Rekindling Jewish Life in Lithuania, One Family at a Time

March 5, 2013


It’s not uncommon for a child to transform her parents’ world singlehandedly, but to do so in a spiritual sense takes a real little star.

Liora, 15, first came to the Ilan Youth Club at Vilnius’s Jewish Community Center (JCC) when she was only 7 years old, and initially she felt completely lost. She observed a circle of people passing a box full of spices, praying over wine, and putting their hands up to a candle while staring at their fingertips. Liora had no idea she was witnessing her first Havdallah ceremony.

That’s because the Medveckij family had never practiced any Jewish rituals in their home. Both of her parents had grown up in entirely non-practicing families while Lithuania was under Soviet rule, “when it was not so good to be Jewish,” explains Liora’s mother, Svetlana.

Liora’s family is a classic example of Lithuania’s Jews. Once a center of Jewish learning and culture, Lithuania’s Jewish community was decimated by two world wars, political and economic struggles under Communism, continuous anti-Semitism, and ultimately mass emigration. Today, Lithuania is home to approximately 7,000 Jews, many of whom are rediscovering their Jewish identities for the first time in decades.

When Liora came home and told her parents what she’d observed, they revealed for the first time that she is Jewish. Intrigued, Liora decided to return to the youth club, bringing some of her friends with her. She enjoyed the club games and was captivated by the thematic lessons on Judaism, and before long her curiosity turned her into a regular participant.

Taking their their daughter’s lead, Svetlana and Miroslav turned to the local JCC to begin investigating their Jewish heritage, too.

Today, 8 years later, the entire family visits the Vilnius JCC regularly. Svetlana and Miroslav attend organized events for people under 40 and Jewish adult learning programs. They’ve enjoyed Purim parties, Chanukah latke cooking classes, and communal Passover celebrations—and have started to bring the traditions home.

Behind the scenes of each of these programs is JDC, facilitating and supporting Jewish community development throughout Lithuania. Since its return to operations in the country in 1988 (on the cusp of the fall of communism), JDC has been helping the local Jewish community to implement social welfare programs for its elderly and children at risk, and to expand a range of communal services that bring the joys of Jewish life to all generations.

In nurturing the development of Jewish life in Lithuania and enabling its Jews connect to with others in the region, JDC is helping local Jews bring a once-vibrant community back to life and self-sufficiency. A broad range of critical community development efforts in Lithuania and in the Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia have generously funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Today, Liora and her younger sister continue to take part in Vilnius’s Jewish Youth Clubs. They’re both attending the city’s Shalom Aleichem Jewish school, too. They spend their winter breaks at the local Jewish winter retreat and their summers at the JDC-initiated Olameinu “Our World” Baltic summer camp, which gives hundreds of Jewish children from Lithuania, as well as Latvia and Estonia, a chance each summer to strengthen their Jewish identities and experience Judaism on a daily basis.

Milana, Liora’s 9-year-old sister is among the Ilan Club’s most active participants: “The JCC and Judaism are very important for me. I go to Club Ilan where I meet all of my friends. Together we learn how to be Jewish, and it’s always fun.”

Similarly, Svetlana and Miroslav actively participate in Bereshit, JDC’s annual project that brings university-level professors of Jewish history, philosophy, and bible studies to communities across Europe. They also love going to the Baltics Limmud-Keshet Conference, a grassroots event developed by the local Jewish community with JDC support where participants take turns as teachers and learners at peer-led sessions on Judaism and Jewish themes.

But the biggest transformation is the one in their home. Where there was once only hidden Jewish roots and secrecy, a family now comes together on Friday evenings to celebrate Shabbat with a newfound Jewish spirit.

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