Traveling abroad to visit graves of Jews who died overseas

What makes a trip even more exhilarating is the opportunity not only to see a new part of the world but also to perform a mitzvah (commandment or good deed) at the same time.

 THE GROUP after a Jewish Star replaced a cross at the grave. (photo credit: Heshie & Rookie Billet)
THE GROUP after a Jewish Star replaced a cross at the grave.
(photo credit: Heshie & Rookie Billet)

Getting on a plane is always an exciting adventure for us. What makes a trip even more exhilarating is the opportunity not only to see a new part of the world but also to perform a mitzvah (commandment or good deed) at the same time.

In 1972 we were invited by Lishkat HaKesher, an agency associated with the Israeli Foreign Ministry, to spend three weeks in then-Soviet Russia. Those were the days of Brezhnev, Kosygin, and Chernenko. There was something both thrilling and frightening about the trip we were embarking on between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We would see a distant part of the world and visit some of Eastern Europe’s most famous cities, like Moscow, Leningrad (later changed back to St. Petersburg), Rostov, and Odesa; and yet, this was the frightening Soviet Union with its autocratic, repressive, and antisemitic regime.

The true aim of the trip was to make contact with Jews and refuseniks (Jews refused exit visas to leave Russia, often repeatedly). Our mission was to deliver items that would be useful to the Jews we sought out, such as knives for brit milah (circumcision) and shechita (ritual kosher animal slaughter), as well as Jewish calendars, tefillin, and other items unavailable in the USSR.

It was a time when invitations from relatives in Israel were needed in order to expedite the exit visa process. We were tasked with smuggling out the names (written in Russian) of visa-seekers, for the Israeli Foreign Ministry; thereafter, invitations to immigrate to Israel were issued to them.

Apparently, the Russians were aware that young couples were being sent to do just that. As we went through security after landing, we got the feeling that they were expecting us. They found the tallitot (prayer shawls), tefillin, lulav (palm branch), and etrog (citron) we had brought for our own use – and the many calendars and religious items we had brought to give to the Jews we had come to meet. Much to our surprise, they did not confiscate anything; but wherever we went, we were followed, like in a spy film. Undeterred, we went to the synagogue, as planned, to meet the Jews and, taking the appropriate precautions, we attempted to distinguish between those who were trustworthy and those who were not. 

 TOMB OF the Unknown Jewish Soldier. (credit: Heshie & Rookie Billet)
TOMB OF the Unknown Jewish Soldier. (credit: Heshie & Rookie Billet)

We attended gatherings of Jews in their apartments, all of whom wrote their names down for us in Russian. We then painstakingly copied the names and reduced them to tiny print Cyrillic (a writing system) onto thin tracing paper we had brought. In this way, we obtained over 100 names. To avoid discovery, we placed them beneath the luggage tags on our suitcases, the places not searched as we left Russia.

After Russia

After we left Russia, it was gratifying to know that many of the Jews whose names we had smuggled out were able to leave the Soviet Union that year. We spent the year learning in Israel during our first year of marriage and invited each one of them to spend a Shabbat with us in Jerusalem.

Eleven years later, one of us took equipment to Yitzhak Kogan, the ritual shochet in Leningrad. On a third trip after the fall of the Soviet Union, we also visited the many incredible projects sponsored by the NY Federation in and around Moscow.

The “new” Moscow had four kosher restaurants and a huge Jewish center where the old Marina Roche Synagogue had been. The Choral Synagogue was now open daily, and its interior had been beautified. 

On one occasion, we stopped in St. Petersburg while on a cruise, and the state Hermitage Museum of art and culture was the sight to see. On a fourth trip with the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, one of us traveled to Alma Aty in Kazakhstan and met with the Jewish community there.

Poland and Lithuania

We also traveled to Poland several times. Each trip was much more than a Holocaust study trip, as we met with Poland’s chief rabbi and Kracow’s Jewish leaders. We received many requests for assistance in matters affecting the tiny modern Polish Jewish communities.

In Vilna, the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” there are still remnants of the Great Synagogue and the Vilna Gaon’s Kloiz [compound]. We went to synagogue daily, met with the Chabad emissary, visited the Jewish cemetery, and prayed at the graves of the Vilna Gaon and Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski. 

We imagined the courageous work of the “book smugglers” who, led by the great Yiddish poet Avraham Sutzkover, saved much of the rich Jewish literature from the Nazis. (See The Book Smugglers by David E. Fischman.)

