Hornstein FSU Seminar 2016 map

FSU Seminar

Vilnius, Lithuania and
Minsk, Belarus

The Hornstein-BGI FSU Seminar is an immersive, transformative learning opportunity for students in their second year of study.

It is carried out in partnership with the Brandeis Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry and made possible in part with support from the Genesis Philanthropy Group. 

Hornstein-BGI FSU Seminar 2016 to Vilnius and Minsk

Reflecting on Jewish Life
 in Vilnius and Minsk

Hornstein's Class of 2016 Traveled to Vilnius, Lithuania and Minsk, Belarus in February 2016 to learn about the history and what Jewish life is like in these communities.

This experiential learning opportunity is carried out in partnership with the Brandeis Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry and made possible in part with support from the Genesis Philanthropy Group.

Following is a collection of short essays which students and faculty wrote after their return.

Learning From Contrast, 
 Learning From Stories

JDC Minsk teen groupBy Amy L. Sales, Associate Professor

This year's trip to the Former Soviet Union took us to Vilnius (Lithuania) and Minsk (Belarus). In one intensive week covering broad territory and time, we learned from contrast, from stories, and from simply being there.

Learning from Contrast

Belarus and Lithuania share a history, but their present and future are a study in contrast. Both were part of Jewish Lithuania, Land of the Litvaks. Both had long Jewish histories culminating in the building of great centers of learning in the 19th century. Both suffered through the rule of the Tsars, two world wars and the Holocaust, and the Soviet era.

Today Belarus and Lithuania offer two very different pictures... continue reading 

Finding Common Ground
 Around the Dinner Table

Minsk Jewish leaders visit Hornstein students 2016By Naomi Rosenfeld

On the night of Thursday, February 18, our first night in Belarus, Hornstein students sat down for dinner with five inspiring leaders of the Minsk Jewish community. These dinner guests included Galina Levina, Architect and Cultural Advisor to the Union of Belarusian Jewish Public Associations and Communities; Maxim Yidin, Co-Chair of Limmud FSU-Belarus and former Hillel Director; Rav Grisha Abramovich, Chief Reform Rabbi and active Limmud FSU-Belarus volunteer; Irina Abramovich, Head of the Program Committee for Limmud FSU-Belarus and active member of the Reform Congregation; and Anna Keinan, Head of Nativ (a Limmud FSU-Belarus Partner).

Except, we didn’t sit down with these guests for dinner all at once... continue reading 

The Holocaust through a Belarusian Lens

Great Patriotic War MuseumBy David Korenthal

As North Americans, I believe we have a well-defined sense of what happened in World War II. In a nutshell, the European Allies fought valiantly, the Americans entered the war and helped lead the invasion of Normandy, we made our way through France and into Germany, and lo, the war was ended!

While there are obviously many more details, the basic story is one of American and Allied triumph. When we learn the history, we learn that the Soviets played a large part, but we seldom talk about them in relation to the victory. Mostly we view the Soviets as yet another party involved in the war.

I was therefore surprised when... continue reading

Why I Carry a Used Food Stamp Card
 from the FSU in my Wallet

JDC Minsk children groupBy Joel Abramson

Our personal perspective is something we can easily take for granted. As we move through life's rat maze, it's hard to look beyond our own needs and goals. Many kindhearted people look outside themselves and support programs in communities in need around the world. But when some of those communities are so far away, it can be difficult to appreciate the positive effects of that's taking place. This is one of the reasons I am so grateful to Hornstein and the Brandeis Genesis Institute for the opportunity to experience Lithuania and Belarus. I got to see firsthand programs and the people they serve.

We met with Ilana Levy, who represents the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in Minsk who provided our group with an insider’s guide to challenges they are tackling in the Jewish community... continue reading

At Ponary

Ponary DiaryBy Erica Goldman

How do you commemorate the massacre of as many as 100,000 people in one spot? How do you mark the site where they were ruthlessly murdered and barely remembered?

On Tuesday, February 16, we arrived at Ponary, a neighborhood of Vilnius about six miles southwest of the city center, now known as Paneriai. The sun was setting. The weather was cold, breathless, as we were. It was hard to talk as we wandered the grounds, difficult to understand the killing fields, impossible to fully comprehend these pits where Nazi death squads shot their Jewish and Polish victims.

We were glad to be there, to pay tribute, to stand witness, but we were not glad... continue reading

What Memorializing Reveals
 About Collective Memory

Ponary Massacre MemorialBy Rachel Eisen

One of the themes that followed us throughout our FSU travels was the concept of collective memory. History, even as an academic discipline, is more than just facts. It is the social and contextual realities of life, it is causes and effects. How people interact with their own history can reveal a lot about a populace and a place.

We discovered that the history of a place and its collective memory are deeply intertwined—especially when it comes to Jewish history and the Holocaust. As we learned, Lithuanian Jews were all but wiped out during the Holocaust. An astounding 95% of Lithuanian Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, most by killing squads in the forests. They were left in mass graves and their bodies were often burnt... continue reading

A Different Type of Survivor—
 Remembering the Holocaust in the FSU

Fania BrantsovskyBy Teri McGuire

As twelve American guests crammed into Fania Brantsovsky’s living room in Vilnius, Lithuania, I found myself overwhelmed with emotion. The intimate space was covered with evidence of Fania’s life: books, artwork, and pictures… so many pictures.

Fania Brantsovsky, a small but somehow sturdy looking old woman was not sitting down. Instead, she rushed around the front hall into her apartment, greeting everyone and moving around furniture to ensure everyone had a place to sit. Every attempt by a more able-bodied individual to assist her was ignored, as Fania proved that she was stronger than any of us gave her credit for... continue reading

Walking with Past and Present:
 A Conversation with Dovid Katz 

Dovid KatzBy Sara Miller

One might be tempted to describe Vilnius as one of the epicenters of Yiddish revival today. Walking through what used to be the city’s Jewish ghetto, every block seems to have a commemorative plaque, statue, or memorial—and most are written in only two languages: Lithuanian and Yiddish.

Time and again, I wondered to myself as I sounded out the words carved into stone: All this Yiddish, but where are all the Yiddish speakers? It felt to me like the eerie remains of a bygone era. We had met Jews, but we hadn’t encountered any Yiddish-speakers.

Then we met Dovid Katz... continue reading 

Russia, Lithuania, or Belarus?
Space & Place in Jewish Life

A fence runs through Belarus and Lithuania photo by Sergei Grits, APBy Alyssa Bogdanow

Prior to emigrating to the United States, my great-grandmother Moma lived in a tiny shtetl called Belitsa. Today, when you type Belitsa into Google Maps, the website redirects you to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The town, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist after the Holocaust, but at one time, it occupied a space about 150km from both Vilnius and Minsk. We likely flew over it during our 25-minute airplane journey between the two cities. 

The question of what country Moma was from occupies a central place in our family. As family lore goes, some days she would say she was from Belarus, other days she would say she was from Lithuania. Sometimes she was from Russia...continue reading

Thank you to everyone at Brandeis and beyond, especially Dasha and our new friends in Vilnius and Minsk, for making this trip a wonderful experience! We look forward to a continued relationship.