It had been two weeks in Vilnius, Lithuania, and we were sitting in a circle, situated among insects and pointed grass. Silent tears crept from people’s eyes and were wiped away as quickly as they fell. People were expressing their gratitude; people were saying goodbye. One of the Israeli students raised her hand to share, “Before TALAVI (one of The Jewish Federation’s GTTP school clusters), I wasn’t so sure of my Judaism. My mother is Jewish and my father is not. At home, we aren’t Jewish, we are Israeli. I was scared that my dad would not want me to be a part of this program. I was worried that I would have to go home and tell him something he did not want to hear. But I know that I will go home and tell him how I feel. I am a Jew.” She shrugged and smiled sheepishly. Teachers made blurry eye contact. This is why we do what we do. After our closing circle, I went over to hug her. Smiling, I said, “Thank you. Thank you for telling us about your dad — that must have been tough.” She responded by saying, “Yes, but I have been thinking it for a while.”
Saying goodbye to the people who have experienced the most impactful moments of your life with you is hard. Who else can understand what it felt like to put on a service at Panerai, a mass grave site where thousands of Lithuanian Jews were shot? The stifling weight of silence that consumes our group as we enter the forest? The tall, thin tree trunks that permeate the ground — too beautiful for what they have seen? Who else will remember the reverberating power of the Hatikva, the swaying and tears and music? The soft cry of a group of older Israeli tourists, proud and humbled by our song? Their music and arms tangling with ours, shooting hope over the branches and out into the universe.
Goodbye is also a farewell to the country. A country that has been gifted with independence for only 29 years and still relishes its freedom each day. Vilnius, once called the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” now has only two synagogues, one of which is under construction. This is a place where being a Jew is a frightful blessing — you are part of the three percent that was not killed in the Holocaust. Even those who survived still live quietly because being Jewish is not something to openly celebrate. It is a fraction of your person, hidden by layers of nationalistic pride that overshadows Jewish pride. The same goes for the Israeli students; they are always Israeli before Jewish. But when the question is posed to the Americans, we all answer in the same way: We are Jews before Americans. This is a revelation built upon the privilege to practice Judaism however we want, coupled with a more complicated sense of national pride.
Over the past six months, through the delegations in L.A. and in Vilnius, the most powerful takeaway has been how fortunate we are to be Jews in L.A. Here, I now see the flexibility in Judaism and acceptance. My new friends from Israel and Lithuania don’t go to synagogue and they don’t celebrate Hanukkah with songs, lights, and parties the way we do. America may have commercialized religion in an unappealing way, but it also makes it more inviting. When we sat in a circle on the floor of the Santa Monica Synagogue, commemorating the delegation’s end with a circle very similar to that in Vilnius, there was one thing our guests kept saying. They loved the way we celebrate the joy, community, and acceptance. They loved being Jewish in Los Angeles.