Saturday, April 26, 2008

Belarus Blog #1

I've been trying to decide for the last 3 days how to write the "right" kind of blog to tell about my Pesach trip to Belarus. There is still so much that I am processing, grappling with, thinking about, that writing this blog has not been easy or something I've looked forward to writing. In lieu of writing one of those boring "this is what we did when we did it" kinds of posts, I finally decided to create a picture blog, with a sampling of the over 150 pictures I took over our 6 days in Belarus. I'll include the link to my account, which has all of my pictures for anyone who wants to see them, but for now here is the story of our trip in 22 or so pictures.

Michelle, Ariel, Brad and I at Ben Gurion Airport, waiting for our flight. In total, there were 8 of us who went to Belarus: Ariel, Brad and I in one group, PJ and Erin in one group, and Michelle, David and Tamar in another group. We flew to Minsk together, seperated to go to our various cities, and joined back in Minsk for the last 2 days of our trip.

After one night in a hotel in Minsk, Brad, Ari and I, along with our interpreter Ana, drove by minibus (the crappiest minibus you've ever seen, mind you) to Brest, which is in Western Belarus on the border with Poland. The first thing we were asked to do in Brest was go to the Holocaust Memorial, pictured above, to lead Kaddish and witness a special ceremony for Holocaust Remembrance. There were special speakers, clergy members of many faiths, and about 30 residents of Brest who were gathered together to remember those killed in the Holocaust.

On the way to our meeting with the Netzer Club, our chairperson gave us a tour of Jewish Brest--that is, what used to be known as the Jewish part of the city before WWII. She took us to what used to be a huge synagogue; during the war, it was used as a stable for German horses and it is now a movie theater and shopping mall. We were able to go into the basement of the theater to see the original walls of the men's section of the synagogue.

After the tour, we went to the "office" where the city's Reform Synagogue is located. There, we met up with the Netzer Club, Europe's equivalent to NFTY, where we had a question and answer session with the kids before leading Kabbalat Shabbat services and sharing snacks, challah, and wine with them. They were amazing kids, full of spirit and a love for Judaism, and they were so kind and generous to us. They wouldn't let us leave without giving us souvenir pins of Brest Fortress (which we would visit the following day) and a burned copy of Shrek 2. After the service, a few of them offered to take us to one of their favorite restaurants/nightclubs for a late dinner, and showed such pride in their city and their culture.

At dinner, the Netzer girls who accompanied us left the table to bring us Belorussian Rubles, specifically because the 50 ruble bill had a picture of the Brest Fortress, where we were going the next day. The kids were so excited that we were there and interested in their city and culture. They were very, very mature for their age, and extremely thoughtful and appreciative of those who come to their city.

The next morning, Brad, Ari, our translator Ari, the director of Brest's Netzer club, and Ola, one of the girls we met, went to the Brest Fortress, where the army lived while Brest was occupied by the Germans. Now, it is full of memorials, old buildings dating back to WWII, a beautiful park, an old church, and a restaurant. It is a chilling place to visit, as you can still feel the tension in the air mixed with the pride and gratitude the city has for it's fallen soldiers. Pictured above is the entrance to the fortress, which can be seen from kilometers before the entrance.

The largest memorial at Brest Fortress--below it is an eternal flame that keeps the memory of the fallen soldiers alive, along with the names of those who died (and those who were 'unknown'.)

After a cold, rainy, and interesting day at Brest Fortress, we went back to the "office" where we led our First Night Passover seder. There were about 35 people present, including families and elderly people. We were told to do a 30-minute "Greatest Hits" seder, so we said the most important prayers, sang everyone's favorite songs, and did a quick lesson on freedom in lieu of telling the Passover story. It went over extremely well, and everyone was happy to be done with the seder and move on to the meal as quickly as possible. After the meal, the kids performed an adorable "show" for us, singing Passover songs in Russian and Hebrew. We played games with them and taught them fun Hebrew songs--they were so much fun to hang out with!

After 2 days in Brest, we moved on to Baranovichi, halfway between Brest and Minsk. We took a 6am train (we had our own private sleeper car, which made Brad VERY happy!) and almost immediately went to our next seder upon our arrival. This seder was comprised of about 100 people, mostly elderly people and a few kids. We were told that the kids were well-versed on their Passover songs, which we found out was NOT so true when we tried to sing Avadim Hayinu and the 4 Questions, but we had a great time with them anyways. They were very happy to help us with the "Order of the Seder" song and even happier to find the Afikomen and receive their prizes. Ari, Brad, and I, just before leading our seder in Baranovichi. Sonia, our chairperson in Baranovichi, gave me this black poncho when she noticed that I was freezing earlier at the train station.

