All roads lead from Rome


20 May 2009 All roads lead from Rome A whirlwind tour of the Baltic States by a group of 20 teenagers from Rome is the first of what is hoped to be an annual trip to forge links between the ORT school in the Italian capital and ORT schools across Europe. The 16-year-olds from the ORT Renzo Levi School in Romes historic Ghetto were accompanied by their Principal, Rav Benedetto Carucci, on the week-long tour of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. I wanted them to see what was once the Jerusalem of Europe, the sites of some giants of Talmudic commentary, Rav Carucci said. But they saw and experienced that and much more. It was a truly exceptional experience for all of us. The Italian group toured major historic and cultural sites in and around Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius including the shtetl of Kedan, the grave of Gaon Rabbi Eliayahu, the Kovne ghetto, the Klooga concentration camp, the mass graves in the Rumbula Forest and at Ponar, and the town of Trakai, which was a centre of Karaite culture 400 years ago. A key feature of the trip was visiting the Jewish schools in Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius, all of which are part of the World ORT network. It was very important for us to see other Jewish ORT schools, to see what they do, how they do it and to meet our fellow Jews, said Rav Carucci. There was a lot of exchanging of email addresses and, on the request of my students, I am preparing a videoconference with the Shalom Aleichem School in Vilnius so that they can discuss further their thoughts and feelings about the visit. Rav Carucci has also been asked to do some Hebrew lessons using the videoconferencing equipment installed by World ORT as part of a network linking 26 locations in 11 countries. The network was made possible by the generosity of British businessman David Gradel who wants to reinforce to Jewish communities around the world that they are not alone they are part of something bigger. The teenagers transcended the language barrier using the English and Hebrew they learn at their respective schools and quickly formed friendships. The Principal of the ORT Shalom Aleichem School, Misha Yakobas, said: Our students put on a dance show for our Italian guests and in the end everyone was dancing. It was amazing. We are all the same, we are all Jews and this experience united us into one big ORT family. The Italians toured the school and learned about the Yiddish writer Shalom Aleichem after whom it was named. And with their new found friends they toured the Jewish sites of Vilnius, discussed the history and future of Jews in light of the Holocaust, and celebrated Shabbat. Such visits are very important for all of us, Mr Yakobas said. They expand the world view of our students, exercise their sense of responsibility and tolerance and deepen our understanding that we are part of the Jewish nation. Similar sentiments were expressed by the Principal of the Dubnov Jewish School in Riga, Gregory Bikson. It was well worth seeing how actively the students spoke to each other and how interested they were in making new relationships; it was as if they had known each other for years, Mr Bikson said. Such meetings are living proof for our students that the Jews really are one family and can find a common language despite our differences. Rav Carucci said his students were surprised by how much they had in common with their peers in the Baltics in terms of popular culture and found the religious differences thought provoking. Our students, like those they met on the tour, are traditionally observant but they noticed some differences in how Jewish culture was expressed. Like the Jewish community of Rome, the Jewish communities in the Baltic States have a long history but my students noticed that their peers often did not share their experience of having parents and grandparents who are knowledgeable about Judaism. World ORT and ORT Italy contributed towards the cost of the tour but most of the funding came from the students themselves who each paid 1,000 for a place. Parents were prepared to pay such a sum because they could see that this was something very special, Rav Carucci said. No-one from our community goes to the Baltic so no-one knows anything about the communities there. Our students were like ambassadors for Roman Jewry. I would like to host groups from the schools we visited and to run similar trips to ORT schools across Europe, particularly Eastern Europe, every year. To build links between Jewish students would be very interesting for us.