BJLI fellows embarked on a 10-day journey to New York and the Baltic States.

After a successful Spring semester, BJLI fellows met in NYC for the second of three in-person seminars. Here, they had a chance to reconnect, and to network with a number of leaders within the Jewish professional world – directors, consultants, fundraising champions. Among presenters were Gali Cooks, ED, Jewish Leadership Pipelines Alliance, who discussed the future for professionals in the field, and fellow Russian-speakers, Elana Broitman, SVP, Agency Relations, UJA and Misha Galperin, Philanthropic Advisor, both sharing their professional paths and leadership lessons. Ruth Salzman, ED and CEO of The Russell Berrie Foundation spoke about foundations and their role in the Jewish communal sector. The seminar ended with two interactive sessions - a coaching intensive with MyJewishCoach and an exercise in using literature to connect historically and analytically to the Russian Jewish experience. This last module, run by Prof. Sasha Senderovitch took the fellows through the writings of multiple 19th to 21st century Jewish authors, including Sholom Aleichem, David Bezmozgiz and many in between. Much of the literature reflected the idea of changing identity, religion in daily existence, active and latent antisemitism, and acceptance within non-Jewish society and having been written from within Eastern Europe served as a great jump off point for the exploration of Jewish life in the Baltic States.

BJLI’s overseas mission included the capitals of all three Baltic States and the exploration of Jewish life, past and present within each. The group first toured Vilnius, Lithuania, once a large center for Jewish life, learning about the historical landscape, achievements, and life of their Yiddish-speaking “predecessors”- the admirable and the terrible. Dovid Katz, a professor and historian offered a detailed account of Jewish life in the country. Faina Brantsovsky, a survivor of the Vilna Ghetto guided the group with an incredibly detailed, and thought provoking account of life in Vilnius during WWII and the Holocaust. Having escaped the Ghetto at 17, Faina joined the Partisan movement and today at 92 years of age, delivers tours to keep history and memory alive, as she believes is her duty. The group visited Paneriai a village about 10 kilometers outside of Viluis and a WWII mass killing ground where as an estimated 100,000 Jews lost their lives at the hands of Germans, some with the help of local collaborators. Fellows delved contemporary Jewish life Lithuania while meeting Faina Kukliansky, ED of Vilnius JCC, the leader of the community, Liana Jagnatinska, of the Israeli Embassy , and Vika Jagnatinska, of JDC.

In Estonia fellows encountered a different culture and history. Most believe that the Baltic States rather homogenous but this is far from the truth. There is a shared history including that of occupation and over the last 3-4 generations, Russian as a language due to the Soviet regime, but the countries are and were vastly different as was their approach to the idea of Jews living among them. Estonia’s Jewish museum showed a history of relative tolerance towards the Jews and evidence to strong roots among the small but growing population before WWII. The Jewish community in Tallinn today is optimistic and forward thinking, investing in modern programs including large daycares and schools, while preserving memory for future generations. Fellows briefly visited a beautiful central synagogue and experience that left one experiencing “a moment of true Jewish global peoplehood…” Fellows spent time with Vadim Belobrovtsev, a journalist and politician as well as Ilja Ban a radio personality. After spending Shabbat together, a small group of fellows chose to hold an impromptu Havdalah ceremony by the remnants of the First Synagogue of Tallinn in the old city. This beautiful, self-lead experience struck a chord with all who took part, passersby as well as participants.

The final stop of the trip was Riga, Latvia, where fellows were greeted by the Jewish community, walked the old city, learning about local Jewish culture from Ilya Lensky, historian and museum director, had the opportunity to address Tzvi Mirkin First Secretary of Israeli Embassy in Latvia, and held a memorial ceremony at Rumbula, the site of the massacre of 25,000+ Jews during the Holocaust.

Fellows were given a chance to see elements of modern Jewish revival as they visited New Door, a social business accelerator. Joining a conference, fellows gave feedback to the presenters of impressive new social ventures. Three of the fellows took part in a panel discussion on funding and startup initiatives.

Three countries - each with a unique Jewish past and present. “It was great to see people dedicated to the Jewish world, to history and its preservation and it’exciting to connect to the path of our common future journey”, said the fellow Katerina Romanenko, Director of Education, National Jewish Museum.