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One Partnership, Three Perspectives
As the Senior Education Director of The Jewish Federation’s School Twinning program, I recently returned from an Educator’s visit to Lithuania as part of our new 3-way partnership program between the Shalom Aleichem School in Tel Aviv, Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, and the Shevach Mofet School in Vilnius.
This educators’ delegation to Lithuania included four representatives from Tel Aviv and four from Los Angeles coming together to bond and learn about the Baltic’s Jewish community in preparation for the students’ visit to Israel this December; during which those from Lithuania and Los Angeles will be hosted by the families of students from the Shalom Aleichem School.
This new 3-way “twinning” is an extension of our Federation’s Tel Aviv/Los Angeles Partnership School Twinning Program, the only initiative in existence that connects schools in Los Angeles with schools in Tel Aviv. This powerful program has made an impact on the lives of 60,000 students, parents, and faculty through jointly prepared curricula, teacher training, and delegation exchanges. The program strengthens our shared Jewish identity and destiny, while fulfilling our Federation’s mission of ensuring the Jewish future.
This trip demonstrated the unbreakable connection we have as Klal Israel, as well as our obligation to one another. Summarizing our visit to Lithuania in just a few words is impossible, so I’m sharing edited perspectives from 3 of my colleagues who can explain it through their own first-hand experiences:
Five Languages, One Cause
As our Federation’s Board Trustee of Religious Education, I was asked to be on the planning team for our newly launched three-way Partnership program. So off to Vilnius I went, barely knowing the three Angelinos who accompanied me, much less the participants from Tel Aviv and Vilnius. But soon after arriving and only moments after breaking bread, we were all toasting each other in English, Lithuanian, Hebrew, Russian, and Yiddish. There was no language barrier – we were simply Jews connecting. I could only hope that the teenagers on our delegation would communicate, understand, and learn from each other with the same shared passion and mutual interest.
During the trip, we visited Poneriai, an eerily quiet forest sixteen miles outside of Vilnius. What made it so eerie was the fact that 70,000 Lithuanian Jews were murdered here. Our guide led us to a monument and brought roses that only a few hours before had been given to us by the students at Shalom Aleichem School. At the school, our hearts had been filled with joy. Now, they were heavy as we placed the roses at the foot of the monument. The guide then led us to the large pits where so many lives had been brutally and senselessly cut short. We stood in silence. Then, we wept.
We began to walk back to the van. Then we all stopped. We were all thinking the same thought; we cannot leave this place until we say Kaddish. I volunteered to lead us in prayer, as I knew this prayer as well as I knew the alphabet. I began, "Yit'ga'dal v'yit Kaddash sh'may ra'bba."
About halfway through the prayer, I burst into tears. I could not go on. I could not remember. My friend next to me embraced me as I cried and struggled to remember the Kaddish. We then continued,"Oseh shalom bimromav. hu ya'aseh shalom alenu, v'al kol yisroel; v'imru amen."
"May the source of peace bring peace to all who guide us."
And may we all say, "Amen."
Kehillat Israel Religious School
Living Our History, Loving Our Future
In the last 100 years, Vilnius has been occupied by Poland, Communist Russia, Nazi Germany, and then Russia again. Until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Vilnius had only a few years of independence in the entire 20th century.
All of this occupation explains why the city’s residents take such pride in celebrating their history of resistance. Harder to explain was how Lithuania’s collective wounds from the Soviet occupation seemed to eclipse those from the Holocaust – especially given that around every corner is a reminder of that singular event. In fact, the streets we walk are the very same our grandparents and great-grandparents walked when they were sequestered to the Ghetto, waiting to be taken to concentration camps or murdered in the forests.
But we learned that even though Jews were daily disappearing from the Ghetto, great creativity and hope emerged. We saw the beautiful work of the internationally acclaimed artist Samuel Bak who began sketching as an eleven-year-old boy and whose drawings and paintings give testimony to Jewish life in Vilna at that time.
One of the most profound and disturbing experiences in Vilnius was our descent into a hiding place for Jews during the Nazi occupation. We walked through the concealed stone door to a six-by-eight-foot room where we could actually touch the blanket and books used by the family forced into hiding there. The room had no ventilation and no heat. When you stop to consider that Jews sometimes had to stay hidden in such places for months or years, it boggles the mind. Sadly, we learned that the family who lived there did not survive.
As Jews, we must continually remind ourselves of the bitter times in order to celebrate the sweet times. I’ll be thinking of those who persevered in their practice and celebration of Judaism and am even more appreciative of the freedom I have to practice mine.
Now, more than ever, I understand the importance of the program our Federation has created and the responsibility we all have to pass on our history to the next generation.
Kehillat Israel Religious School
Bowling for K’lal Israel!
Our delegation joined 900 Jews, young and old, for the Baltic’s 9th Limmud conference. Supported by the JDC, with assistance from the The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the three-day gathering offered upwards of 100 workshops to choose from, with titles like "How to be a Jew in Galut" and "Songs of the Ghetto." A contingent of Jews from Estonia, ranging in age from six months to eighty-five years, traveled ten hours by bus just to get here! Four 15-year -old girls from the Shalom Aleichem School in Vilnius told me, "This is what we look forward to all year. We speak different languages, but when we see our good friends from Estonia and Latvia, we feel so connected – like one big family."
At the hotel in Lithuania, where the conference convened, we traded in our snow boots for bowling shoes. The evening’s tournament for ages 25+ had brought together six impromptu teams. Ours included members from Los Angeles, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Israel. Tanya Fishel, a Japanese major at Estonia University, gave our team a Yiddish name: Az oh un vey! (Oh, what misfortune!). We shared stories, jokes, bowling tips and emails; and while our spirited team didn't win, it was definitely a triumph for K’lal Israel!
Throughout our weeklong visit, the Shalom Aleichem School and the Vilnius Jewish community helped us understand the difficult past and complex present of Jewish community in Lithuania. By inviting us into their world, our hosts enabled us to envision a Jewish future here in the Baltics; connected to the Tel Aviv and Los Angeles communities they’re now partnered with.
The Jewish Federation’s School Twinning Program
For more information on The Jewish Federation’s School Twinning Program, contact Ahuva Ron at (323) 761-8332 or Aron@JewishLA.org