Pictured above from left:
Hornstein Director Ellen Smith, David Manchester, Eli Cohn, and Edana Appel. In the foreground from left, Meredith Grabek and Evan Taskar. 




Letters from Belarus

Day One
Day Two
Day Three
Day Four
Day Five

Learn more about the Hornstein Program's FSU Seminar>



Belarus in Europe, map from Wikipedia

The Republic of Belarus is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe bordered by Russia to the northeast, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west, and Lithuania and Latvia to the northwest. Read more at Wikipedia>

Hornstein students, 2015 FSU Seminar, Belarus.

Letters from Belarus


1. Flew half-way around the world...
  And it's snowing here too!


Day One: Tuesday, February 16, 2015

By Evan Taksar and Meredith Grabek


After yet another foot of snow fell in Boston, our departure was delayed from Sunday to Monday. We spent the better part of Monday traveling. We flew through Frankfurt where several of us napped and others chatted and enjoyed pretzel donuts and snacks.

We landed in Minsk around 2 PM in the afternoon. We met our wonderful trip organizer and tour guide, Dasha, and our local liaison Ira. Originally from the Ukraine, Dasha currently lives in Israel, and has spent the last four years guiding the Hornstein trip through parts of the Former Soviet Union. Our first day in Belarus was a much welcomed introduction to the city of Minsk and the Minsk Jewish community

After arriving in the city we were given a tour of sites in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. Historically, Belarus is located at the epicenter of what was once called the "Pale of Settlement" and at one point was home to incredibly rich Jewish life. Unprecedented Jewish music, art, culture, and learning came from Belarus. According to a recent JDC country report, by the end of the 19th century, Jews comprised approximately 13 percent of the total Belarusian population.

Belarus has produced such notable Jewish figures as artist Marc Chagall, and important shapers of the State of Israel, Shimon Peres and Menachem Begin, both former Prime Ministers.

Belarus lost approximately one-quarter (2.2 million citizens) of its population in World War II.  Included in that figure, the Holocaust claimed approximately 90% of the Belarusian Jewish community. 

Our tour took us throughout all of Minsk, where we were introduced to memorials, parts of the Minsk ghetto that housed Jews during World War II, historical synagogues, and learned about the history of Jewish life in Minsk. The afternoon proved to be an insightful experience, followed by an incredibly interesting dinner full of rich conversation. 

After checking in to our hotel later in the afternoon, we were treated to a dinner with current leaders of the Minsk Jewish community. Over traditional Belarus cuisine, we met with leaders from the Union of Belarusian Public Associations and Communities, Minsk Hillel, the Union for Progressive Judaism, the Minsk Reform Jewish community, Limmud FSU, and the Israeli Consulate. It was a real honor to spend time interacting with individuals committed to and passionate about the revival of Jewish life in Belarus. 

Over dinner we engaged in really thought-provoking conversations about the current state of Jewish revival in Minsk, the importance of the Global Jewish community, the relationship between this community and the State of Israel, and the overall importance of the Limmud experience for Jewish communities in the Former Soviet Union. These conversations provided a great way to kick off what will surely be a meaningful and interesting week of exploring Jewish roots, present and future, in Belarus.

Nine very tired Hornstein students off to bed to prep for day two!

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Hornstein students at the birthplace of former Israeli President and Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

A water well in Vishnyeva, Belarus. This water well is purportedly the only remaining original structure at the birthplace of Israeli President Shimon Peres. President Peres often speaks about how delicious the water was. In 2003, President Peres gave a lengthy interview to the American Academy of Achievement, which is available in audio and video: Shimon Peres, intereview. 


2. Tastes like Zionism!

Day Two: Wednesday, February 18, 2015 

By Edana Appel and Eli Cohn


Today was an amazing day as we started in a city with incredible Jewish history: Volozhin. We began at the Volozhin Yeshiva, founded in 1803 and sometimes called “Yeshiva ha-Yeshivot” (the Yeshiva of all Yeshivas) because it is known as the first modern Yeshiva. We learned about how Jews from all over the world would travel to Volozhin to study with its founder, Rabbi Haim, and other famous teachers there.

