Robin Solomon stood in the Ponary Forest in Lithuania, surrounded by fellow educators who wore white and sang Yiddish songs, accompanied by a violinist.
It was a captivating and stunning experience this summer, a stark contrast to the fact that Nazis viciously executed tens of thousands of Jews, Poles and Russians there during World War II.
The forest is a fitting metaphor for the Jews of Lithuania and the surrounding Baltic states today. Despite the pain and suffering people there have gone through, they’ve flourished into a vibrant and growing community, said Solomon, a teacher at Adat Ari El Day School in Valley Village.
“Jewish life exists there. People survived, and now the Baltic state has a desire for Jewish life and an attachment to the history and Israel. We saw evidence of this.”
Solomon learned about this as part of “From Memory to Identity: Reclaiming Jewish History in Vilnius,” a program that took her and 47 other teachers from Los Angeles and Tel Aviv to Lithuania and Latvia from July 2 to 9.
Participants learned about what the area was like before World War II and took a walking tour of the ghettos, visited the elderly and helped to restore a Jewish cemetery. They also went to the Ponary Memorial and Forest, traveled to a Jewish children’s summer camp and school, and toured the Latvian capital of Riga.
The trip was part of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ school twinning program, an initiative that connects teachers and students in Tel Aviv with those in Los Angeles. It has been active for 12 years and sends middle- and high-schoolers from one country to the other, according to the Federation’s Web site. There are 19 schools from each country that participate.
Two years ago, Shalom Aleichem, a school in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, joined the initiative. It led to a three-way partnership with Kehillat Israel in Los Angeles and a school in Tel Aviv. In 2013, Kehillat Israel left the program, and Stephen S. Wise Temple took its place.
The three-way partnership is what led Federation officials to take educators from throughout the broader program to the Baltics as part of the Twinning Seminar’s annual joint teachers’ seminar trip, according to Ahuva Ron, Federation’s senior education director.
Ron said that one goal is for teachers to focus on the revival of that particular Jewish community with their students, who may deepen their Jewish identity through it.
Andrew Cushnir, executive vice president and chief program officer at Federation, added, “We hope that as a result of the experience, the educators have a fresh eye view of the way Judaism is flourishing and facing challenges in the rest of the world.”
The L.A. Federation has been financially supporting the Jewish communities in the Baltics region for years, and, according to Cushnir, it has encouraged the exchange of students in summer camps, found families in Los Angeles to sponsor children and expanded medical care at Jewish community centers.
Shari Davis, Los Angeles representative from the twinning program, and Tel Aviv director Lior Sibony led the eight-day seminar. The Joint Distribution Committee, a worldwide Jewish humanitarian organization, played a big part in putting together the trip, Ron said.
Rabbi Bruce Raff, head of the religious school at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, said he had anticipated a completely different view of Jewish life in the Baltics than what he actually saw.
“While I went on the trip expecting to see the skeletal remains of Lithuanian Jewry and what was left of the Holocaust, what I saw was a group of Jews who are striving to live Jewish lives there,” he said. “Latvia was very contemporary and modern. They weren’t living in the past, but trying to create a future.”
One of the most poignant aspects of the trip, Raff said, was when the group ventured to a camp called Olameinu, which hosts summer sessions for Jewish children (ages 7 to 12) and teenagers (ages 12 to 18) from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. The group participated in the younger children’s session.
“If you’d change the language ... to English, it was very much an American summer camp,” Raff said. “It was full of life, Jewish learning, and Israeli song and dance.”
Solomon said, “To hear the children singing Hebrew and chanting a mantra, ‘I am Jewish and I know it,’ you could close your eyes and think you’re in Ojai, Calif., at Camp Ramah. It was really unbelievable.”
Participant Andrea Gardenhour, Center for Youth Engagement director at Stephen S. Wise, wrote in an e-mail that at Olameinu, the counselors “were so inspirational and dedicated, it filled me with a beautiful sense of Jewish hope for the future of the Baltics.”
The rebuilding of Jewish life in these countries, which was thriving before the war, is occurring against all odds, according to those on the trip.
Prior to World War II, there were more than 100 synagogues in Vilnius and 200,000 Jews, accounting for 45 percent of the city’s population, Ron said. Ninety percent of them were murdered in the Holocaust.
Despite this, Raff said, the community there now, which is composed of 3,500 Jews, is determined to find itself.
“They say, ‘We are going to live meaningful Jewish lives here in Lithuania.’ I thought it was amazing.”
Each educator brought back his or her own lessons from the visit. When school begins again this fall, Solomon is going to share the details of her trip with her students and talk about Jewish memories. Gardenhour said that because her school is involved with Shalom Aleichem, she hopes to raise funds to send children to Olameinu and perhaps “send our students over to work in the camp as counselors.”
And that’s just the beginning. Roles will be reversed later this year when, from Nov. 21 to Dec. 2, students from Tel Aviv and Vilnius come to Los Angeles. They will go to the Center for Youth Engagement, stay with local families, learn about the Los Angeles community and visit the Museum of Tolerance and Federation. Cushnir stated that his overall vision is to incorporate the Baltic states from here on out in the twinning program.
Raff said that the whole experience proved once again that Jews, no matter where they are located, have to look out for one another.
“The Los Angeles community recognizes their responsibility to world Jewry,” he said. “To say that we care about Jews but only in Los Angeles is not really indicative of what we want to do or be as a Jewish community. We need to recognize the needs of Jewish kids all over the world. Each Jew is responsible for one another in the world. It gave us a firsthand look into that.”