In Kovno, we visited the graves of Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spector and the last rabbi of Kovno, Rav Avraham Duber Kahana Shapiro, who died in 1943 during the Nazi occupation. We also remembered the heroic and compassionate head of the Kovno Judenrat, Dr. Elchanan Elkes.

North and South America

In the United States and Canada, we toured and hiked north, south, east, and west, always making time to visit the Jewish communities throughout our native continent. In some areas we found vibrant Jewish communities, while in others there were just remnants of communities established by Jews who had immigrated in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In South America, we witnessed the vibrant Argentinian community in Buenos Aires. We visited its schools and educational institutions, as well as its community centers, and were impressed by the level of spoken Hebrew among the city’s Jewish residents – whether members of Buenos Aires’s Ashkenazi or Sephardi communities.

Spain and Portugal

We also had the opportunity to travel to Spain and Portugal. In Spain, you can see the remnants of what existed before the expulsion in 1492. Many synagogues were turned into churches; and in some places, where those churches no longer function as such, remnants of Hebrew writing have been found on the walls. In Portugal, you can meet descendants of conversos in many areas, particularly in the village of Belmonte in the Tras Os Montes area, where Jews survived as an “underground” community for 500 years. 

Philippines and Thailand

Most recently, we were privileged to travel to the Philippines and Thailand. In Manila, it was gratifying to meet Rabbi Yonatan Goldschmidt and his Rabbanit Elisheva, as well as lay leaders and members of the small but vibrant Jewish community. At all of our stops in Thailand, Chabad was there to provide a minyan and kosher food for the many Jewish travelers to the area, mostly Israelis.

We joined this trip to participate in the work of a unique organization called Operation Benjamin (, established by Rabbi JJ Schacter. He told us how, while on a visit to US military cemeteries in Normandy, he had observed a dearth of Jewish stars over the graves of the soldiers killed during World War II. Roughly speaking, the percentage of Jewish soldiers who served and sacrificed in World War II should have equaled their percentage of the US Jewish population. Rabbi Schacter and his colleague Shalom Lamm began to identify names of possible Jewish soldiers, contacted their family members, and then worked together with the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) and the Jewish Welfare Board on changing the crosses on many of the headstones for a Star of David.

Rabbi Schacter transported this project to the US Military Cemetery in the Philippines. 

With the Jewish people’s focus on the six million of our brothers and sisters murdered in Europe and their communities decimated by the Germans and their accomplices, we are less cognizant of the brutal war waged against the Japanese in the Pacific theater, where Allied soldiers bravely fought against a suicidal army of Japanese whose loyalty to their emperor and their cause were absolute. 

Together with Shalom and Tina Lamm and a group of some 20 people, we participated in emotional, poignant, inspirational ceremonies, where we saw four graves where US soldiers (either killed in battle in the Pacific or starved or worked to death as slaves in Japanese POW camps under horrific conditions) had been erroneously buried as Christians. 

In the presence of our group and various US and Israeli embassy representatives and military officials, the identifying symbols on all four headstones were respectfully changed, in a ceremony that brought them “home to the Jewish people.”

Later, in the hotel where we stayed, we approached a US Army colonel who had participated in the service in Manila and thanked him for joining us. 

He said to us, “It is you that I have to thank! I was very moved by the Jewish people’s commitment to its soldiers 80 years after the war ended. Your effort to ensure that your fellow Jews were appropriately interred under the symbol of your religion was very inspiring for me. It was a privilege to participate.”  

We accord heartfelt gratitude to the United States government and the ABMC for their tremendous cooperation in righting the historical wrongs.

This mission helped us fulfill several mitzvot, to name a few: the mitzvah of hakarat hatov (recognition and appreciation of good deeds) by doing right by the deceased who can no longer repay the good done for them; zachor yamot olam (remembering Jewish history); binu shnot dor va’dor (learning from our past); kavod acharon (last rites); and nachum aveilim (providing comfort to the relatives – in this case 80 years later), many of whom were young soldiers who had not yet married or had any children and had not ever had any family members visit their graves in these remote parts of the world.

THESE ARE but a few examples of combining travel with mitzvot. Sometimes the trip itself is a mitzvah mission. And sometimes it is a pleasure trip that can be connected to doing good deeds. As part of the Jewish people’s fate and destiny, opportunities for mitzvot are always knocking on the door. All one has to do is hear the knock and seize the moment. ■

A recent oleh, Heshie Billet is rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Woodmere and former member of the US President’s Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.

A recent olah, Rookie Billet retired from a long career as a Jewish educator, principal, shul rebbetzin, and yo’etzet halacha in the US, and hopes to contribute to life in Israel.