I can’t believe it’s been three days working and restoring the cemetery. In just the past few days the amount of work done from such a resilient team has been unbelievable. With the strong diversity of the team we have all come together with our own strengths to surface buried tomb stones, stand them up right, and clean them off for visitors to read and pay respect to Jewish families who have been laid to rest for hundreds of years. The communication between the students while working together and the passion to give back to a devoted community has been extremely motivational for me. Today was really special because we finished putting up the beautiful iron fence, which surrounds the cemetery. Farms surround the cemetery and without the fence it is very possible that farm animals and even human life could prevent the cemetery from being preserved. While we understand that Lithuanian winters and strong weather patterns the tombstones will not stay upright for tens of years but the iron fence will do justice to what is deserved of the many lives that impacted the surrounding community.
Today was also a big day for a few visitors to stop by and see the service work that the team has put in this week. In the morning the vice-minister of culture, who we met in Vilnius at his office on Friday, visited us and complimented us on the beautiful work we have been doing. He thanked us for the dedication we bring to Lithuania to restore Jewish tradition so that lives will not be forgotten for generations to come. In the afternoon we were honored to have the Israeli Ambassador to Lithuania and his team visit us and talk to us. He first asked us about what we were studying and the expectations we had before coming to visit Lithuania and our expectations we had for him. He shared with us his story before he became appointed and his commitment to hold strong ties between Jewish history in Lithuania and those who live in Israel. I did not know that he was the first Ambassador and that there was not an Israeli Embassy in Lithuania until the beginning of last year. While he was very short and direct with us at the cemetery it was really nice that he came to visit us after at our lodge for a sit down talk over tea and cookies. One thing he said that I really liked was that it is so important, and our duty as humans, to give back to communities around the world who need a hand. Even though most of our team is not Jewish it really doesn’t matter what our faith is because ultimately we all deserve the same respect and dignity especially in a cemetery. It was really nice that he read and translated a tombstone that we cleaned off today in Hebrew. He ended our conversation by thanking us and telling us that any day someone does something to preserve Jewish tradition is a good day. It felt really nice to know that an international government official spent a few hours with us and shared what his efforts are to set an example to Lithuanians to do more to embrace the rich Jewish customs that have influenced Lithuanian culture.
We enjoyed a nice home cooked Lithuanian meal with soup and excellent fish for dinner. Afterward, we all embraced eastern European culture and spent some quality bonding time in the sauna, which felt great to relax and recover from a long day. Tomorrow, I’m really looking forward to continue finishing up restoring the cemetery and in the afternoon meet our host families, which will be hosting the team for one night. It’s crazy how fast the trip has been going and the amount of cultural history I’ve learned that has greatly impacted my understanding of Eastern Europe culture and especially Jewish history. This trip is one I will remember for years to come and I can’t wait to bring the memories and stories back to the United States!