Toronto Hillel - Lithuania and Latvia - June 2011

Monday, June 20th, 2011

Our Last Day in the Baltics…

Good evening! Tonight, we have a literary adventure for you, a JDC first – our very first collaborative blog, brought to you by Marcie and Audrey!

Today, we suffered a great loss…..of boredom! Morning came, and we rose with the Lithuanian sun to the occasion. At this point, the JCC Youth room had been properly stripped down to it’s birthday suit of paint. Broken up into three committees – design, shelving, and the very elusive +general+ position – and continued our work from the day before.

 Finally, after hours of drilling, painting, hammering, repainting, and hitting each other over the head with large wooden planks (by accident, generally), we were finished at last. Covered in paint (and minor injuries, for some of us), we left the community centre with a sense of accomplishment. At our final group discussion directly after, the question was asked, what now? We’d had a fantastic experience on our trip to the Baltics, but how do we take this experience home?

Many ideas were tossed around in what we called the “Big Brother” room, on account of its perpetual vacancy, but they all seemed to revolve around a central theme of applying our newly acquired skills of connecting to those around us, in our own communities. This experience has taught us how to use our own talents and strengths to enhance the quality of life of those less fortunate. We don’t need the excuse of a Hillel-JDC volunteer abroad program to help people in the Jewish community – it can, and has to, start in our own backyard.

With this, however, it is important to not only take away this newfound knowledge from the communities in both Riga and Vilnius, but to also give back. With the connections we made with our peers from their respective countries, our elderly visits, and working with children, we know that they cannot be lost in our memories. For every impactful experience they gave to us, we cannot forget their needs, not as a struggling Jewish community, but a surviving one, that needs the support of its international neighbours to persist.

This trip has certainly changed the way we see this part of the world, and brought us to understand our responsibility to the global Jewish community.

 Thanks for reading, l’chaim and shalom!

The youth room before, during, and after painting:

Sunday, June 19th, 2011

Day 8: A Union of Past and Present

Today was a busy day for all of us.  We began in the youth room of the Jewish Community Centre here in Vilnius, embarking on a refurbishing project that will give the room a much-needed fresh coat of paint (including new wall designs) and some shelving on the walls to display artwork community youth have created.

Though many of us don’t usually do any construction work beyond assembling Ikea furniture, we were incredibly productive on the first of our two-day renovation project.

The second part of the day was spent at the Ponar Forest,  a place where 100,000 people, Jews and non-Jews alike, were killed there during the Holocaust.  It was difficult for many of us to see the memorial that now stands on the area where so many people were had lost their lives, but it was also necessary.  I think it’s really important to understand things that happened in our past if we want to move forward in the future.

The Lithuanian Jewish community (and this can be said for the entire Baltic region) was almost erased by the end of the Second World War.  Visiting the Ponar Forest gave us a look back, and remodeling the Youth Room gave us a look forward.  The day was full of mixed emotions, and gave us all a lot to think about.

I’m really looking forward to what the youth room will look like when we’re done, and I hope to have some pictures ready for everyone very, very soon.

And before I forget, happy Father’s Day!

– Marcela Slinin

Sunday, June 19th, 2011

Our Final Day in Latvia: June 16th

Hello dear parents, members of Jewish communities wherever, and random googlers,

 This blog entry is about Thursday, June 16, however, the excitement from that day was so great that only now was I able to calm down enough to be able to write this down (this is my version and we’re gonna stick with it).

The day began with a trip to Sigulda (a medieval Latvian town outside of Riga) with our Latvian peers and children from the Jewish community in Riga. The financial crisis has not been easy on Latvia, and like the rest of the population, the Jews were affected, thus we decided we could at least help give their children a summer camp experience.

This was quite a challenge, since the kids largely did not know English, while more than half of our group did not speak Russian. At the beginning of the day I could not imagine how this could work out… but to my great surprise, it did. The non Russian-speaking members of our group were able to overcome the language barrier and do just as well as those who knew Russian, using universal languages like drawing. Meanwhile, the kids taught us how to play “utka… utka… goose”, which I definitely plan on playing a lot when I get back to Canada.

When it was time to part, they were reluctant to say goodbye and made us promise to come back and visit again. We brought them little gifts in the form of pencils and stickers, which happened to be amazingly popular, so that by the time we left they were already rendered unrecognizable by a new skin layer made of stickers.

After meeting and interacting with the younger members of the community we had a group session. During the first half we were expressing our thoughts about quotes and ideas related to altruism, which became a heated discussion. Some considered it an illusion and declared self gain as the motivation always, while others thought that we really are capable of selflessness. Afterwards Moni joined us again and together we summed up the knowledge that we gained thought out our visit in Riga. We spoke about the situation of Latvia and its Jewish community, and how they have been affected by the financial crisis and separatist attitude of the citizens, making this a both a greatly informative and enjoyable day.

 Thank you for reading and have magnificent week,

 Jenny Glozshtein

Saturday, June 18th, 2011

A Few More Photos from Our Time in Latvia!

Friday, June 17th, 2011

First Day in Lithuania!

Audrey again, back for my final blog entry of the trip!

Today started for a good number of us at midnight, spending our last night in Riga with our Latvian peers at Club Essential. Now, for me, the clubbing experience doesn’t revolve around the music or setting, but rather the people I happen to be with. That’s why I think all of us present that night can agree that it was a great way to end this segment of our trip.

Here we are with our Latvian peers in Jurmala, by the Baltic Sea

This wonderfully late night turned into a drastically early morning, and by 6:30 AM, we were packed, fed, and ready to go. A four-hour bus drive really goes very quickly with good company – especially when all members of the aforementioned company is asleep. Before we knew it, we arrived in Vilnius, Lithuania, at the Atrium Hotel. We checked in, and head over to the JCC to meet our new staff, and hear about our new mission – to renovate the Youth Centre.

After a brief history of Lithuanian’s Jewry, we were presented with the nearly perfect youth room. Just needed a new coat of paint, some shelving, and a touch of Canadian flare, we got to work right away stripping the walls.

I had no idea, but I was in for the culture shock of my life.

As part of my Drama major at U of T, I had to do a class in Theatre Production, where we learned how to construct sets, hang lighting, and operate various types of heavy machinery. I did well in that class. However, Lithuanian men seem to be the most classic form of gentlemen, and wouldn’t stand by and watch me lift a mere plank of wood on my own.

As a modern woman, this was frustrating, to say the least, but I slowly talked my ego down to realize that they were simply doing what they felt was correct. I feel as though this negotiation is where a lot of the work for Tikun Olam comes from – helping those who you may not understand to achieve a much more important goal. While I assert my handiwork capabilities, I am still working to help accomplish a goal, but also forging a connection between two Jewish communities that have different customs, but are essentially the same.

Now that Shabbat is fast approaching, I have to sign off, but keep an eye out for our last few blog entries – I’m sure these last few days are going to be ones to remember!

Wednesday, June 15th, 2011

Day 3 in the Baltics: Meeting Community Members

Today we participated in an activity I had been looking forward to since before this trip: meeting with elderly members of the Jewish community here in Riga.  We visited them in their homes and assisted in the delivery of care packages courtesy of the JDC.  To add a personal touch, we included some handcrafted Hamsas and Stars of David we made this morning.  This proved to be more difficult than expected, as many of us haven’t done any craft work in a very, very long time!

We then divided into groups and visited different community members.

My group first visited Aron and Nina’s apartment.  Aron was born in Belarus, and was drafted into the Red Army in the Second World War.  He fought in the battle of Stalingrad and in Czechoslovakia.  After the war Aron was sent to Kazakhstan, and from there he settled in Riga, following an invitation to the city from one of his mother’s cousins.  It was there that he and Nina met.  They were married three years later and will be celebrating their 56th wedding anniversary this year.  The apartment we’re in has been their home for the past three decades.  Aron is an avid gardener, and though it’s not shown in this picture, his and Nina’s home is full of plants, including some grape vines on the balcony.

This is unfortunately the least blurry photo of our meeting!

From there we visited Broha.  Broha was born in Riga, and lived there until the Germans invaded, which happened on the night of her high school prom.  She escaped to Russia with only the clothes on her back, knowing no Russian at all and with no connections in the country.  Like Aron, she spent some time in Kazakhstan, before returning to Riga when the war was over, only to find that she and her younger brother were the only members of her family to have survived.  Her older brother was killed in combat a month before the end of the war.

Broha is very proud of her family.  Her husband passed away nine years ago, but she maintains close contact with her son, grandson and several great-grandchildren who live in Moscow.

My group’s visits were meaningful and memorable for so many reasons.  All of the people we spoke to were Holocaust survivors, and all were incredibly welcoming and willing to speak to us about their experiences, and learn about ours, as well.  Meeting with Broha, Nina and Aron also showed the direct impact the JDC makes in this community, and gave us a chance to take part in the process.  The visits also gave us a taste of some Eastern European hospitality – with all hosts insisting we eat more and make ourselves at home.

The day ended with a trip to the shores of the Baltic Sea.


Looking forward to more adventures!

Marcela Slinin

Wednesday, June 15th, 2011

JDC Trip to the Baltics Day 2

We started our day with a short walking tour around the old city of Riga. One of the most impressive things was our visit the the oldest and the the only functioning synagogue in Latvia. It was magnificent and amazing to see a Jewish center right in the core of the city. There might be only couple thousands of Jews in Riga, but their synagogue here is a true remark of the city thanks to the donations of local people who maintain it in its perfect shape.

After a short tour over the downtown core we headed to the Jewish sites of Riga. I believe the most remarkable point was our visit the Rumbala forest  visit  where 25000 Jewish people were killed in only 2 days!  This was definitely an emotional place.

After a lunch break we left to the Jewish community center. There we were welcomed with Yiddish songs performed by their elderly chore. It was a warm welcome and we all  enjoyed it! After which we were given a tour around the faculty which is built as theater. Long story short, the place is HUGE !