After the Yeshiva we visited the Jewish cemetery where Rabbi Haim is buried and some local Jewish organizations have done some restoration and cataloging of the graves there.

Following Volozhin we headed to Vishnyeva, the home of former Israeli President and Prime Minister Shimon Peres. We visited the site of Peres’s home, and although the house he lived in is no longer standing the well he used in his childhood is the same. The owner of the house that is there now was very kind and allowed us to drink from the well. Tasted like Zionism to us! We were also able to see a small museum which celebrated Peres and memorialized other Jews who lived in Vishinevo who were murdered in the Holocaust.

One of the highlights of our day was our lunch stop where we were treated to a Belarusian cultural extravaganza. We got to hear about the history of the region—once a center of commercial Jewish life—and one of the famous forests there from the inn’s owner who is the only current Jewish person in a 50 km radius. With other presenters we were also able to learn some of the Jewish history of the region, including partisans who fought in the forest during World War II, Jewish-Belarusian foods, and Yiddish singing. We even got to join in some traditional Belarusian folk dancing—what a blast!

After lunch we visited the former shtetl of Rubizevichi. Sadly, most of the Jews in Rubizevichi were deported and/or murdered in the Holocaust, However, important work is being done there to remember and honor Jewish life and history. We started at a home that used to be in the center of Jewish Rubizevichi, but is now the only formerly Jewish house still in the neighborhood. Some Jews in the area are turning the house into a museum honoring the Jews of Rubizevichi.

We also visited a memorial in the forest near the town located at the site of a mass killing during the Holocaust. It was touching to see that stones, Yahrtzeit candles, and flowers were present at the memorial, showing that Jews and others in the town have not forgotten this important place.

Belarus village with gravestones in the foreground

The Jewish cemetery outside Volozhin, Belarus. The small, painted 2 to 4-room wooden houses in the background are typical of surviving dwellings in the countryside between Minsk and Volozhin. Volozhin was home to the premier 19th century Lithuanian Volozhin Yeshiva (founded 1803 by R. Chaim Volozhin; closed 1892). The yeshiva building, now owned by the orthodox Jewish congregation in Minsk, is registered on the Belarus State List of Historical and Cultural Monuments, but stands vacant and decaying.  The Jewish cemetery seemed generally well cared for. 

   These memorials and historic buildings—in Volozhin, Vishnyeva, and Rubizevichi—raised many poignant questions for us about Jewish past and memory. It is not clear, for example, what of these sites should be preserved and how. Inside Volozhin Yeshiva was a sign that listed philanthropic opportunities, but it seems unlikely that Jews or others from around the world will come to visit Volozhin even if the Yeshiva is renovated.

At the same time there is an interesting question about the relationship between these Jewish sites and the non-Jews who now surround them. Clearly some Belarusians, like the people who hosted us for lunch, are invested in preserving their past as it relates to the Jewish community. But we are not sure that the people living in these towns have a serious connection to their past and the former Jewish presence here. We wonder what this means for the future of Jewish memory.

We spent the night at a refurbished castle called Sula which gave us another insight into Belarusian culture. We learned about the history of Belarus from medieval times, including visiting a weapons forge, sleeping in historic buildings, and enjoying some home-made vodka! We also got to hear about some ancient Belarusian gods and rituals that still inform some cultural practices in the country.

We can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings!

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Mir castle

Mir Castle and Museum, Mir, Belarus. Built and used between the 16th and 20th centuries, Mir Castle, southwest of Minsk, dominates the landscape of the region. Beginning in May 1942, Germans used the castle to imprison the 800 surving Jews of Mir and Poland who had survived the Mir Ghetto established in June 1941. A room in the basement of the castle museum refers to the Jews of the ghetto and castle as "ghetto prisoners," not specifically as Jews.

