New Conversations

Every conversation is the start of a new adventure. A simple 'Hello' has more potential and impact than many of us think. It is the start of new dialogue, a new encounter, a new relationship. Make it meaningful!

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С Новым Годом! Happy New Years!

For new years I invited some friends from the community to celebrate in my apartment.  We ate, sang and danced as we rang in the new year.  We celebrated the new year in Moscow, Riga and I skyped with family and friends during the Detroit new year.  We ventured out into the city center to the monument of freedom.  Along the way there were so many fireworks it sounded like we were in a war zone.  It was very loud and very bright!  We arrived at the monument of freedom and were met by thousands of people on the streets celebrating.  There were fireworks, lights, music, and even kongming lanterns…it was an amazing site! (Video posted above)

It is customary to give gift on New Years and to decorate a New Years Tree.

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Clips from the Chanukah Caravan 2011 concert at the Riga Jewish Community.  Please excuse the video quality.  For more, please read the post below.

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The Maccabees effort to end their plight sent them into war against Antiochus and his followers.  They fought for their freedom and they fought for their religion.  The Maccabees defeated their enemies in a miracle victory and restored Judaism back to the land. 

 Post-World War II Europe has seen similar challenges in the rebuilding of Jewish communities.  Each community is unique and has dedicated individuals just like the Maccabees.  However, each community is connected through their ubiquity in the fight for the growth of their community and their Judaism.   

Here in Riga, the community has developed a sense of culture and peoplehood that the local community has rallied around.  During Chanukah, the Community puts on a Chanukah Caravan, which draws the Jewish people from all over by putting on an array of programming for every one of all ages.  Other Jewish communities - Daugaupils, Jekabpils, Liepaja, Ventspils - came to Riga and participated in the Chanukah celebrations.    

On the 5th night of Chanukah after Shabbat, 170 people gathered into the large ornate theatre and sat down in anticipation for a night of singing and dancing.  The Executive Director of the Community, Gita Umanovska, emceed the event and welcomed everyone to the concert.  Havdallah was said communally and the large Chanukiah was lit.  The lights dimmed and the concert began.  The Israel singing group, Kinnor, came out on stage and sang a variety of songs from traditional Jewish songs, Yiddish songs, and even a selection of songs from the Fiddler on the Roof.  Cantor Shulamit Resnick accompanied Kinnor during the performance.  Cantor Resnick, a native to Riga, is a celebrated concert vocalist, amongst other occupations.  Her beautiful singing moved the audience and evoked emotions and memories of being in synagogue during a major Jewish holiday.   The local Israeli dance troupe, Eilat, added their own unique flair and performed traditional Israeli dances with a modern twist.  One of their dances told a story about life in pre-World War I Eastern Europe.   The energy and showmanship between the groups made for an exciting night without a stale moment on stage.

The next day there was an encore performance that drew a large crowd and was just as lively.  The Chanukah Caravan picked up and traveled to a neighboring town, Jurmala, for a third performance by Kinnor and Eilat, attended by 90 people.  That night, a program for young adults at a small club brought together a variety of people from around the community.  Everyone had a great time playing games, chatting or enjoying the lounge musicians.  Traditional Chanukah food was plentiful and holiday spirits were high. 

The local teens celebrated Chanukah and a successful first half of the year with a discothèque.  There was plenty of fun had by all with music, food and dancing.  They even played endurance dreidel, similar to the Major League Dreidel style of play.  The youth programming volunteers and coordinators enjoyed a small party at my apartment.  They first lit Chanukah candles before playing a Chanukah game.  The game consisted of trivia, charades and other interactive activities.  The trivia varied in difficulty with questions about the dreidel, Judith, the Maccabees and Hilchot Chanukah (Laws of Chanukah).   After, they socialized and enjoyed the downtime with each other.

Photo Descriptions

Top: Myself and other community members lighting the large Chanukiah

Second Row: Posters I made for the Chanukah Caravan concerts

Third Row: Kinnor (left) and Eilat (Right)

Bottom Row, Left: Myself and Gita before I lead Havdallah

Bottom Row, Middle: Our version of the MLD Spinagogue

Bottom Row, Right: My environmentally sustainable Chanukiah.  I made it using water, olive oil, cups, twine, and tin foil.  This is where I got the idea. 

