Marcus Dysch

In Lithuania, students are being taught an uplifting lesson of integration

Despite the horrors of the past, Vilnius's future is looking quite different

November 02, 2018 08:27

It was hard to concentrate as the chazan led the davening. But why? My mind whirred.

Was it the fact I had walked into Vilnius’s Choral Synagogue with barely any security interventions at all? There had been no sign of burly guards or armed police, unlike outside almost every other shul in the world. But that was not what unsettled me.

As I stared up at the ornate, aqua-coloured aron hakodesh and listened to the familiar tunes of the Shabbat morning prayers, I felt a chill.

Here I was, sitting in this 115-year-old building, in the centre of the capital city of a country where, within living memory of some of my fellow congregants, 95 per cent of the once quarter-of-a-million-strong Jewish population had been slaughtered.

That sobering thought was met, however, with an uplifting one: my trip to Lithuania was primarily to see the work we at ORT, the global education network, are doing.

And so, rather than reflect on the desperate scenes which befell our forefathers on the surrounding streets 80 years ago, I considered how Jewish communities are being revitalised and young Jews feel empowered to choose their own paths for the future.

The Sholom Aleichem ORT School in Vilnius is regarded as one of the best high schools in the country.

Students have access to electronics and physics classes in modern laboratories that are the envy of peers taught elsewhere. They exude confidence and have perfect English.

When I met 11-year-old Nikita Yusupov (pictured) as he came off stage having performed a rousing rendition of Dean Martin’s Ain’t That A Kick In The Head, he told me he wanted to pursue a career in entertainment.

It didn’t feel like a hopeless pipedream. It is a genuine aspiration for a young Lithuanian Jewish school pupil in 2018.

While a percentage of the 400 students are not Jewish, teaching Hebrew classes and Jewish traditions to all means this generation of Lithuanians is likely to be better integrated than has been the case since the Shoah.

The assumption often made — that the only viable life for Jews in former Soviet states is to make aliyah — is becoming less prevalent. For Elina Mesengiser-Gerber, a marketing director at a real estate company in Vilnius, it could not be further from her thoughts.

A graduate of the school herself, this autumn she was delighted to see her daughter start at ORT Sholom Aleichem and is determined — and proud — to bring her up in the city’s Jewish community.

The plaques lining the cobbled streets of Vilnius’s former ghetto mean the past will not be forgotten.

But the present and future now offer hope: children receiving an education for life, families immersing themselves in Jewish practices, communities where people come to settle and not move away.

The morning after my shul visit I stood quietly alongside colleagues and ORT supporters at the edge of a mass grave pit in Ponary forest, where as many as 100,000 perished.

My mind drifted again, but this time it found a strong sense of defiance, and a great deal of pride at the work being done to ensure the continuity of Jewish life in this corner of Eastern Europe.

Marcus Dysch is Head of External Affairs at World ORT

November 02, 2018 08:27

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