ORT UK builds a bridge between London and Vilnius

Two groups of Jewish children, one British the other Litvak, have spent a weekend together building friendships and deepening their understanding of what it means to be Jewish as part of ORT UK’s new Bar/Bat Mitzvah Programme.

The Shabbaton in Vilnius was the first physical meeting of 10 of the 13 children from north London and their 20 “twins” at the ORT Sholom Aleichem School who have been learning online together in preparation for their bar and bat mitzvahs.

The project’s initiator, Anthea Jackson, who is responsible for ORT UK’s Business Development and Community Outreach, accompanied her son, Ben, on the trip.

“I’ve returned feeling incredibly proud as a parent and feel even more connected to my heritage as a Jewish mother of a bar mitzvah boy,” Ms Jackson said. “It was so wonderful to meet Ben’s ‘twins’ along with their families and to sing, dance and celebrate with them.”

Adding meaning to a bar mitzvah

In Vilnius, the visitors toured the ORT school’s impressive new buildings and campus and discussed how ORT is helping the local Jewish community with Principal Misha Jakobas and the Head of World ORT’s Representative Office for the CIS, Central Asia, Caucasian States and Baltic States, David Benish. 

At the statue of the Vilna Gaon. 

“It was truly great to see the work that ORT does in Lithuania and find out a lot more first-hand about why they do what they do and how they go about it,” said Ms Jackson’s husband, Mark. “It was also a great opportunity to reflect and, hopefully, make Ben’s bar mitzvah have more meaning for him.”

The visitors also enjoyed looking around the Choral Synagogue with Chief Rabbi Kalev Krelin, touring the city’s historic Jewish neighbourhoods, and visiting the Karaite museum and walking across the frozen lakes of Trakai. At Ponary, where the Germans and Lithuanian collaborators murdered 70,000 Jews, as well as 30,000 Poles, Russians and others, the students read out poems, sang Hatikva and lit candles.

A bridge of communication

ORT UK’s programme has provided the ‘twins’ with monthly sessions in which they learn about community, family history, self-identification, and Eastern European cookery – and share information with each other about themselves and their respective communities and traditions.

Months of learning together online transformed into the building of real friendships.

Algis Davidavicius, whose son, Simon, is one of the participants in the programme at ORT Sholom Aleichem School was enthusiastic about the programme.

“This is a great opportunity for a sociable boy like my son,” he said. “It provides a good framework for young people from our communities to build an international bridge of communication.”

ORT Sholom Aleichem Gymnasium moved into a centrally located building in 2015 after it had been fully renovated and equipped thanks to public funding and World ORT. What started as a Sunday school teaching Hebrew, Yiddish, and Jewish history and tradition to a few dozen children and adults soon after Lithuania became independent in 1989 is now considered one of the best schools in Lithuania. It has 318 students who learn computer programming, robotics and graphic design in addition to the national curriculum and Jewish subjects. The new premises has increased its capacity to 350.