As I was singing Shabbat songs with dozens of four- and five-year-old children at the Aviv Jewish kindergarten in Tallinn, Estonia, it struck me that the parents and grandparents of many of these children were forbidden from singing these same songs for decades, let alone from expressing their Jewish identities publicly. The kindergarten was the first stop on a recent ten-day International Study Mission to Eastern Europe that I was privileged to take part in along with 175 other leaders from Jewish Federations of North America’s National Young Leadership Cabinet.
During this mission, Cabinet members from all over North America memorialized the past, experienced the present, and learned about the Jewish communal dreams for the future, in Estonia, Latvia, and Hungary – all deeply devastated by the Holocaust. We also witnessed ways Jewish Federations’ support of our core partners, The Jewish Agency for Israel, JDC (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) and World ORT, powers the programs and institutions that are the building blocks of Jewish life in Eastern Europe today.
Pre-World War II, Estonia had a Jewish population of 4,500 individuals. Estonia was the first country that Hitler declared: “Jew-free.” When the country fell under Soviet rule between 1944 and 1988, Jews were persecuted and communal life and religious observance were forbidden.
Despite decades of repression, Jewish life in Estonia did not vanish, a victory of which the singing children I met were an inspiring symbol. Every Friday, dozens of children welcome Shabbat in song and dance at the Aviv Kindergarten.
Jewish tradition is reviving in Eastern Europe
I witnessed the same revival of Jewish tradition during services at Beit Bela, a stunning synagogue in Tallinn that is decorated with trees bearing pomegranates that artfully line the synagogue walls. The synagogue was set ablaze by the Nazis during World War II and was renovated in 2007 with assistance from JDC. Today, the synagogue houses a mikveh, youth programming and adult education classes and is a fountain of Jewish life and learning.
A few days later, our group touched down in Riga, Latvia, where in 1941, the Nazis established a ghetto. During a period of three days of the same year, the Nazis murdered some 25,000 Jews from the ghetto in the Rumbula Forest. By the end of the war, nearly all of Riga’s Jews had been sent to their deaths.
Our group held a memorial in the Rumbula Forst, which local communities fought for decades to recognize and preserve. We also saw vibrant Jewish life in Riga. Just a few blocks from where the ghetto once stood lies the Shimon Dubnov ORT school, a magnificent institution that boasts a state-of-the-art technology program alongside a Jewish curriculum. Established in 1989, this is the first Jewish state school in the Former Soviet Union.
We met with young students who spoke proudly about 3D modeling and printing, robotics programming and gaming, and also about their plans to celebrate Israel’s 75th anniversary during the year. These grounds where Jews were murdered only eighty years ago are now a center for Jewish wisdom and innovation, and I felt moved to be standing upon this earth that is steeped in Jewish memory.
A rekindling of Jewish life
OUR LAST destination was Hungary, a country that lost close to 70% of its Jews during the Holocaust. In just eight weeks during 1944, 424,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz. Our first stop in Budapest was a tour of historic sites that were destroyed by Nazis and have since been reconstructed.
We were led on the tour by young Jewish Hungarians who are spearheading impressive initiatives to revitalize Jewish life in the capital city and programs in partnership with the Jewish Agency to strengthen ties between young Hungarian Jews and Israelis. These young leaders spoke proudly about their communal service and Jewish heritage, despite the challenges of identifying Jewishly today in Eastern Europe.
Indeed, Jewish life in Eastern Europe has been rekindled and Jewish leadership is reemerging. This message was most strongly felt at Szarvas, a Jewish identity and leadership-building camp in rural Hungary that is funded by JDC. During the summer, more than 400 Jewish youth from dozens of countries come together to experience the vibrancy of Jewish life.
But when we visited the site, it was set up as a JDC “respite” camp for Ukrainians. As we sat with these families and heard about the upheaval in their lives, I was struck by how similar their pre-war lives were to ours in North America, yet how quickly life changed for them. It was terribly sad and moving, and I felt so much pride that the Jewish community is leading the way in supporting these war victims, and so proud of the work that our Federations and their partners make possible every day.
Last year, National Young Leadership Cabinet members raised over $3.725 million for their local Federation annual campaigns to support Jewish life locally, in Israel and around the globe. As I continue to grow in my leadership, I know that this trip will serve as a constant reminder not only of the needs that exist across the globe, but of the tangible difference that our collective philanthropy – as young leaders and as a Federation system – is making to help Jewish life flourish in Eastern Europe. It is not only my duty but also my great privilege to be able to play a role in this rebirth.
The writer is a member of Jewish Federations of North America’s National Young Leadership Cabinet, from Delaware.