Riga is beautiful, of course full of a rich history, with absolute stunning buildings and architecture. Especially if you catch it during a somewhat sunny week – okay a little chilly, but it is still the Baltics.
For me Riga was full of more conversations and getting to the know people behind the programs. In terms of Jewish background, there is one synagogue still standing and the reason it survived the war was because it’s built so close to other buildings, a priest from a neighboring church convinced the Nazi’s that if they burned it (as they had all the other synagogues in town), it would catch fire to many more buildings. Legend has it that the priest saved the sefer Torah (the handwritten book of Torah) from being burned as well.
I’m not great at repeating the Latvian history here, but definitely take a minute to research if interested. It like many of the countries in this area has passed through many different regimes and complex governing systems. Additional to note, by the time Nazi Germany came to Latvia, the Soviets had already deported thousands of Latvians to Siberia or other places further East, so while this impacted the number of Jews sent to concentration camps, it also created a complicated relationship with and history with Russia.
On that note, let’s jump to Jewish life today in Riga and the wonderful people I met.
Most of the core Jewish life happens in one building which houses the JCC ( meeting rooms and a theatre), JDC, Chesed (Jewish Family Services), the Jewish Museum, BBYO, and a small kosher restaurant.
The JCC regularly plans programs for people from the ages of 2 to 65, I walked in while there was a senior group singing, and a Hebrew class taking place. In Riga the local language is Latvian, but you often hear Russian being spoken. There are many Jews who see Russian as their native tongue. Much of the programming done by the JCC is created by volunteers, there is a very small staff. This is significant as the strength of the programming, and ability to host events lies in having interested volunteers. A challenge as you have turnover and varying skill levels, on the other hand it’s wonderful to see how dedicated volunteers are to making sure programs and events happen.
Meeting the Teens
A highlight for me was the time I spent with a group of teens and young adults from Riga. Some are involved in their BBYO (B’nai Brith Youth Organization – youth group for Jewish teen) or Madricha (counselor) training. These teens spent over two hours talking with me. There were lots of great discussions back and forth, ranging from me sharing my experiences and about Jewish life in the states, to why they are involved, what being Jewish means to them, and what they see for their future. I was super impressed with them all. They asked really deep interesting questions, and seemed curious about life outside of Latvia. I was impressed beyond the fact that the majority of them speak at least three languages (Latvian, Russian, English), but the maturity of the conversation. One of the teens shared that while he didn’t grow up with much connection, his mom sent him to Jewish camp, with just the idea it was a good opportunity. He said he was able to find his voice and come out of his shell because of camp, and then becoming involved in the community. All these experiential experiences really do make an impact.
This experience reminded me also of what we may take for granted. The teens couldn’t believe when I shared that there were over 500 teens involved in just Detroit in BBYO chapters. (I don’t know today’s numbers but there were a lot of us involved when I was in high school.) In Riga they have a handful of teens attending their Friday night programs and involved. Learning about their experiences is a reminder that for these teens, these opportunities are fairly singular, they don’t have tons of options for finding Jewish community. They are constantly making the choice to be Jewish and to be involved, often their parents aren’t the ones pushing for them to be involved. Additionally you have to figure if they aren’t involved in these programs, it’s likely they are somewhat disconnected from being Jewish.
I was able to spend an afternoon with the Chesed programs, visiting three homes to check in on clients and drop off a box of matza in preparation for Pesach. For me this was so special. Especially the first woman we stopped in on. For some reason any time I am in these situations I always think of my own grandparents, and it really gets me on an emotional level. This first woman, is a newer client, does not receive Claims Conference money (money provided to Holocaust survivors), and is constrained to a wheel chair in an apartment she’s lived in for over 50 years. The apartment is on the second or third floor, and while she is provided state pension it only covers so much. She gets care only a few hours a week, and gets meals dropped off a few times a week. While her conditions aren’t the greatest, this woman had a beautiful smile. She generally seemed happy, aside from the challenges she has, she was just a beautiful happy soul.
When I was given a chance to ask her a question, I asked about some drawings that were all around the room. She had drawn them, and explained she had never taken art lessons but enjoyed doing it. They were wonderful and despite the language barrier I could see the little smile that she had when she talked about drawing.
Art makes or keeps people happy. It reminded me specifically of my grandma Alice – my mom’s mom, who learned to paint in her 70/80’s and to this day a whole bunch of us have Grandma Alice paintings hanging in our homes. (Okay, mine are currently in a box in my parent’s basement for the year.) The smile and joy from art really has no boundaries. In the Jewish Community building, Chesed also has an art studio where seniors come to take art classes. Again stepping into the space and seeing the spirit and happiness of the clients who were learning to paint touched and warmed my heart. It's always the little things.
We visited another elderly woman who does get funding assistance from the Claims Conference and was able to see a difference in the community’s ability to provide care. This woman has 40 hour a week care, with someone available every day to help with meals and mobility. It's definitely a growing challenge in these communities where some of the elderly have in the past had access to resources because of the Claims Conference and reparations money. But the current aging population are people who are not able to access this money (often they are a touch young, born just after the war), but are in similar financial and medical situations as their peers or generation just a bit older than them. How can we care for one another as the challenges grow and the resources do not?
The third home we visited was of a mother and her two children aged 11 and 6, the mother has medical difficulties that make her bedridden and it difficult to care for her children. In this case, the community is able to provide some help, but they only found out about her from her doctor; who, knowing she was Jewish and could use extra help, made the connection. In this home it’s clear the 11 year old is taking on much more than he should at his age. But yet again art shows hope, as he has started to sell some of his artwork to make money to help out. He was eager to show and share his paintings, he likes watercolors.
With so many challenges at home, and the preteen having to care for his younger brother and mother, the community provides what they can in terms of services, but it’s not a lot. The hope would be to also find a way to get a child like this to camp this summer, or both kids. This visit reminded me at the core that these issues and challenges exist in every community. Sometimes the people who can most use some of these things we take for granted are the people who have the biggest challenges to get there.
Along with seeing the city, working and connecting with a young student from Germany studying in Riga at a new favorite tea shop, exploring the huge market, and actually making some running progress (only to be forgotten here in Israel), Riga was interesting. But not over.
My weekend in Riga was spent at the Baltic Jewish Network conference. This is a conference for young Jewish professionals from the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), and a few from Belarus and Russia, to come together for a weekend to network, learn, and engage with one another. By the way, the entire conference was in Russian. I had two other English speakers with me, both happen to be Hungarian, but it was quite the adventure. Despite the language challenge, I learned through one-on-one conversations with participants: about Jewish identities, why they attend the conference, how this conference is about being Jewish, and how they see their own futures.
Again an experience only a few days long, but challenged myself around topics like what it means to be Jewish, how one is Jewish, where do you start when teaching Jewish, and what does belonging to any community actually mean. In looking at why this conference is put on, who runs it, who funds it, and what opportunities exist for the future, to questioning why does it matter, who am I to make any judgement or think about improvements to a conference that a community is putting on itself – I walked away with many more questions than potential answers.
I capped off my weekend by walking across bridges, and relaxing in a coffee shop, catching up on emails and work. It was great to be around people, and despite the fact I didn’t always understand what what was happening remembered that conferences can be filled with learning but also tiring!
So Riga was a lot about the people and the richness that conversations can bring to the experience. Overall a great way to really end my “Eastern European Journey”.
As always more to come on what’s next.