patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church speaks to delegates of the JFNA mission to Tbilisi Photo courtesy of Don Schon

So, we discover a conundrum. Georgia is a country and culture that has a long history of Jewish acceptance and appreciation of our culture and traditions. Yet, the Jewish population has dropped from over 100,000 to less than 10,000 because of the opportunities available in Israel. So we have succeeded with a Zionist program which has depleted the Jewish population from the most accepting culture and country in Eurasia. As with most things in life, there is both lightness and darkness.


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