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Adventure’s with Luke, Part 2

Luke and I left the Rundale Palace (see post below), and got on a small bus that took us back to Bauska and then onto Riga.  We arrived at the bus station and ran through the twists and turns of the central market to make our way to the train station.  Gasping for air, we asked the woman at the ticket office when the next train to Darzini was to leave.  She looked at her clock, and said, “4 minutes.”  Of course we went for it.  We got the tickets and dashed for the platform.  We arrived at platform 6 and jumped on the train.  Luke quickly asked the other passengers if this was the right train.  But as he did, the train started moving.  My first thought was, “I am going to have to jump off this train.”  But thankfully it was the right train, and Luke and I gave each other a celebratory hug. We got off at the Darzini stop to find nothing but a small boarded up building and forest.  

We made our trek though the pine forest to our final destination, the Salaspils concentration camp.  (for a virtual tour click here.)  The largest concentration camp in the Baltics, it had 12,000 Latvian and political prisoners.  A large concrete block marked the entrance to the memorial.  On the block, in large black letters reads (originally in Latvian) ‘the earth moans behind the gate’.  Today, the only presence of the original concentration camp are the large forest clearing and the concrete foundations.  Luke and I walked around the large pebble track in silence, except for the sound a soft metronome ticking like an immortal heartbeat.  

After some reflection and stone placing, Luke and I left the memorial to try and catch the next train.  To ensure that we got to the train stop on time, we started to run on the tracks.  In the back of my mind I kept thinking, “I think I have seen this movie before.”  Though it was funny in my head, little did I know that my thought would become reality.  I turned around and I see a train about 600 meters behind us.  I tell Luke, and we start running faster.  We need to make this train to get back in time and the tracks are the only level surface to run on.  After some time I realize what we are doing I jump off track and tell Luke to do the same.  We continue running and make it to the platform.  We arrived just in time as the train is approaching the stop….but it keeps going.  It was not a passenger train, but a commercial train.  We both laughed and waited for the next train.  Unfortunately our train did not come for more than an hour later.  Luke almost missed his flight and I was almost late to my own Chanukah party.  Thankfully everything worked out and Luke and I have an amazing adventure under our belts.

Photo Description

Top Row, Left: Luke and I in front of the entrance to the memorial

Top Row, Right: Large stone with an inscription that alludes to the many Jews that died in this place.

Second Row, Left: Enormous memorial statues symbolizing hope and defiance

Second Row, Right: Enormous memorial statues symbolizing hope and defiance

Third Row, Left: The large concrete block that marks the entrance to the memorial.  This concrete block also houses a small museum inside.

Third Row, Right: Concrete foundation and large concrete block 

Bottom Row, Left: Tally of Prisoners in the camp by year

Bottom Row, Middle: Large memorial stone where the metronome was the loudest

Bottom Row, Right: Toys that adorned a memorial.  This motif continued as a reminder and memorial to the many children that lost their lives.  It is believed that children were experimented on at the camp.

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Adventure’s with Luke

I was preparing a havdallah set before a Chanukah concert, when a man approached me and asked me a question in Russian.  Unfortunately I did not understand his question, so I apologized and told him I speak english.  He responded with a simple, “Okay.”  Stunned, I quickly inquired about his citizenship.  This man, Luke, is an American that lives in Florida.  We spoke for a bit and we learned that we have a lot in common.  He was raised about 30 minutes from where I grew up.  We both are graduates of the University of Michigan.  And we even discovered our birthdays (excluding the years) are 2 days apart.  We found more similarities as we spent more time together.  I know…how incredible.  If he had never approached me with a question, I would have never known that a fellow Michigander and fellow wolverine was sitting just a few feet from me.

