Our magical Shabbat in Vilnius

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In line with Lita Lives’ vision of bringing life to Lithuanian Jewry, a group of about 15 Jewish men and women recently travelled to Vilna for the last weekend in October. The aim of the trip was for guests to experience a five-star, Glatt Kosher Shabbat in Vilnius - or as it used to be more commonly known in English as Vilna - once the vibrant home to the ancestors of the majority of South African Jews.
by MENDI KATZ | Nov 04, 2015

Simultaneously, Lita Lives - an organisation that aims to bring awareness and support for the Lithuanian Jewish community from Lithuanian descendants worldwide - made use of the trip to bring the concept of the worldwide Shabbos Project, initiated by South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, to the Lithuanian Jewish community.

On Thursday afternoon, October 22, we touched down in a cold and cloudy Vilnius. There was little time to spare once we had checked in to the magnificent Kempinski Hotel. Vilnius’ very first Challah Bake would begin early that same evening.

A larger than expected crowd of 80 women and girls arrived with great excitement. Ladies from the Lita Lives group joined for an undeniably meaningful and inspiring unity event.

Early Friday morning we set off for Kovno (Kaunas), just over an hour’s drive from Vilnius. Some of our guests enjoyed visiting the location of the Slabodka Yeshiva and other family-connected sites. We visited the headquarters of Stumbras, the oldest and largest producer of alcoholic drinks in Lithuania. Their renowned, state-of-the-art museum was fascinating.

To top off the chilly, rainy morning’s experience, a round of l’chaims was in order - we were treated to an exclusive tasting of the region’s finest.

As Shabbos drew nearer, the women lit candles and we made our way to the Vilnius Choral Synagogue - the only active synagogue that survived both the Holocaust and Soviet rule. Surrounded by the regal architecture, it was powerful and moving for us to join in singing the same Friday night tunes we have grown accustomed to in South Africa.

The realisation was truly striking: that despite the horrors and incredible hardships of the past, Shabbos is still being celebrated in our beloved Lita!

At our Friday night dinner, we had the honour of hosting the mayor of Vilnius, Remigius Šimašius and his wife, as well as the Israeli ambassador to Lithuania, Amir Maimon. Both spoke of their joy at attending the festive Shabbos meal, as well as their important, positive views on Lithuania’s Jews.

The dinner continued late into the night with delicious cuisine, Shabbat songs and uplifting talks from several members of our group.

On Shabbat day, we joined Chabad of Lithuania at their wonderful facility. Rabbi Sholom Ber Krinsky and his wife, along with several of their community members, graciously hosted us for a beautiful lunch. We learned of the shluchim’s tireless countrywide efforts over the more than two decades since they arrived.

Camps, kosher food supply, Chevrah Kadisha work, Jewish education for all ages, saving and housing children from precarious and dangerous backgrounds or homes, housing a fully functional boarding school, are to name but a few of the Chabad projects.

For the later hours of Shabbos day, we had an informative walking tour of the Jewish highlights of Vilnius which included strolling through the streets once walked by many Talmudic greats and seeing visible remnants of what was the epicentre of “The Jerusalem of the North”. It was heart warming and moving.

Minutes after Shabbat ended and Havdalla had been sung, many of the group’s participants found themselves in a small Vilnius pub, surrounded by South African and New Zealand rugby fans, as the World Cup semi-final drew to a nail-biting close. Although our Springbok hopes had been dashed, a spirited, uplifting dinner awaited back at the hotel.

A gourmet braai had been prepared with outstanding entertainment by Jewish Lithuanian musician Misha Jablonskis. The hotel hall was filled with the sounds of shtetl classics, Yiddish Fiddler On The Roof hits and several nostalgic song requests from the guests. The ambience was exciting yet emotional as memories were evoked.

By Sunday morning, we all began going our separate ways as we made our respective journeys from the heim, back home. Due to popular demand, we have already started working on our next trip to Lita.

Vilnius pulses with an incredible energy and almost enigmatic atmosphere. It is a First World cosmopolitan city that has a very unique, almost contagious vibe. The Jews of Lithuania and Judaism in the country, are also very much alive. That being said, the Jewish community there still needs the concern and involvement of Lithuanian descendants worldwide. Lita Lives aims to fulfil this necessity - actively ensuring that Jewish Lithuania doesn’t just remain alive, but can grow and flourish once more.


1 Comment

  1. 1 Choni 04 Nov
    What a load of rubbish. Lita and all of European Jewry is "dead". For the last 67 years Jews have got their own state after 2000 years of (cruel) exile. Why bring to life a dying community in exilic cemeteries.
    Every effort must be made to bring our people in exile home to their own Land. (and that includes S.Africa)


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