On the outskirts of Vilnius, tucked in a courtyard behind rows of gray Stalinist buildings, dozens of workers in paint-splattered overalls, frantically hammer away so that the only Jewish day school here will be ready to open in its new home Sept. 1.
“Last year there were 170 children. This year there will be 200,” says Misha Jakobas, the school’s director.
Vilnius’ first Jewish school in decades opened in 1989.
“We began with the first grade and added a grade every year. Now we have up to the seventh,” Jakobas says, beaming with pride as he shows off the new library and music room. “In five years we will be a complete high school.”
Because the institution is a Lithuanian state school, it accepts a range of students. A quarter of the children will not be Jewish.
But all the students – Jews and non-Jews alike – will study Jewish subjects, including Torah and the history of the Jewish people and Israel, for 10 hours each week. They will learn in Russian, Lithuanian, English, Hebrew and soon, Yiddish.
“This school has a great popularity in the city,” says Jakobas. “Everyone wants to come here because the quality is very high.”
“We prepare our pupils for life in Lithuania or in Israel,” he adds. “There is freedom now. The young people go where they want.”
An international effort has been under way to help the school. Israel’s Ministry of Education is helping train the teachers and sending a Hebrew teacher from Israel. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is assisting with the renovation and has denoted a library. ORT, the Organization for Rehabilitation and Training, sent a roomful of computers, and the Jewish community of Sweden contributed furniture and a minibus.
Although signs of Jewish revival in Vilnius such as this new school are glimmers of new Jewish life, they are also painful reminders of the past.
Before the Holocaust, 230,000 Jews lived in communities across Lithuania, 100,000 of them in Vilna, now called by the Lithuanian name Vilnius. Close to half of Vilna’s population was Jewish.
Today, some 7,000 Jews live throughout Lithuania, 4,500 of them in Vilnius. About half are elderly.
“More than 93 percent of the Jews in Lithuania were killed in the Holocaust,” says Simon Alperovich, president of the Jewish community of Lithuania. “After the German genocide came the Soviet spiritual genocide. All of our institutions, schools and newspapers, were closed.”
Where 111 synagogues and houses of prayer once attested to the Jewishness of the fabled city of Vilna and where more than 3,000 people gathered to pray inside the Great Synagogue alone, only one synagogue remains today.
The place where YIVO was created in 1925 as an academic institute devoted to Yiddish culture and literature is now the site of a few run-down shops.
The cobblestone streets of the old city that now again bear names such as Gaono Street and Zydu, or Jewish, Street bring to mind the Jewish life that flourished in this city once known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania.
“You can see that these homes were Jewish homes,” says Michel Montreuil, the JDC’s representative in Lithuania. “See the inner courtyard. Jews often lived in buildings like these so that they could lock the outside doors when there were pogroms.”
“The courtyard has entrances at either and so the Jews could escape out the back,” he adds.
Even the dead were not free from the destruction of Jewish life. Today, a public swimming pool is on the site of a 15th century Jewish cemetery.
Shabbat in Vilnius can be disturbing. There is no rabbi to conduct the service because Lithuania’s chief rabbi, Shmuel Kahn, lives in London and visits only occasionally.
The handful of people who came to pray on a recent Shabbat morning included two tourists who appeared to be lost.
There are, however, signs of revival.
An hour’s drive west of Vilnius, past deep green fields, grazing cows and picturesque wooden cottages, lies the resort town of Trakai.
Amid the rolling hills and deep blue lakes, in buildings meant to house vacationing factory workers, there is now a Lubavitch Jewish summer camp called Gan Israel, or Garden of Israel.
At the girls’ and boys’ camps, which run for three weeks, 120 children swim, hike, play sports and learn about what it means to be Jewish.
As Shabbat approaches, the young boys – some in yarmulkes, some in baseball caps – sing, sway and link arms.
The counselors, who have come to Lithuania from France, Israel and the United States, enthusiastically teach the children songs. Together they welcome in Shabbat, many for the very first time.
Rabbi Sholom Krinsky, 27, who came to live in Lithuania from Brooklyn a year ago, organized the camp. He is the nephew of Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a senior aide to the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson.
“The camp brought in a lot of new children who were never involved with the Jewish school or the Sunday school – kids who didn’t know there was any Jewish activity here,” Krinsky says.
Krinsky has also started a yeshiva, where 25 men and women study every weekday for a few hours, and a Sunday school for 80 children.
“There’s a lot of work to be done here,” Krinsky says. “Our goal is to find every Jew that exists here and let them know that being Jewish is something to be proud of.”
Montreuil says the number of young families who came to family-oriented activities was surprising.
“Everyone said there were hardly any people between the ages of 25 and 50, but when we have Jewish family events – such as an evening of klezmer music – close to 100 people came.”
But the future for this small Jewish community is uncertain.
“Four hundred or 500 Jews each year are leaving Lithuania for Israel or the United States or Germany,” says Alperovich, head of the Jewish community. “The young are leaving and the old are staying. But now, after independence, we have the possibility to establish a Jewish community here – to create new Jewish organizations.”