Nov 18, 2015

Mendi Katz: Behind the Scenes (Our Magical Shabbos In Vilna)

by Mendi Katz

In line with Lita Lives’ vision of bringing life to Lithuanian Jewry, a group of about 15 Jewish men and women recently travelled to Vilna. The concept behind the trip was for guests to experience a 5 star, Glatt Kosher Shabbos in Vilna (Vilnius) - once the vibrant home to the ancestors of the majority of South African Jews. Simultaneously, Lita Lives made use of the trip to bring the concept of the worldwide Shabbos Project to the Lithuanian Jewish community.

On Thursday afternoon, 22 October, we touched down in a cold and cloudy Vilnius. There was little time to spare once we had checked in to the magnificent Kempinski Hotel. Vilna’s very first Challah Bake would begin early that same evening. A larger than expected crowd of 80 women and girls arrived with great excitement. Ladies from the Lita Lives group joined for an undeniably meaningful and inspiring unity event.

Early Friday morning we set off for Kovno (Kaunas). Just over an hour’s drive from Vilnius, some of our guests enjoyed visiting the location of the Slabodka yeshiva and other family connected sites. We visited the headquarters of Stumbras, the oldest and largest producer of alcoholic drinks in Lithuania. Their renowned, state-of-the-art museum was fascinating. To top off the chilly, rainy morning’s experience, a round of L’chaims was in order – we were treated to an exclusive tasting of the region’s finest.

As Shabbos drew nearer, the ladies lit candles and we made our way to the Choral Synagogue of Vilna - the only active synagogue that survived both the Holocaust and Soviet rule. Surrounded by the regal architecture, it was powerful and moving for us to join in singing the same Friday Night tunes we have grown accustomed to in S.A. The realization was truly striking - that despite the horrors and incredible hardships of the past, Shabbos is still being celebrated in our beloved Lita!

At our Friday night dinner, we had the honour of hosting the mayor of Vilnius, H.E. Dr. Šimašius, and his wife, as well as the Israeli ambassador to Lithuania, H.E Mr. Maimon. Both spoke of their joy at attending the festive Shabbos meal, as well as their important, positive foresight for Lithuania’s Jews. The dinner continued late into the night with delicious cuisine, Shabbos songs and uplifting talks from several members of our group.

On Shabbos day, we joined Chabad Of Lithuania at their wonderful facility. Rabbi and Mrs. Krinsky, along with several of their community members, graciously hosted us for a beautiful lunch. We learned of the Shluchim’s tireless countrywide efforts over the more than two decades since they arrived. Camps, Kosher food supply, Chevrah Kadisha work, Jewish education for all ages, saving and housing children from precarious and dangerous backgrounds or homes, housing a fully functional boarding school, are to name just a few.

For the later hours of Shabbos day, we had an informative walking tour of the Jewish highlights of Vilna. Strolling though the streets once walked by many Talmudic greats and seeing visible remnants of what was the epicenter of ‘The Jerusalem of the North’ was heartwarming and moving.

Minutes after Shabbos ended and Havdalla had been sung, many of the group’s participants found themselves in a small Vilnius Pub, surrounded by South African and New Zealand Rugby fans – as the World Cup Semi Final drew to a nail-biting close. Although our RWC hopes had been dashed, a spirited, uplifting dinner awaited back at the hotel.

A gourmet, lavish braai had been prepared with outstanding entertainment by Jewish Lithuanian musician Misha Jablonskis. The elegant Hotel hall was filled with the sounds of Shtetl classics, Yiddish ‘Fiddler On The Roof ‘ hits and several nostalgic song requests from the guests in attendance. The ambience was exciting yet emotional as memories were evoked.

By Sunday morning, we all began going our separate ways as we made our respective journeys from the heim, back home. Due to popular demand, we have already started working on our next trip to Lita.

Vilna pulses with an incredible energy and almost enigmatic atmosphere. It is a first world cosmopolitan city that has a very unique, almost contagious vibe. The Jews of Lithuania, and Judaism in the country are also very much alive. That being said, the Jewish community there still needs the concern and involvement of Lithuanian descendants worldwide. Lita Lives aims to fulfil on this exact necessity - actively ensuring that Jewish Lithuania doesn’t just remain alive, but can grow and flourish once more!

Mendi Katz

Mendi Katz is the CEO of Lita Lives, a non-profit company that aims to raise funds for the Jewish community of Lithuania (Lita). By working together with the Jewish community of modern day Lithuania, