Revisiting the past to protect our future
Students from Imperial JSoc travelled to Lithuania to explore the country's Jewish heritage. The group of 19 was joined by UJC chaplain Rabbi Gavin Broder and met Israeli students based in the city of Kaunas. The trip was funded by Holocaust survivor and businessman William Stern, UJS, Tribe and Imperial College Union. JSoc member Andrea Levy describes the experience of revisiting the past.
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Imperial JSoc members wrap up to keep warm in -25C temperatures during their heritage trip to Lithuania
We knew that travelling to Kovno would be a surreal experience. After excitedly boarding the plane we landed in Lithuania two hours later and watched the snow lining the streets and covering the rooftops. We walked into the Israeli students' centre, where we were warmly welcomed and enjoyed our first evening with a great dinner followed by very effective speed-socialising.
Friday morning was action-packed. We met our Kovno-born tour guide Chaim, an expert of all things Jewish in Lithuania, and set off for Vilna. The first stop was the shtetl in Žiežmariai, where there had once been a Jewish community and where we walked into what remained of a wooden synagogue. It was an immediate connection to our past, and we experienced the gratification of returning to the place from where our ancestors once fled.
We visited the tomb of Rabbi Eliyahu, the Vilna Gaon, in the city's largest Jewish cemetery following a talk about his ethos given by one of his descendents. We toured Vilna, including the site of the ghetto and the building where the Vilna Shas, the most widely used version of the Babylonian Talmud, was originally printed.
In the evening, we came together for a beautiful, deeply felt Kabbalat Shabbat with the Israeli students. We enjoyed a splendid Shabbaton, with considerable talk, little sleep and great food.
Our final day included a visit to the town where Rabbi Israel Salanter, head of the Mussar movement, once taught. We said tehillim by a memorial for the last Jews killed in the Vilna ghetto.
Finally, after enjoying the fantastic views of Kovno, there was an abrupt change of atmosphere with a visit to Fort Nine, a Nazi concentration camp.
Yet we finished on a note of hope and of life, as Chaim narrated the story of the successful escape of some of the last Jewish prisoners. We sang the Hatikvah in the glacial air, because as one of the Israeli students said, the 30,000 people killed there "would be happy to know we returned home".