Our stay in Baranovichi was not the most comfortable, as it was freezing outside (about 35 degrees) and our hotel did not have heat. However, we made the best of it, trying to find things to do to keep ourselves warm. We discovered a great little coffee shop near our hotel, and Sonia took us to the Baranovichi history museum (not so exciting, but somewhat warm and better than sitting in our freezing hotel room!) and then to the Baranovichi Holocaust memorial, at the entrance to what used to the Jewish Ghetto during WWII. Pictured above is the Holocaust Memorial, where we lit a yartziet (rememberance) candle and said Kaddish. We spent the remainder of the evening with the Netzer Club in Baranovichi, talking to the kids and their amazing advisor, Margarita. The kids performed original songs they wrote for their Purim Spiel, along with some other songs on piano. They were another great group of kids, and they definitely turned cold, dreary Baranovichi into a warm, lovely place.

From Baranovichi, we took another train back to Minsk, where we met up with the rest of the Belarus crew and Grisha, the Rabbi in charge of us. We spent some time exploring the city before going to a Jewish preschool, the only Jewish preschool in all of Belarus. The kids were ADORABLE, and they knew some English and were able to converse a little bit with us. They put on the cutest re-enactment of the 10 Plagues and the Rabbi held a special Mezzuzah hanging on one of their doors. Above, Grisha is affixing the new Mezzuzah to the door of the preschool.

The boys were acting as cute.

This little girl (I sadly can't remember her name) was sitting next to me and wanted to show off her princess dress. She twirled and twirled, as if she could twirl herself right into a fairy tale. She was so sweet and looked like a little angel in her baby-pink princess gown.

From the preschool, we went to a concert hall where Michelle and I participated in the 4th Annual "Kantorski Festival", or Cantor's Concert. The concert featured about a dozen musicians and dancers, all of whom sang or danced to traditional and modern Jewish music. Michelle and I were each asked to sing 2 pieces, along with a duet. I sang a piece by Paul Ben-Chaim, an Israeli composer, and another piece by Robert Solomon, a modern synagogue composer. Together, Michelle and I sang a lovely Sim Shalom.

The next morning, Grisha took us on a tour of "Jewish Minsk." He brought us to this Holocaust Memorial, where people gather 3 times a year to mourn the over 250,000 Minsk citizens who were killed in the Holocaust. The Memorial is placed in the location where people were lined up to be shot, one by one, for over 2 years. March 4 is an important date in Minsk, as it was the date in which the pogroms began that killed all of these people. Minsk was 90% destroyed by the end of WWII, and nearly all of it's Jewish population was murdered.

This statue leads visitors to the above Memorial, and represents the "hill of death" that people slowly climbed down before they were shot and killed. You can see the shadows beside the iron silhouettes, which purposely represent the memory of those killed. Unlike the people, their shadows (their memory) can never die.

After our tour and a lovely "breakfast seder" at the Minsk "office", we were allowed to spend the rest of the day exploring Minsk. We chose to go shopping (though I came home with nothing but some postcards--Belarus isn't really known for their shopping scene) and to spend the afternoon walking through a beautiful park close to our hotel. Pictured above is a view of Minsk from our hotel room; it's a beautiful and very clean and friendly city.

After a quick nap, we headed back to the office to lead one last seder (on the 4th night of Pesach--in Minsk, it is tradition to hold a Passover seder every night of Passover.) We had yet another "Greatest Hits" seder, followed by a quick nosh with the Minsk Netzer Club before heading out on the town for our last night in Belarus. The city is beautiful at night, as you can see above.

Recognize this? Our favorite discovery in Belarus was a TGI Fridays, where we spent our last night. The food was good (they had Jack Daniel's sauce!) and we were all happy to be in a familiar, American restaurant.

The decor on the walls had this Missouri pennant, along with a picture of Route 66. There are no words to tell you how happy I was to see this--The M-O is represented even in Belarus!!

Me, Brad, Ari, and Ana together for our last night in Belarus. We became so close with Ana in such a short time--we really loved spending time with her. For an 18-year-old, she was so mature, so articulate, and very, very special. She was our voice on the trip, and helped us to find our way though a place where we truly were unable to communicate. We already miss her, and we have plans to keep in touch (and hopefully host her when she comes to visit the US, which will hopefully be within the next few years.)

This isn't the last blog about Belarus. There's so much still left to say, so many stories to tell, so many funny and heartbreaking realizations that I am still processing, 4 days after returning home.

Again, thank you so much to those of you who donated to the project and helped me to have this experience. It was most definitely something I will remember for a long, long time, and an experience I will treasure for the rest of my life.

Todah rabah, thank you, spa-si-bah--I can't say it enough.

Link to more pictures:

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