Mir Yeshiva, Belarus 2015

Mir Yeshiva building, Mir, Belarus. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Mir Yeshiva was a premier Lithuanian Yeshiva among Eastern Jewry.Three buildings of the complex survive in good condition today. The original yeshiva building, owned by the Jewish community, is planned to become a Jewish museum. The original dormitory and rabbi's house will be privately developed as a hotel and restaurant. In 1939, faculty and students of the Mir Yeshiva relocated to Lithuania, and after the war re-established the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem and Brooklyn. 


3. Two Castles, One Yeshiva,
  and the Opera

Day Three: Wednesday, February 19, 2015

By David Bigio and Nate Vaughan


Wednesday in Belarus. We woke up early in Sula and got our first look at the castle’s grounds. There was a fresh inch of snow on the ground, just enough to make everything look beautiful, like Hogwarts during a Christmas scene. A roaring fire and hot breakfast greeted us at the restaurant. Several people tried the hot kasha, cooked with cream and by all accounts delicious.

We packed the bus and drove to Mir, about an hour away. Mir is home to the Mir Yeshiva, which became the foremost yeshiva in the area after the Volozhyin Yeshiva was closed by Russian authorities in 1892. Unlike Volozhyin, with it’s single multistory building, Mir’s yeshiva was set on a compound, with a dormitory, yeshiva building, and head Rabbi’s house. Today, the compound sits empty, but is slowly being renovated by private investors. The Rabbi’s home was recently purchased, and our friend Maxim said the new owner (not Jewish) plans to turn it into a restaurant, and has plans to turn the yeshiva’s former dormitory into a hotel.

In our travels through Belarus, a constant conversation has been how best to maintain the material culture of Jewish life in Belarus and preserve it for future generations. Private, even non-Jewish, investment in these areas may be a solution for preserving evidence of the vibrant Jewish life that once existed in Belarus.

Mir is also home to the Mir Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site and location of the former Jewish Ghetto of Mir. We toured the castle and learned about its history, but the true lesson came at the tour’s end, when we entered a room filled with obviously Jewish objects like tefillin, Torah scrolls and a Seder plate.

The room was dedicated to the castle’s time as a Jewish Ghetto, but it made no direct mention of Jews. Instead the artifact descriptions referred to “ghetto prisoners.” Ellen pointed this out to a few of us, and she asked the tour guide to explain the curator’s choice. The guide replied that the museum receives many German visitors, and didn’t want to take the risk of offending anyone. Obviously we were shocked by this answer, especially, as Manchester pointed out, Holocaust education is mandatory in German schools.

We left the Mir Castle saddened by the attempt to whitewash history and ignore the significance that the people killed in Mir were Jews, and that they were killed simply because they were Jews.

After visiting the Mir Castle, we drove for an hour to Minsk; there we visited a JDC representative in charge of the Hesed Program. Hesed is a program run by the JDC in the former Soviet Union Jewish communities. Hesed Rachamin are monthly gatherings at the houses of elderly and senior people.

We were delighted to be invited to share a special time with a group of women, who were very excited and happy to have us. Many of them don’t have relatives that can visit them. We saw how they live, learned more about their participation in Jewish communal life, and heard their personal stories after World War II and during communist times.

For many of these women, this was the only outlet to interact with other people in the community and participate in a social setting. For us it was gratifying to learn from the older generation and receive some of their wisdom and advice.

To end our day, we went to the opera theater in Minsk to watch a modern version of "Romeo and Juliet." Thanks to our wonderful trip organizer, Dasha, we were able to get tickets in a great location. We were very impressed on the quality of the show, the performers, the orchestra, and the venue in general: this opera house was so marvelous like the opera houses in Moscow, Vienna and Paris. While, we could not read the subtitles or understand Italian, the show was so vibrant and colorful that we were able understandd what was happening.

