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Jewish Journal

L.A. Embarks on a Baltic Journey

by Tom Tugend

February 26, 2004 | 7:00 pm

There is a country whose Jewish community involves nearly all its young people, elects its leaders by democratic vote on the basis of character rather than wealth and is not driven by political and religious divisions.

The country is Lithuania, once a vibrant center for 250,000 Jews, where today some 6,000 Jews are rebuilding their institutions and community on the ashes of the Holocaust and Soviet rule.

The upbeat report comes from a small and youthful delegation of activists from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, who arrived in mid-February to celebrate the official inauguration of the Los Angeles-Baltics Partnership.

Not that the three Baltic nations are a Jewish utopia on Earth. The demographics are askew, with elderly retirees making up some 40 percent of the community, while many of those who would now be the middle-aged pillars of the community immigrated after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 to Israel, Germany and the United States.

Economic conditions are hard, particularly for the elderly, whose meager pensions are being eroded by the rising cost of living.

Andreas Spokoiny, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) director for the Baltic states, recalled that recently regular patrons at a Jewish senior citizens center stopped coming. When Spokoiny investigated, he found that the pensioners couldn't afford the trolley fare to the center.

The most hopeful sign is that the young are taking over the responsibility for their community. When four of the five delegates were interviewed and asked their ages, two were 22, one was 25 and Spokoiny, the group leader, is 35.

One of the 22-year-olds was Inna Lapidus from Estonia, coordinator of the Jewish youth movement in the Baltics and a student at the Tallin Pedagogical University.

Her country's pre-war community of 5,000 has recovered the most demographically with 4,000 current members, thanks to an influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union.

"It's haimish in our community, you feel like part of a small family," she said.

Latvia has a Jewish population of 15,000, compared to 90,000 before the Holocaust. Simon Gurevichius, also 22, who gave the upbeat picture of the Lithuanian community, said that Jewish life revolved mainly around community centers, rather than synagogues. He was optimistic about the community's future, saying, "I hope to create a Jewish family in Vilnius [formerly Vilna]."

Asked what impressed the group most about their visit here, Spokoiny answered, "It was discovering the richness of options for Jewish living available here."

The Los Angeles-Baltics Partnership had its beginning some two years ago when the World Jewish Communities Committee of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, headed by Nathan Sandler, embarked on a fact-finding mission to the three countries.

Working in conjunction with the JDC, the local Federation now funnels about $200,000 a year to the Baltics, said project director Lesley Plachta of The Federation's Valley Alliance.

Beneficiaries include a hospital, schools, summer and winter camps, sports programs, leadership training and a research center.

A highlight of the delegation's five-day visit to Los Angeles was "An Evening of Inspiration and Celebration" at the Skirball Cultural Center.

Sandler told the 500 guests that the partnership "is changing lives and rebuilding the foundations for Jewish life. It is strengthening Jewish identity. It is strengthening the bonds of Jewish solidarity."

A new Federation partnership mission to the Baltics is planned for June, aimed especially at families and children.

Shortly afterward, the second World Litvak Congress will be held in Vilnius, Aug. 23-30, "to remember the great men and women of the Land of Litvaks, who became the pride of the entire humanity," according to the words of invitation by chief organizer Dr. Simon Alperovitch.

For details on the congress, e-mail Litvaks@Litjews.org or visit www.Litjews.org . For more information about the projects the partnership is funding, including information about the June 2004 family mission to the Baltics, contact (818) 464-3211.

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