When 7 of my classmates and I stepped off the plane in the Minsk airport after a mere 40 minute flight from Vilnius, it felt like we had stepped into a time warp (maybe that was surprisingly fitting as the last season of Mad Men premiered that night). It was pretty much exactly what you’d expect: old, and Soviet. We had already gotten our mandatory visas which we needed to enter the country, and in the airport purchased compulsory health insurance, and received papers that we needed to carry around with us, which were stamped by each of the hotels we visited so our location could be tracked at all times.
The city of Minsk itself, though, was pretty modern. Prices were relatively expensive, people had impeccable taste in clothing, and there were efficient bus and Metro systems. There was again a juxtaposition: we were in the last remaining Soviet country, where certain freedoms are still limited, yet it seemed as though the city could have fit right in anywhere in Europe.
Our first outing was a Jewish tour of Minsk with the Rabbi of the Belarus Union of Progressive Judaism. Though he is based in Minsk, we were informed that he serves all of the Progressive Jewish communities in the country, many of which have only known him as Rabbi, and the only other professional Jewish leaders they’ve experienced have been HUC students like us. We saw a powerful Holocaust memorial in the middle of the city, which kind of ironically served as a meeting place for Jewish singles when they came to stand around for protests or speeches. That evening, we attended an “afta-Purim” party sponsored by the Israeli government, complete with propaganda videos proclaiming Israel’s beauty, Belorussian teens in their costume finest, and a battle of the bands which even included some Jewish tunes played with electric guitars.
The next day, after being briefed on our itineraries and having some time to plan for Seders, we attended a seder in the Center for Progressive Judaism geared towards a community called “Sheket (Quiet)”, composed of deaf and hard of hearing people. The Seder ended up being a combination of Russian, English, Hebrew and sign language, which was fascinating. The Rabbi lead most of it, but each of us had a little bit to do. Afterwards, a professional musician who spoke English came up to us and made conversation, which resulted in an impromptu Hebrew song session with a few of the other attendees. I experienced my first sensation that, difficult as it is to communicate with people of another generation who speak a completely different language, Hebrew was a common factor, and we could all sing the same songs, even though we came from different places and times.
The next day, we split into smaller groups to break off and travel to various communities for more Seders. I was with my classmates Julie and Sam. We rode a van, similar to an Israeli sheirut, to Lida, a little over two hours away. We managed to find a place for lunch with something we could eat, and then were treated to a “tour” of Lida by a member of the Jewish community, which consisted of her showing us pictures of former Jewish institutions in our hotel room, and then walking around the streets of town for about 15 minutes before she departed us because she was close to home. Lida is a small and quiet town, where, our interpreter informed us, everything closes around 5pm. We then headed to the Cultural Center, where the Jewish community is based, because they do not have their own building. We attended a concert by a state-funded Klezmer band, which consisted of the Chair of the Jewish community incredibly playing violin, another person playing clarinet, a singer and a recorded track to supplement them. After about an hour and a half of speeches and alternating Yiddish, Hebrew and instrumental songs, we moved to the Seder. There were about 40-50 people there, of all ages. Although the Rabbi from Belarus was attending the seder, it was mainly up to Julie, Sam and I to lead it. Figuring out what to do at Seders was challenging for a number of reasons: the most basic was that they were in a different language. We used a Russian-Hebrew haggadah, and everything we said had to be translated for the group by our incredible interpreter. There were also three of us coming from different backgrounds and traditions, so we had to figure out a way to combine all of our knowledge into a cohesive Seder. Also, we did not know too much about the communities, and had to judge both beforehand and in the spur of the moment how to reach everyone, including kids, senior citizens, people who had never been to a Seder before and people who know everything backwards and forwards. We had to make the Seder familiar and engaging, continuing the consistent traditions they were used to while also hopefully teaching them some new things.
It was really difficult not to be able to communicate with the guests at the Seder, especially in Lida where pretty much no one spoke English. We had to communicate through food, which they kept passing to me and gesturing for me to put on my plate. There was chicken and potatoes, matzah sandwiches with chicken and turkey, mushrooms, chopped liver, vegetables and layered matzah dessert cake, which seems to be a thing in Belarus. The kids at the Seder were adorable and sung the Four Questions and Dayenu in a little chorus. It was really a beautiful and inspirational thing to see these tiny communities gathering together and renewing themselves through the holiday, especially after touring through devastating, empty Jewish sites for the past week.
After the Seder, we found the one thing that was open in town: a bowling alley! Julie and our interpreter and I decided to play a couple of games. Our interpreter, Anna, came with us everywhere we went, since basically no one speaks English. She was so nice and knowledgeable, and it was a pleasure traveling with her.
The next day, we headed to Baranovichy on a commuter train. Baranovichy was a little more modern and felt bigger than Lida. We again found a place to eat lunch and then were given a tour by a member of the Jewish community; this time the four of us were crammed into the back of a car where the space was meant for three people. Luckily, we had many chances to get out and walk. We saw the Holocaust memorial, which included some plaques and a tall bell that rings when its windy. We also saw a Soviet war memorial and the prison, a Jewish graveyard, and where the former Jewish ghetto used to be. The Seder that night was a little smaller than the previous nights, and was held in their homy Jewish center. There were three distinct tables; some older people, some people about our age, and of course, a kids’ table. We again had the challenge of engaging everyone, and this community was incredibly knowledgeable. Many of them, especially the younger ones, spoke English, so we got to talk with them a little bit after the Seder. It was again so awesome to see this tiny community come together for the holiday, and share their passion for Judaism with us.
The next day, we headed back to Minsk. We had lunch with the Jewish educator of the Union, and then she took us to a kindergarten. We visited the two Jewish classes, and got to participate in their art (we made happy matzahs with construction paper) and music lessons (we danced in a circle to Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian songs). The Educator explained to us that the school runs from 7am-7pm, so kids practically live there; they have all their meals there, take naps, and do all their schooling. The teachers switch off and each work 6 hour shifts. I was awed both by the way the school functions and also by the abundant presence of Judaism. There were Passover decorations all around, Jewish books on the shelves, and ritual items scattered throughout the rooms. The kids enthusiastically discussed the story of Passover with their teacher and seemed to be really engaged with it. It was incredible.
After that, we walked around Minsk a lot with Anna and went shopping. Then Julie and I got a couple of hours of sleep and were off to the airport! As we attempted to check into our flight, which had a layover in Moscow, at 4:30am, we were told that because we did not have Russian visas, we could not take our flight. After a few moments of confusion and panic, we managed to both cancel our flights and get refund papers for the travel agent, and find the one out of three airlines in the building that could get us back to Tel Aviv that day. We had a very nice experience on Lufthansa, got to have Starbucks in the Frankfurt Airport, and landed back in Israel only two hours after we were originally scheduled to! Always an adventure.
This was an incredible and powerful experience, and I am really glad to have gone. It was interesting to spend a holiday of freedom in a Soviet country where freedoms we take for granted are limited. It felt like I was putting myself back in a narrow place, going somewhere where it was much more difficult to observe Passover than America or Israel (we ate a lot of potatoes) and somewhere where I was completely helpless to do anything by myself since I did not know the language. This trip widened my perspective about Jewish people, showing me how even in the middle of nowhere, Belarus, there are still people singing Dayenu and telling our peoples stories. I feel lucky that I got to share my Judaism with them and that they shared theirs with me.