At the community’s Chanukah young adult program, Luke invited me to go on a day trip with him.  I met him the next day around 7 am and our adventure began.  We got on a bus that was en route to Bauska, Latvia.  Unfortunately and unknowingly we got off the bus, one stop to early.  It was not until Luke asked a local shop owner what city we were in till we discovered our mistake.  However, we were at the bus station and just waited till the next bus came.  After an argument with one bus driver, a confused, but willing bus driver drove us to Bauska.  We arrived and just missed the bus that would take us to our first destination, the Rundale Palace.  The construction of the palace was finished in 1740 and was the summer residence of Duke Ernst Johann of Courland.  To prevent anymore time loss, we found a taxi and went straight to Pilsrundale (Palace Rundale).  We got out, paid the cab fair and walked down a long dirt road.  Then in front of us…was Rundale Palace.  A large, yet beautiful, palace that seemingly was in the middle of nowhere.  The palace was not open to the public for half an hour (I guess we did not have to worry about missing the bus) so we walked around in the garden behind the palace.  The symmetrical garden was full of trees and shrubberies.  A large fountain marked the middle of the garden and a few other structure were scattered about, including a pagoda.  We were told to come back during the spring when the flowers were in bloom (very pretty).  We toured the palace and there was never a moment when my jaw wasn’t dropped.  There was so much so see.  Each room was alluring and ornate.  My pictures pale in comparison to the beauty of this over 200 year old palace.  Consider taking this virtual tour.   

Picture Description:

Top Row, Left: Entry into Rundale Palace.  The red bricked structures on the sides are rounded stables.

Top Row, Right: Gates and courtyard of Rundale Palace.  The ground stonework was placed in three large concentric circles.  The edge of the courtyard switches from a circle pattern to alternating triangles.

Second Row, Left: The Duke of Courland’s Bedroom

Second Row, Middle: Portraits of family, dignitaries and other important figures hang all over the Palace.

Second Row, Right: The large blue and white porcelain object is an oven made from Holland tiles.

Third Row, Left: The gilded hall served Duke Ernst Johann Biron and his guests.  The marble, mirrors, and emblematic garland give the room its ornate and extravagant look. The ceiling painting portrays some greco-roman mythological characters.  Including Heracles and Saturn. 

Third Row, Right: German occupation of the palace during World War I converted parts of the palace into a hospital and commandant’s office.  The presence of the German soldiers can still be seen today through etchings - pictures, initials, and signature - on the marble walls.  

Bottom Row, Left: View of the garden from the second storey of the palace.

Bottom Row, Middle: I have been able to determine that this is Rembrandt’s Simeon and Anna in the Temple.  From what I have read, the real painting is in the Hamburger Kunsthalle collection.  Therefore I believe this is a print.  However, the painting was once in Latvia and owned by the Duke of Courland.  

Bottom Row, Right: Luke and I had some fun taking a picture in parallel mirrors.

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A few weeks ago we had a normal Shabbat Program.  the teens lead a mini shabbat ceremony and I gave a D’var Torah.  Usually my D’var Torah’s message is lost as I deliver it in english.  However, this time I also brought up a topic that cultural seemed to go over almost everyone’s head.  The theme of Shabbat was Superheroes, so I made a comparison between the Parsha, Vayishlach, and comic book heroes, specifically Batman.  I thought it would make for a great D’var Torah…but not for my audience.  Here is what I spoke about:

Batman’s number one nemesis is Joker.  These two men have met multiple times in battle, but usually neither come out victorious.  They are well matched and very similar.  Both are shunned by society, never really accepted anywhere.  This dyad of superhero and evil villain is often represented in the aforementioned  structure.  Two characters paralleled in life.  Jacob and his brother Esau illustrate this point beautifully.  These twin brothers, who are fathers of separate nations appear as enemies (or at least not friendly) in this Parsha.  

Jacob encounters an angel with the spirit of Esau.  This “henchman” of Esau wrestles Jacob until daybreak.  Every villain has henchman that they send to do their biding and fight their battles.  And of course the superhero always emerges victorious when in an altercation with a henchman.  So who wins when Jacob and the angel fight?  (I think you know the answer) Jacob!  When he wins he is given a second name, Israel.  What does that sound like?  That’s right, a superhero name.  Superman and Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne and Batman, Jacob and Israel.  

Lastly at the end of the parsha Jacob’s daughter is kidnapped.  Simeon and Levi, acting as vigilantes, take Justice in their own hands and kill the men of the camp.  Who does that sound like?  Vigilante seeking Justice for their family.  Batman!  

Picture Descriptions:

Top.  Teens leading the Shabbat Ceremony

Bottom Left. My superhero costume.  Note the cape…it’s my tallis.  If you like that, check out this!

Bottom Middle. Alina dressed as a Superhero

Bottom Middle. Superhero themed games. 

