Who would have thought that a random Google search in 2013 would bring me half way around the world to the Baltics and Finland, two places I would have never dreamed of visiting before? Even more surprising is that I would discover Jewish life in these places to be thriving and hear stories of perseverance, strength, and the embrace of Jewish identity despite troubled histories.
But that experience did happen and I was fortunate that last month I joined with a group of young Jewish professionals to make our way to Finland and Estonia as part of a JDC Entwine Insider trip. Entwine is the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s initiative focusing on young Jewish leaders, influencers and advocates who want to make an impact on Jewish needs and international humanitarian issues. The organization does this through service trips, educational opportunities and leadership development.
There were 12 of us participating, and we were joined by a JDC Entwine professional who leads every trip. The group was diverse in terms of place of origin, age, gender and Jewish observance. I was the only person from the Midwest and I appreciated the opportunity to meet people from across the United States.
After leaving from New York, our first stop was Helsinki, the capital of Finland, often known as “the white city of the north” because of the number of buildings built with a local light-colored granite. Prior to the trip, I had almost no knowledge about the local Jewish community and its unique history. Founded by Jews from Russia’s Pale of Settlement who had been forced into the Russian army, the Jewish community gained full civil rights in 1917 when Finland gained its independence. The Jewish community survived the horrors of World War II, and as we learned when we volunteered at the Jewish cemetery in Helsinki, many Jews fought in the Finnish Army, oftentimes next to German soldiers, against the Soviets. The community’s synagogue, painted in beautiful green and blue and adorned with golden stars, is filled with tributes to the community’s history.
In addition to impactful visits to Jewish sites and a visit to Suomenlinna, a sea fortress that spans over six islands and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we got to experience Jewish life today. We spent many festive meals engaging with young professionals from the Finnish Jewish community — eating more salmon than I ever had in my life — and visited with residents at an old-age home and talked to them about their lives.
In Finland, education is superb and the government takes great care of its citizens. The Jewish community is strong and well respected, but it struggles with the same kinds of challenges we do here in the United States: ensuring the future and finding support for its activities.
From Finland, we traveled to Tallinn, Estonia, a city noted for its medieval buildings in a country with one of the fastest growing economies, despite setbacks, in Europe.
Estonian Jews have a very different history. Estonia was the only country in Europe declared Judenfrei, free of Jews, by the Nazis during the Holocaust. In 1941, all Jews had been forced to flee the country, and those who stayed were executed. After the war, Soviet Jews immigrated to Estonia, although there was no formal Jewish activity allowed under Soviet rule. In the 1980s, the Jewish community created the Jewish Cultural Society in Tallinn giving rise to the small community found today. With support from JDC, Chabad, and other groups, the community has blossomed.
Our first day in Tallinn coincided with the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the new local synagogue. It was a big party, with renowned guests such as the president of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid, the chief Rabbi of Israel, David Lau, and Ariel Klas, the wife of late composer Eri Klas. It was an amazing opportunity to help celebrate the presence of the Jewish community in Estonia, and being together as a group, we experienced try bonding.
During our time there, we baked challot and painted candleholders that we delivered to needy elderly Jews in the city. Split into small groups, and accompanied by a translator who spoke Russian, we went to do our home visits. I visited Elya, a 93-year-old who had lived through the Leningrad Blockade in Russia. She was a nurse and then became a doctor. After the war, she moved to Estonia and now lives alone in a modest apartment in Tallinn. The community visits her weekly and she cherishes those moments. The translator did a good job of sharing the conversation with all of us present. I felt as if I understood everything that Elya was saying. Someone from the group asked her what was her message to our generation. She said: “Don’t forget that you are a Jew.”
During the rest of our time in Tallinn we visited the Jewish kindergarten and celebrated Shabbat as a group with Jewish young adults, many who participate in JDC programs focused on Jewish identity and culture. I attended services the next morning at the beautiful synagogue. I sat in the women’s balcony, and a young woman helped me find the siddur in English. When I said goodbye, the woman gestured that I should stay for lunch. And although I had to leave, I left feeling happy that, wherever I go, Jews are always the same.
We also engaged with the community’s madrichim, teenagers who volunteer to be trained to do programming with Jewish children. This group was full of positive energy and really cares to be part of the Jewish community.
During the trip, it was not just the local Jews with whom we formed strong bonds. We also forged ties among ourselves. I tended to join a woman who really liked to explore the cities we were visiting, and knew a lot about Tallinn.
I never expected anyone to be so excited about visiting Estonia, so when I asked her about this she explained that her family came from Tallinn. Her great-grandfather and grandparents were buried at the Jewish cemetery. She had never been to Estonia, and wanted to go to the cemetery, but her parents told her to not go alone.
So I joined her. When we got to the cemetery, we had to follow directions that her father gave her, but we still had to walk through most of the small cemetery to find them. Both of us read Russian, but I worried we might not find the graves as a lot of stones had the names eroded. As I walked through one of the paths, I heard my friend call my name. She had found the tombstones. I stood next to her as she placed rocks on each. This, to me, was the most special part of the trip. My friend came back to her roots, and I was very glad I could accompany her during this special moment.
By the time we returned to New York, my heart felt so full, and my mind had truly expanded. Wanting to share that experience with others, I am going to host an event for young adults who want to learn more about these trips, and how to get involved with the JDC Entwine.
Gaby Szteinberg is a Project Coordinator of General Chemistry Supplemental Programs at Washington University in St. Louis. She is involved with local Jewish young adult organizations, and is passionate about traveling and learning languages. For more information about JDC Entwine, contact Gaby at firstname.lastname@example.org.