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Museum of the Great Patriotic War, Belarus, display

Great Patriotic War Museum, Minsk, Belarus. Weapons used by partisans against the Nazis.  Soviet, Belarusian, Eastern European, and Jewish partisans operated from the dense Belarusian forests and swamps, challenged by lack of communication and central organization, and constantly short of weapons, food, and medicine. After mid-1942, and especially after the fall of Stalingrad, coordination and effectiveness of partisan units increased.  Jewish partisan units, particularly those of the Bielski brothers in western Belarus, also sheltered and protected Jews from the Nazis.



4. Wearing A Kippah in Public:
    What Constitutes
    Anti-Semitism?


Day Four: Friday, February 20, 2015

By Beth Lesch and Heather Kufert


After a few days spent walking the historical landscape of once-Jewish Belarus, we enjoyed a full day learning about the contemporary Belarusian Jewish community. We started off the morning at the JDC (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee), where Natasha Maletz, the interim Executive Director, gave us a fascinating overview of the JDC’s work in Belarus: its history, welfare programs, and demographics. Though only 12,000 Belarusians indicated on the most recent census that they were Jewish, the JDC estimates that the true number is closer to 50,000, based on the number of its welfare recipients.

Natasha both confirmed and problematized what we had heard so far about Belarus: that it is among the safest European countries for Jews. On the one hand was her personal story: we were fascinated to learn that Natasha, who is not Jewish, has committed her career to serving the Jewish community in Belarus, and that her story is not uncommon; in a country with such a small Jewish population, Jewish organizations frequently recruit non-Jewish talent.

On the other hand, Nathasha shared memories of having grown up hearing frequent jokes and stereotypes about Jews. One example: “When there is no water in the bathtub, blame the Jews.” This casual anti-Semitism, more a joking refrain than an earnest stereotype, was abrasive to our American sensibilities. We thought back to our conversation the day before at the Jewish Museum, when the director shared with us that he feels uncomfortable wearing his kippah in public, noting that, “Just as I would think it inappropriate for someone to boast a large cross in Israel, I don’t wear a kippah here; Belarus is a Christian country.” Yet when we spoke to others, we learned that young girls do wear both crosses and Jewish star necklaces in public. We would continue this conversation – about the definition of anti-Semitism and our vision for free religious expression in Belarus – throughout our trip.

Next, we took a whirlwind tour of the facilities of the JCC “Emunah” and Chesed Rachamim, catching glimpses of families with children attending educational activities and elderly community members coming together for a social day program. One sprightly participant was 91 years old; we found ourselves doing quick mental math in our heads, trying to understand how old each person was when the war began. We asked them where they came from, starting to confirm our hypothesis: that the vast majority of Jewish Belarusians are natives, with only a few Ukrainians, Russians, and Moldovians having resettled into Minsk during the Soviet era. Many, however, spoke of children who live elsewhere: in Israel (the most common), America and Canada. When we would speak with young people over the next day and a half, we would continue to probe the rootedness of Jews of Belarus and the fate of the young generation.

We heard traumatic stories from people who survived by “evacuation,” having fled Belarus to the east just in advance of the German invasion in 1941. One story that stuck out to us was from a woman who was saved as a young child during bombings in Stalingrad by her mom wrapping her in a blanket. She admitted that she was afraid of the color of the blanket long thereafter; the blanket that protected her became a trigger of haunting memories.

We also heard personal recollections from a survivor of Minsk Ghetto. Ghetto residents consisted of Belarusian Jews who did not manage to flee, as well as foreign Jews who were brought in from all over Europe, whose quarters were termed the Sonder Ghetto – the “ghetto within the ghetto.” The majority of people in the ghetto were killed in situ in large massacres, by starvation, and by disease – not liquidated in death camps as many of us most commonly imagined. This was one of many additions to our knowledge that we received about the experience of the war and Jewish life in the Soviet Union.

