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 students visit JDC in Minsk, FSU Seminar 2016

Learning From Contrast
 Learning From Stories

By Amy L. Sales, Associate Professor

This year's Hornstein-BGI Seminar 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. The estimated Jewish population of Belarus is at least ten times greater than that of Lithuania. The Jewish community is being built anew in both capitals, but progress and hope are far greater in Minsk than they are in Vilnius.

When I was last in Vilnius five years ago, Jewish life was hard to find. There were shadows of the past everywhere but few signs of an active living community.

Today there is now a kosher bagel shop in the Jewish community center, with comfy chairs, café tables, and bagels fresh from the oven. At Rishon, Vilnius's kosher restaurant, Hornstein had its own table. Here we invariably encountered other members of or visitors to the organized Jewish community, not unlike our own Johnny's Luncheonette in Newton Center where our community often gathers for breakfast.

A new Jewish-sponsored day school has opened. Built with a €1M capital investment by ORT, a Jewish education and vocational training non-governmental organization, and support from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and other funders, the school is part of the public system. The government pays teacher salaries and students pay no tuition. It is not known how many of the 350 students are Jewish although we suspect a small minority.

Vilnius has only one synagogue and stifling political dynamics among Jewish sects. There are a few extraordinary young Jewish voices, but no Jewish youth organizations or movements. Numbers are small, intermarriage and assimilation are high, and many young people, European passport in hand, are leaving.

Minsk, in contrast, has no Jewish day school, although it is the dream of the progressive rabbi to establish one. We visited the JDC's Minsk Jewish Community House where we observed all ages—young children through seniors—engaged in activity and abuzz with conversation. Most impressive was the roomful of teens we met who were being groomed for leadership through their various projects.

Minsk has multiple religious options. From Friday night through Saturday, we ate and prayed in an Orthodox setting for young adults, a Progressive shul, and a Chabad center. Shabbat afternoon, we met with other young adults at Hillel. We shared views and stories about the “ideal community,” dating and marriage, and antisemitism. We then gathered in a circle for Havdalah, Debbie Friedman style.

Learning through Stories and Place

The trip was replete with stories—of heroes, of the children of Righteous Gentiles, of young adults and aging citizens. Fania Brantsovsky, a 93-year-old survivor, told us how she made her way out of the Vilnius ghetto and into the countryside where she joined the partisans. Later, we stood at the corner where the ghetto gate had been, in the exact place where 75 years earlier, Fania had slipped out of the ghetto and into her role as fighter.

We met with Amir Maimon, the first ambassador from Israel to Lithuania, who told the story of his first year on the job. He told us how he began to talk about Jewish issues “slowly, softly,” including the disrepair of Jewish cemeteries. He started to travel around the country and noted that when a town heard that the ambassador from Israel was coming, the mayor would suddenly order a clean-up of the Jewish cemetery.

The trip embraced a special pedagogy, a mix of stories, conversations, and simply being in these places. The experience provoked our intellects and emotions and expanded our understanding.

The boundaries of Litvak do not coincide with those of any nation, but they clearly delineate a Jewish geography. Jews were a people without a country, yet even today our ties to these places are profound.

Our group included a student born in the FSU, students whose great grandparents came from the region, and a faculty member (me) whose grandparents were Litvaks through and through. We were all struck by the pervasive shadows of history and growing local interest in preserving artifacts and memory. We argued the veracity of the narrative being presented in some places, and we questioned the motivation for preservation in others.

Individually, each of us learned deeply personal and vastly global lessons. Together, we appreciated the meaning of place, the link between past and present, and the remarkable resilience of the Jewish people.

Amy L. Sales is a member of the Hornstein faculty and Associate Director and Senior Research Scientist at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies. She led this year's FSU Seminar to Vilnius and Minsk.