We then had an activity with our Latvian peers.  In some respect I feel that here when you have such a small Jewish community the fact the Jewish people are so active and free to share their identity as Jewish  is a truly remarkable phenomena. We ended our day with a visit to local bar, where we had chance to talk with the local peers.

More to come!

~ Arik Vishnevsky

Monday, June 13th, 2011

Day #1: En Route to Riga, Latvia

Audrey here, with a few updates!


After a nine-hour flight chatting about our musical tastes and various interactions with the local reality-challenged individuals of downtown Toronto, we arrived in Kiev, Ukraine – the furthest east most of us had ever been.

During our extended stopover, the feeling amongst the group was a certain alienation, in a foreign land, with different customs, and a language that was often referred to by group members as “slurred Russian”. However, between hearing a surprising number of squabbling Israelis, and black-hatted Chassidim hurrying to their gate, I came to realize the importance of our mission with JDC. Here I was, in a place where I had no family, had no connections, not even able to communicate, and still, the recognizable presence of Jews, both Orthodox and secular alike, made this strage land seem not so fargone any more. Subsequently, I realized that we must have been feeling the same way that Latvian and Lithuanian Jews have felt for decades – alone. It was our task to show them that the global Jewish community was there to reach out to them, to show them that they were not forgotten, and though we didn’t know who they were, we would support them.

We arrived in Riga and came to the hotel, and readied ourselves for dinner at the Jewish Community Centre, where we met Moni, the JDC ground co-ordinator for Latvia. He explained to us our jobs within the community, and about the history of the Jewish lineage that exists there.

A brief dance class and near-death experience via Latvians’ anti-pedestrian driving philosophies, we were back at the hotel, where we met our Latvian peers (as they were called in our itineraries – but, if they’re my peers, you’d think we would have met before, at least). We went for a walk, and ended up in an outdoor café with live music, and proceeded to discuss such natural things as currency exchange, plans for tomorrow, and police brutality.

On that note, I would like to make this a bit personal for a second. I have barely slept for the past thirty-six hours, I have traveled halfway across the world, and fell down a flight of the most sketchy wooden stairs I have ever seen (and felt) in my life, and I’m still writing this blog for all of you at home – if that’s not the meaning of Tzedek, then send me home, because I certainly don’t know what is.


As usual, looking forward to tomorrow, and ready for another great day in the Baltics!


Friday, June 10th, 2011

Hillel Baltics Trip, 2011 Pre-Trip Orientation

Hello, Hillel students, staff, and members of the Jewish community,

My name’s Audrey Amar, and a fourth-year undergraduate at U of T, and present chairperson of the blog committee of the Baltics Trip this year. This blog is designed to keep community members up-to-date on our experiences while doing Tzedec abroad. I joined this trip because as a Moroccan Jew, I don’t have a heritage in Eastern Europe, so the best way to connect with the Jewish history that springs from there is to work in the community firsthand.

After walking into the Spiritual room in the Wolfond Centre at U of T, and strategically choosing a seat directly under the air conditioning, but not too far from the window overlooking Harbord (in case things got dull), we hit the ground running with an introduction to the trip, and what we hoped to accomplish with our work abroad. A basic overview of the trip told us that the goal was to provide aid in the form of Rescue, Relief and Renewal (the “Three R’s” of the JDC) to the diminished Jewish communities of Latvia and Lithuania that survived both the Holocaust and communism at its height in Eastern Europe.

We moved on to the brighter task of getting to know each other. The usual name, school, and program of study were tossed around, and describing one serious (yet spitefully funny) accident leading to a scar. It was at this point we noticed a pattern in the fact that most of the injuries suffered were the result of an interaction with a pen, pencil, or other writing utensil. Fortunately, this blog will done exclusively via typed word.

On that note, we were divided into committees on a volunteer basis – the Blog committee (featured here!), the Shabbat committee (to organize activities for our free time on Saturday), and the Gifts committee (the delightful task of shopping for items to give to our hosts in the Jewish community).

Our second orientation, occurring one week before take-off, we met Talya. She is our co-ordinator with the JDC (Joint Distribution Committee) and explained how the work we were doing in both Riga, Latvia and Vilnius, Lithuania. Of the “Three R’s” mentioned above, our focus would be Renewal and Relief. It was explained to us here that after communism was abandoned in this region, Latvia and Lithuania were steadily on the way to economic viability. However, when the recession of the mid-2000’s hit, it was these mounting countries that were hit the hardest. A good part of theremaining Jewish communities in Riga and Vilnius are generally financially struggling, living in sub-standard housing and often scraping by for necessities, like food, clothing and school supplies. Our work would centre, as Talya explained, around the most vulnerable sectors of Jewish society – the very young, and the elderly. The hands-on part of the trip would include renovating the youth room in one of the Jewish community centres and home visits to older people to aid in any given household tasks.

With just two days to take-off, we’re all looking forward to this experience abroad that is sure to be exciting, fun, and impactful.