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Recap video from the School of Madrichim Seminar in Bauska, Latvia.  For more, please read my post from December 4.

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This past week’s Shabbat Teen Program was a bit more eventful than usual.  It started normally with the teens greeted by the madrichim who were ready with some great down-time activities.  Once everyone arrived and we were ready to begin we had our Shabbat ceremony and I gave a short D’var Torah on the Parsha.  This week’s theme was Japanese Culture.  We taught the teens how to make sushi and origami.  Then a full out dance party seemingly emerged organically.  I cannot fully describe how it all happened.  However all the right pieces fell into place at the right time.  Very entertaining.  I do have to admit some of these teens are very talented.      

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Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the first School of Madrichim Seminar of the Baltics (A short recap video will be coming soon).  The School of Madrichim is the established school/training for the teens in the Baltics.  Most similar to a religious school.  Each country has its own curriculum and ideology, but the end goal is the same: produce well rounded and knowledgable madrichim to become the future Jewish leaders of their community.  This new opportunity brought together the students from the School of Madrichim from Latvia and Lithuania to learn together and share experiences and ideas.  

I had the pleasure of leading two different sessions.  My first session was about how to find Judaism in anything, and then incorporate it in a program.  I started out by showing them that Judaism is everywhere.  Included ideas/text were: lying for peace (Yavamot 65b), the prayer said for seeing a rainbow, praying through skype (USCJ-CLJS Teshuvah), even how to tie your shoes (Mishna Berura 2:6).  I really wanted to show them that Judaism can relate to anything.  Next we came up with a few scenarios, either informal or formal programming, and I required them to think outside of the box in how to infuse it with Judaism.  (If you would like to see the session, or want to learn more about this idea, please let me know) 

My other session was about the dyad of Cultural and Religious Judaism, and their concurrence on community as a central tenant.  We examined their cultural understanding of Judaism and I used Life Cycle Event Rituals to convey community in Religion.  Mark Lazar, an incredible informal Jewish educator and workshop leader,  had previously challenged all of the students to ask themselves, Why be Jewish?  I added that the question is a very difficult one, but what was easier is trying to find what is important.  Hold onto that and make that yours.  For those who have worked with me before, than you know I love this idea.  It is the things that he hold sacred, that tell us a lot about the people we are and the people we want to be.  The last two pictures above, are from this session with the Lithuanian students.  In determining what were the important aspects of Judaism to the students, I asked them to order each item/idea/ritual/et cetera from most important to least important.  I gave them freedom of interpretation over the item/idea/ritual/et cetera.  The first list is how they view Judaism now.  What they see as being important.  The second list is the answer to my scenario: If you were the last Jews on Earth.  What would you advocate for and put your efforts towards?  Interestingly the major themes in the lists flip in importance.  However the two top items, family (the “other”), and Jewish Community remain as the most important ideals.    

Photo Description:

The School of Madrichim students from Latvia, with their teacher Haga and the Riga Jewish Youth Center professionals, Raisa and Irina.

Myself leading the first discussion with the Lithuanian students

Mark Lazar leading a session

See description above (Note: the Latvian students session picture files were corrupted.  the Latvian group was opposite of the Lithuanina group overall, with the exception that Jewish Community was always at the top.)

Side Note: The seminar took place in Bauska, Latvia, which is a very famous city in Jewish history.   Rav Kook was the Rabbi of the city from 1895-1904.  After, he moved to Israel, then Ottoman Palestine, to become the Chief Rabbi.  

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(This post is a continuation from the Latvian Independence Day Celebration Post.  It contains a short video of the exhibition on St. Peter and St. Paul Church titled, Ave, Munchhausen!.)

There is a legend that Baron Munchhausen lived behind the St. Peter and St. Paul Church in the 18 century.  However, this may be an erroneous claim that Munchhausen claimed to add to his imaginative and inventive life’s adventure.

Modernity probably knows the story of Baron Munchhausen from the 1988 movie, “The Adventure’s of Baron Munchhausen” (Some of the video in the exhibtion is from the movie).  A fantastical account of the fartfetched folktales that were his life adventures.  The real Munchhausen was born in Germany later served in the Russian military.  Munchhausen’s escapades took him to Latvia, where he met and married Jacobine von Dunten.