Undergraduate fellows travelled to Latvia and Lithuania to explore Jewish past and present.

In May 2015, two groups of BGI undergraduate fellows travelled to Latvia and Lithuania to explore Jewish history and contemporary Jewish communities in the Baltics. Regina Roberg ’17 shares her thoughts about the journey.

“As the first year cohort of BGI fellows met at JFK airport, there was a quiet, unspoken excitement about our group's impending journey to the Baltics. After two semesters filled with seminars on Soviet Jewish history, documentaries, and a weekend retreat, most fellows still had few concrete ideas about what to anticipate from a 7 day trip to Lithuania and Latvia.

For those unfamiliar with Eastern European Jewish history, taking a group of nine college students of Russian Jewish heritage to Latvia and Lithuania may not seem particularly informative in examining the history and current socio-cultural state of Soviet Jewry. However, upon taking a closer look at the geographic and historical context of the former Soviet Union, the connection many Russian-speaking Jews feel towards these countries is reflected in just how interconnected these Baltic states once were to Russia and the rest of the Soviet Union. The Jewish roots in these regions date back to the 1500s, although in contemporary times Baltic Jewry is primarily comprised of Russians who moved to this region after World War II during what is considered by many a period of Soviet occupation.

Similar to our diverse experiences as Russian Jews in the U.S., our connection to these two countries varied, with a few fellows having already visited these countries, having parents or other relatives who were born and raised in these areas. Others, such as myself, had only heard of these countries through parents' anecdotes of their travels to the Baltics and of distant relatives that came from these places. Regardless of the degree of research done before the trip, the complexity behind this history of both persecution and resilience would only truly become understood through fully physically and intellectually immersing ourselves in the cities that hold immense historical significance to the lives of many of Eastern Europe’s Jews. It is throughout this trip that we found ourselves not only learning the histories of the Jewish population in Lithuania and Latvia, but also being constantly exposed to different perspectives and narratives, with many of such ideas converging or diverging from each other, or from our own personal beliefs.

We arrived in the Baltics in a unique position as Russian-American-Jews; how the people of Latvia and Lithuania perceived us truly depended on their own perspectives. While the Jews of these countries had experienced immense anti-semitism as well as systematic murder, Russians were commonly perceived as occupiers who oppressed the native population to this day. The combination of these two interconnected identities, along with our identity as Americans, allowed us to view issues of the past and present through these different lenses.

The first half of the trip began in Vilnius, Lithuania on a cloudy, windy day which set the tone for the difficult reality we would soon face when learning about the history of Lithuania’s Jewish population, in which over 90% had been murdered during the Nazi occupation during WWII and the Holocaust. While the impact of this tragedy remains evident in its enormity, the efforts for Jewish revivalism in this region was an inspiring movement to witness, with Vilnius’ small Jewish population organizing to fight for the acknowledgement of the Jewish people’s status and history, for the Yiddish language that many still recognize as an integral part of their identities, and for the pride they feel as Litvak Jews.

While the weather in Lithuania’s neighboring country of Latvia did not differ greatly, the narrative of its contemporary Jewish life did. Although the nation’s Jewish population had suffered as many casualties as Lithuania during the Holocaust, with the murder of over 97% of its Jewish population, Latvia had experienced an influx of Jewish immigrants after the war that came as a result of Soviet occupation.  Consequently, the Jewish population was much larger and established; while the Lithuanian Jewish community’s main focus was centered around Jewish revival, Riga’s Jewish community seemed to more focused on preserving the already existing community’s presence and network within Latvia. It was in Riga that we ate at our very first Kosher restaurant of the trip, spent Shabbat dinner with a local Jewish organization for young adults, and heard an account of Jewish life during the USSR from a ‘70s activist. While we learned about the horrors of the past as we walked through the Rumbula memorial and the Riga ghetto, the last half of our trip emphasized the current Jewish community’s engagement with their past and present, as was seen through walking down the halls of Riga’s JCC, Moishe House, and through having the honor of meeting Latvia’s Israeli ambassador, Hagit Ben Yaakov.

The last official activity of our trip was on Saturday night in which our cohort performed Havdallah together at a park to signify the end of Shabbat. There was a newfound bond and comfort shared between the fellows after spending such a transformative week together. So much of this trip had emphasized the rich breadth of Jewish narratives on a global scale--we heard stories of a collective past of trauma, of individual memories of hardship and heroism, as well as narratives that did not always complement each other. Nevertheless, it was these narratives that allowed us to reflect on our own experiences as Russian Jews and how we wanted to have that translate in our daily lives, as well as our contributions to these communities in the U.S.

The purpose of the Havdallah ceremony is to reawaken a person’s five senses through touching, feeling, hearing, tasting, and seeing--however it was a new sense, a profound sense of awareness of self-identity, that that felt the strongest, which this trip had imparted on each of us by our experiences. As we walked back to our hotel after the ceremony, knowing that this activity represented the end of our trip and first year of the fellowship, we knew that it was only the beginning of our own contributions to the Jewish world we had just learned so much from.”