Monday, March 15th, 2010
From March 7-14, 2010, 17 students from Hillel at Penn State University will volunteer with the Jewish communities of Tallinn, Estonia, and Vilnius, Lithuania.
On Wednesday, we took an overnight bus ride from Tallinn through Latvia to our final stop of Vilnius, Lithuania.
We visited the Jewish Community Center in Vilnius, where we were introduced to our Lithuanian peers. After some ice breakers, we had a chance to speak with the Executive Director of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, Simon Gurevicius, who is affectionately called “Simonchek.”
Mr. Gurevicius spoke to us about challenges facing the Jewish community and really connected with each and every one of us through his personal anecdotes and jokes. We were given a short tour of the JCC, which provides everything from financial support to clubs for the elderly. Following the tour, we prepared Passover packages to take on our home visits the next day.
Friday was one of the most meaningful days of the trip for many of us. We were given the opportunity to break in to small groups to visit the homes of local Jews (many of whom had survived the Holocaust as well as living in the USSR). With our Lithuanian peers serving as translators, we had the opportunity to hear their personal stories, about what life is like in Lithuania, and get to see some family photos (some from the 1930s!).
Later in the day, we were able to visit the JCC’s “Sunshine Club”, a club for Jewish elderly. The club had prepared a Yiddish song book and we all were able to sing and connect with each other, despite the language barrier. We even taught the elderly some of our favorite songs. It all hit home when the director of the club told us that we were like “American grandchildren” to club members. That night we held our own Shabbat services and a song session with our Lithuanian peers.
Saturday morning we visited the only remaining synagogue in Vilnius. We were told that there were around 75 synagogues in Vilnius before WWII, but all but one had been destroyed by the Nazis. We stayed for much of Shabbat services before heading out on a walking tour of the old Jewish ghettos in the city. The tour was fascinating and the tour guide told us many interesting stories about the rich Jewish history in Vilnius.
After returning to the JCC, we held a Havdalah service with the members of the Jewish youth group. Once again, despite the language barrier we were able to connect with one another. Saturday concluded with a night out on the town with our Lithuanian peers who we could now truly consider as friends.
We can’t believe the week is almost over. This has really been an unbelievable experience and we will never forget it!