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An unforgettable tour through the Jewish heritage of Eastern Europe

Journal Correspondent

Before World War II, there were 110 synagogues in Vilnius. Today, there remains only one – the Choral Synagogue Taharat Hakodesh, built in 1903.

JUNE 21, 2018 – Led by Rabbi David Meyer, 14 congregants of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead traveled to Lithuania and Belarus to explore Jewish history.

We visited the Pale of Settlement, where the majority of Jews in Tsarist Russia were relegated beginning in 1791. Our journey took us to the heart of 500 years of Yiddish culture and to the killing fields of the Holocaust. While pervaded with loss, our Jewish Heritage Tour provided inspirational glimpses into heroic efforts to rekindle Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

“Our trip was heartwarming and heartbreaking, exhausting and exhilarating, as well as transformative for us all,” said Rabbi Meyer. “We not only witnessed the slow and stunning rebirth of Jewish life from the midst of the ashes – we participated and shared in the process.”

Our first destination, Lithu­ania, counted an estimated 210,000 “Litvaks” before World War II. The city of Vilnius – commonly called Vilna in English – was known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania, and boasted 110 synagogues, four major yeshivas, and dozens of Jewish newspapers. Approximately 195,000 Jews were deported and murdered from there under Nazi control.

Married 10 years and recently converted to Judaism, Vladomir and Natalia chose to have a Jewish wedding.

Today, Lithuania’s small remaining Jewish community is nearly all “secular” or “cultural,” according to Renaldas Vaisbrodas, executive director of the Lithuanian Jewish Community organization, based in Vilnius. Its spacious center hosts a vigorous roster of concerts, speakers, films, classes, and exhibits. Growth in the Jewish community is “slow,” according to Vaisbrodas. However, he remains hopeful.

We joined an Israeli March for the Living, a solemn walk to Ponary, a leafy glade along a rail line 7 miles from Vilnius. From June 1941 until July 1944, over 75,000 people – most of them Jews – were shot there and buried in pits. To hide traces of the massacre, Nazis ordered 80 Jewish prisoners to dig up and burn 60,000 bodies.

Knowing their fate, the chained prisoners, over three months, excavated a 114-foot tunnel to freedom. On April 15, 1944, 40 fled; most were shot but 11 survived. The recently discovered tunnel is the subject of a NOVA documentary that aired in April.

Our next destination was Minsk, the capital of Belarus. The country was home to 375,000 Jews in 1939; about 246,000 perished in the Holocaust. Today, about 20,000 Jews remain.

Our itinerary brought us to villages where yeshivas, synagogues, and mikvahs were destroyed.

The fate of all victims of Nazi occupation was brought home to us on a visit to Khatyn, about 60 miles north of Minsk. There, a memorial includes soil from each of the 186 villages razed by the Nazis in Belarus. Three million civilians were killed, including 800,000 Jews. A bell sounds every 30 seconds to commemorate the rate at which lives were lost.

Ina-Lee Block, a Temple Emanu-El member who was on the trip, was struck by what she saw and learned.

“This is where I came to understand that the ‘Final Solution’ was not only the concentration camps, but that destruction was widespread and indiscriminate long before,” she said.

Rabbi David Meyer assisted at the bar mitzvah of Konstantin in Minsk, Belarus. The 15-year-old was tutored on Skype.

In sharp relief to the Holo­caust, Ann Karelitz Laaff, another member of the Marblehead temple, found the Sandy Breslauer Beit Simcha Center for Progressive Judaism in central Minsk to be “a joyous symbol of rebirth of the Jewish community which was completely wiped out.” (Read Ann’s sidebar here.)

Beit Simcha’s congregation, while largely aged, is enthusiastically Jewish, Hebrew-centric, multigenerational, multilingual, friendly, and vocal. In visits over three days, Rabbi Meyer assisted in Shabbat services, the ceremony of 10-year-old Sofia choosing the Hebrew name “Aviva,” and the emotional bar mitzvah of 15-year-old Konstantin. Rabbi Grisha Abramovich tutored the young man – who lives over 185 miles from Minsk – on Skype.

Our finale was witnessing the wedding of Vladomir and Natalia (Asher and Esther), married for a decade, parents of three, who had converted to Judaism a year earlier. Under a velvet chuppah, wrapped in a tallit brought from Temple Emanu-El, the couple exchanged vows in Hebrew. In their honor, a chorus of children, ages 4 through 14, rendered Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in Hebrew, accompanied by a captivating teenaged classical ballerina.

A summary of our heritage tour cannot be complete without mention of the food. The Eastern European diet is heartwarmingly familiar: herring, lox, beet borscht, boiled potatoes, sour cream, potato latkes, kreplach, fish dumplings (gefilte fish), and kasha.

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