When we visited the Museum of the Great Patriotic War (the local term for WWII, beginning for them in 1941 and ending in 1944) later that day, we continued to correct and clarify our assumptions about the Russian experiences in the war. For example, many of us were shocked to learn that concentration camps and death camps were built for Soviet prisoners of war; across the Soviet Union, millions perished in this way. We were fortunate to be guided by the chief researcher of the museum, and found the use of technology in the exhibits to be very effective. The museum was a moving experience for us.

Belarussian war veterans, lunch with Hornstein Program students 2015

Lev Sheinkin and Boris Schusterman, Jewish war veterans of the "Great Patriotic War," 1941-1944. Hornstein students met over lunch at the new Belarusian Great Patriotic War Museum with these two highly decorated military veterans of the Soviet army. Lev (now head of the Belarus WWII veterans and partisans organization) fought in the Soviet army, including the defense of Moscow. Boris dropped into Finland, later fought in Czechoslovakia as a paratrooper, and wears the highest military decoration the Soviets awarded to paratroopers. As did all the members of the senior generations of Belarusian Jews we met, they asked us to remember them, their stories, and their hopes for the well-being and futures of our Jewish youth.  

   After the tour, we had the opportunity to hear war stories, over lunch, from two Soviet Jewish war heroes, one of whom was decorated with the highest paratrooper medal the Soviets award. The encounter was particularly touching for that veteran, who told us when we parted, “I love you.”

After a chance to rest and ready ourselves for Shabbat, we went to the Orthodox synagogue to attend Friday night services and dinner with Lech Lecha, a religious Zionist youth group, where students from both Minsk and Vitebsk were represented. They welcomed us with open arms. We learned from the rabbi about the reemergence of Orthodoxy among young people, enabled by native educators such as himself who received their training in cities with greater Jewish resources (in his case, he attended a yeshiva in Moscow for several years). We would continue to reflect on this phenomenon the following day, contrasting it with the community at Minsk’s Reform synagogue.

Looking forward to meeting other members of the community tomorrow!

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Belarussian seniors at lunch with Hornstein Program students 2015

"Warm Home," Minsk, Belarus. The Joint Distribution Committee in Belarus (and in many European nations) sponsors regular gatherings of older Jewish individuals for conversation, friendship, mutual support, and meals. Hornstein students spent time (with translators!) listening to stories of Jewish life in contemporary Belarus and during the Holocaust in this typical, 6th-floor walk-up apartment. Many surviving Jews of Minsk fled as children and young adults ahead of the German invasion, taking trains east to unknown destinations or walking as far as Kazakhstan. One woman survived the Minsk ghetto liquidation and shared that experience. But much of the conversation was about their children and grandchildren--in Belarus and Israel and America--and wanting to learn about the Hornstein visitors and their dreams. Hugs and kisses and smiles abounded. 


5. During Shabbat,
     We Are One

Day Five: Friday, February 21, 2015

By David Manchester


Ahad Ha'am said that "more than the Jewish People have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews" and this Shabbat experience was one example of how Shabbat and Jewish traditions have maintained a united people around the world. While we varied by age and native tongue, during Shabbat morning services at Nesher, the Reform congregation, we spoke the same language, Hebrew, using the same tunes.

The community embraced us, inviting Hornstein for the first Aliyah. Talking with the staff we learned that they are partnered with Central Synagogue in New York, coincidently the synagogue where one of my childhood teachers is now the senior Rabbi. For me this was one of the amazing indicators of Jewish Peoplehood. Almost half way around the world speaking different languages day to day we were able to celebrate Shabbat as one and even had friends in common.

During our services which had components of three spoken languages (Hebrew, Russian, and English) they not only translated everything so all could understand but there was also simultaneous sign translation for several women who could not hear. Nesher has a group of deaf individuals who come together to express themselves through art which is displayed all around the congregation.

In addition to sign interpretation, the sanctuary has a flat screen TV which is connected to video cameras to enable some congregants to read the lips of song leaders more easily or display the text of what is being read or sung for them to follow along. Additionally, of all the Jewish institutions we visited, Nesher was the only one whose facility provided easy access to people in wheelchairs or who have a harder time walking.

As amazing as all this sounds, it is more impressive considering the social environment in which it exists. Natalia Maletz, the Acting Director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee office in Minsk, told us earlier in the trip that disabled individuals were looked down upon and during Soviet times they were often shipped away from society.

Among that societal backdrop Nesher is opening its arms to accommodate all who want to join. Inclusion has been a growing discussion in the American Jewish community, and Nesher was an amazing example of what is possible.

On our way to Nesher, guided by its founder Rabbi Grisha Abramovich, we returned to the Yama Memorial commemorating the location where thousands of Jews from the Minsk Ghetto were killed under Nazi occupation. It was shocking to recognize that such an atrocity occurred in the center of the city with the knowledge of all around. Now, the site hosts several annual gatherings of the Jewish community to remember those who were killed.

We also met with Rabbi Shneur Deitch of Chabad Minsk to learn about the work they do. Operating out of a beautiful new building, we learned about the school they run for Jewish children and the work that he and his wife do. Cognizant of some of the tension that exists in the States between Chabad and other Jewish organizations, Rabbi Deitch shared a story involving significant coordination and collaboration between groups in Belarus. Nevertheless, Chabad in Minsk will only admit children to their school who are halachically Jewish--yet another model we encountered for how to educate, engage, and re-grow the Minsk Jewish community.

Our final program was with the Minsk Hillel and gave us a chance to interact with our peers. Until then our trip had focused mainly around the historical community and the older generation, so this was our chance to consider the future.

Hillel in the Former Soviet Union is different than in the States. It engages individuals 18-28 but is not solely focused on university students. Instead it also plays the role that many young adult engagement organizations fill in the U.S.

My group discussed many challenging questions about making Aliyah to Israel, interfaith marriage, the role of religion, as well as our faculty and friends. We could often relate with similar experiences but also at times had very different experiences.

One girl in my group is a teenager and had recently started university. She got connected to an Israel education center and through that became involved with Hillel. She has a sister in Israel and wants to make Aliyah when she gets a bit older because of the educational and career opportunities there compared to Belarus.

The older individuals wanted to stay but several said that they had friends who have moved to Israel. When we spoke about how our parents view our involvement, I was surprised how apathetic their families are, an experience quite different than my own. That same girl told us that her parents are concerned about how much time she now spends at Hillel.

After the group discussion I asked one of the English speaking Belarusians to wish her good luck in school and tell her how lucky she is to have such a warm and friendly Jewish community and not to worry about the time commitment. A big smile came to her face and the translator told me that it meant a lot to her coming from me. As we left she gave me a hug, an amazing sign of the support we can provide one another and hopefully a friendship that will now develop online.

As I am writing this post, our group is on our first flight home. While we are looking forward to home, we are forever changed and contemplating deep questions and thoughts.

It could have been possible for our families to have stayed in Eastern Europe and what would have come of us? Would we have survived to live in Belarus or Ukraine or Israel today? What would our family be like had we lived through Nazi occupation followed by Soviet administration and all the other changes they have experienced?

Being American Jews, what is our responsibility toward these communities in the Former Soviet Union and how should that be carried out?

Finally, as a third-generation descendant of this region in the America, how can I engage and support the Russian-speaking Jewish community that came to the U.S. after the collapse of the Soviet Union?

None of these will have easy answers but they will be questions that will influence me and the work I do for the rest of my life.

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Thank you to everyone at Brandeis and beyond, especially in Belarus, for making this trip a wonderful experience! We look forward to a continued relationship.