Photo/Copyright: Isabel Sommerfeld

Maybe the most important Jewish tradition, according to me, is to make a mitzvah (or mitzvot). So what does it mean? Well, making a mitzvah can refer to following the commandments of God, but not only. Making a mitzvah has also come to express an act of human kindness. It’s about being thankful for what you have in your life, realizing you’re not alone in this world and that there are other people in the world who could be in need of your support.

So what’s the biggest Mitzvah I’ve ever done? ’Cause sometimes you just need to scrutinize your self, and it’s a good time now that new years eve is approaching… Let’s see if I can inspire you… A Mitzvah can be anything from helping an old lady over the street (every little act of human kindness is important, people!) or supporting a friend in need. I guess we’ve all done something like that before.

Since it’s now been exactly one year since I spent a week in the dictatorship Belarus, in the middle of Europe, this is the happening in my life that first strikes me as one of the bigger mitzvot I’ve done. My experiences from that trip have been stuck in my head the latest days. I feel I have a need of telling the world about it, since so few people actually have been there and seen it with their own eyes, and since the people of Belarus deserves the support of the world surrounding them, just as anyone else in that situation. I was there to visit a cooperating organization to the campaign/network I’m running ( and got the chance to observe the presidential election on place, which happened to become a pretty traumatic experience.

I was on the main square in Minsk, watching the big protest against the electoral fraud, at 8 pm the 19th of December 2010, taking photos and breathing in the feeling of excitement. The oppositional presidential candidates (those who managed to get there and didn’t get badly beaten and arrested already before the protest and before the election results where announced) were there to thank their voters and to demand a new fair election without dictator Lukashenka. It was a peaceful manifestation, except for the provocation started by what seemed to be people working for the secret service, KGB – crashing some windows at the parliament building while mysteriously talking in their sleeves. After around 20 minutes, I went inside to Minsk hotel just in front of the square, to get warm. Just a few seconds after I stepped inside, thousands of riot police men were everywhere and blocked the doors to the hotel. I was closed up inside the hotel for hours, together with international observers, journalists and diplomats. Everyone was in shock. We all pushed ourselves against the big window facing the square, watching peaceful protesters getting surrounded and beaten to the ground. 17-year old girls falling to the ground with their blond hair covered in blood, old men beaten so hard I guessed that they could probably die of the injury. I remember watching those young riot police men- thinking “WHAT have they done with them?” and it strike me that they showed no feelings at all when almost killing people. Around 700 people were arrested that night in Minsk, badly beaten, some even tortured (among those were the oppositional presidential candidates).

I never went to sleep that night. Almost “paralyzed” from what I had witnessed, I made phonecalls to media in Sweden, trying to get out information from the dictatorship in the center of Europe… I remember talking to the Swedish newspaper Expressen when watching the empty square after the protest, seeing the green military buses drive away in front of me, filled with beaten youth and people who might just have been passers by. I remember the moment we arrived back at our hotel, sending everyone in my family a text message to say that I was OK, and I actually sent a text message to my rabbi in Stockholm just writing about my frustration over what happened… I contacted everyone I could, just wanting the world to know what was going on in this country just around the corner. In the morning after the election day, my phone was held tight in my hand and I was just watching it, nervously waiting for all my Belarusian friends to text me – to see that they were ok. Belarus was that day a silent country in shock. Sadly, today, one year after the election, it’s even worse.

Three activists from the ukrainian feminist activist group FEMEN visited Belarus during the 19th of December 2011 and did a flash mob/show outside the KGB building in Minsk. What happened to them after that is almost too horrible to write about, but I think you should know. They were abducted, pushed into a van with bags over their heads, droven around for hours, getting badly beaten. In the end – they were pushed out of the car somewhere in the woods, still blindfolded, forced to get naked, and forced to hold fascist signs over their heads. While the men (probably KGB) kept beating them they also pored oil over them and threatened to burn them. They cut their hair off with a knife, and then left them tied to a tree…

I’m sorry to bother you all with these horrible stories during christmas and chanukkah time. But this IS the reality in a country close to you. And while you are celebrating christmas and chanukkah with your families, there are people spending christmas in jail for speaking out against dictatorship or doing their job as journalists.

For me – one of the biggest mitzvot in life is actually – to travel around the world, just seeing other realities. It opens up your eyes and you also realize how lucky you are to live in a free country with human rights and freedom of speech. But another important mitzvah is also the part were you talk about what you’ve seen. ‘Cause if we were just quiet, things would never change in the world. It’s our responsibility as human beings to talk for the ones who can’t – the ones that are being silenced when they cry out for freedom. 

So what are you waiting for? Go out in the world, dare to travel to countries like Belarus and speak out. The world needs you. And yes – YOU can change the world, every mitzvah you do changes the world, somehow.

Let 2012 be a year where even more dictators will fall. Will you help me out getting there?