Visit to Jewish Baltics inspires hope for the next generation

Jewish engagement flourishes in the Baltics

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Fifteen Chicagoans joined the mission, including the following people—pictured in Budapest. (Back row from left: Michael Oxman, Lisa Gelles, Marnie Rudick, Alex Entratter, Emily Benovitz, Dan Dorfman, Jacob Shapiro, Neal Robin. Front row from left: Shayla Rosen, Doug London, Erica Tarantur.)

As I stood at the entrance to the Rumbula memorial, my heart flooded with emotion. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my friend, Grant, wrap tefillin to pay tribute to the victims of the massacre. On Nov. 30 and Dec. 8, 1941, Jews were marched to the Rumbula forest outside of Riga, Latvia, and subsequently forced into mass graves and murdered. More than 25,000 Jews were murdered in two days. Walking past the forest, I couldn't wrap my head around the atrocities our people faced.  

Eighty-two years later, life is now vibrant for new generations of Baltic Jews. In March, 175 members of Jewish Federations of North America's National Young Leadership Cabinet--15 of us from Chicago, including Cabinet Chair Jacob Shapiro--traveled on a mission to Riga, Latvia and Budapest, Hungary to explore the Jewish past, present, and future in the Baltics.   

Before the visit, I barely knew that Jews existed in the Baltics, let alone that they have been thriving there for three decades. That was when Communism fell in that part of the world--and when Jews were finally able to practice their religion openly, and pass down a Jewish education to their children.  

Today, Jewish engagement programs are flourishing in that region of the world, thanks to the support of JUF and its overseas partners.  

Programs like Youth Street, or Y Street--founded in 2017--which engages more than 600 young Jews in Jewish identity building through Jewish day camps, Sunday schools, leadership development, and young adult programs to Israel. 

During our trip, we also visited the JUF-supported Camp Szarvas, near Budapest. Known as the heart of Jewish camp life in Eastern Europe, it hosts more than 3,500 people during the summer through sessions for children, families, and Holocaust survivors. During our visit, Szarvas hosted a session for Jewish Ukrainian refugee families, offering a respite from their reality of war back home. 

We ended our trip celebrating Shabbat in the historic Rumbach Synagogue in the heart of Budapest. As I sat at Friday night services, singing Lecha Dodi alongside my cohort, I reflected on the past week. Then, my mind fixated on one moment at Camp Aviv in Latvia. It was then that our delegation of Cabinet members gathered with the campers-the next generation of Baltic Jews--to sing Israel's national anthem, Hatikvah . Together, we sang our song of hope for Israel, hope for the Jews in the Baltics, and hope for the next generation.  

We had embarked on this journey not knowing what to expect and I left with a renewed sense of hope and stories of strength, courage, and resilience for the Jewish people. 

Sara Eno, the Vice President of Finance at Kalderos Inc., is a third-year member of National Young Leadership Cabinet, and serves on the JUF Education committee.  

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