ORT UK Bar Bat Mitzvah Twinning with Vilnius

21 UK participants have just returned from an exciting new 'twinning' project in Vilnius, Lithuania.

The Bnei Mitzvot children (3 boys & 7 girls) along with their parents, who are all from the Muswell Hill Shul community, travelled to meet their 'twinned' counterparts from the ORT Sholom Aleichem School in Vilnius and were able to spend quality time with them, meet their families as well as explore their Jewish heritage.

From the moment the children met each other it was if they already knew one another.  The excited children exchanged gifts, took part in musical, arts and sports activities which had been prepared by youth leaders from the UK & the local Jewish community.

The parents had an opportunity to hear about the amazing work that ORT do in the FSU and and how through ORT's educational network there is a now a distinct revival of Jewish life in places like Vilnius, where for years there was nothing.  Through STEM focused projects, teacher training, employability skills training for women in the Baltic States and Jewish history projects throughout, both the students and their communites are all being given the chance to thrive and become self sufficient as well as being engaged in Jewish identity for future generations to come.

The weekend included walking tours with our fascinating tour guide, Regina Kopilevich who gaves us an in-depth explanation of what life was like before the Holocaust when Jewish life was alive and vibrant.  She pointed out one small area where twelve synagogues once stood and explained that out of 110 synagogues in Vilnius, only the Choraline Synagogue still remains.  The families spend Kabbalat Shabbat in this shul before joining the Lithuanian children in the Jewish community centre for dinner, where the Chief Rabbi of Lithuania spoke to the children about the week's parsha on the Ten Commandments.  This special evening ended with everyone singing, learning new songs and dancing together.

The families were able to walk around the Vilna Ghetto and find remnants of Jewish writings and markings left on shopfronts and doorways. We visited the monuments of the great Vilna Gaon (genius) who was the renowned Rabbincal scholar and of Dr Zemach Shabad prototype of Doctor Aybolit (Dr Dolittle). They visited the medieval quarter, the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum & Tolerance Centre, where Regina spoke of Chiune Sugihara who was bestowed the honour of a Righteous Amongst the Nations for rescuing the only yeshiva in Europe during the second world war by allowing them passage into Shanghai.  There is a wonderful monument in the grounds of the Jewish Museum where the families gathered to have their photo taken.

The families visited the Ponary Forest where 100,000 jews were taken and killed during the period 1941-1944. The children and parents paid tribute in a poignant memorial ceremony commemorating the lives that were lost. Each family had a testimony of a child and lit candles in their memory. The children and their parents then had a time for reflection to help them understand the enormity of what had taken place there all these years ago. 

The weekend culminated with a trip to the 'once capital' Trakai where we visited the beautiful castle built in the 14th century. We visited the museum of the Karaite 'Turkic speaking' community. Trakai was the notable centre for Karaim culture and religious life. We visited a famous restaurant in Trakai where we sampled the traditional pastry dish, Kibinai.

The highlight of the afternoon for the children was playing in the snow, seeing snow flakes fall in the shape as perfect 'stars of davids' and walking over the frozen lake.

The ORT UK Bar Bat Mitzvah Twinning Programme is an exciting joint initiative with World ORT. This year,13 children from Muswell Hill Congregation were twinned with the ORT Sholom Aleichem school in Vilnius. Throughout this 9 month long meaningful journey, the children will develop friendships and learn about each other by communicating through emailing and social media. The UK Children are attending monthly sessions where they will learn about Jewish History, Jewish Migration, Self-Identification,Tikkun-Olam and much more. 

This programme will continue until July where the children will take part in a ceremonial graduation and special Kiddush at Muswell Hill Shul.

To find out more information please contact:  anthea.jackson@ortuk.org or call 0207 446 8525

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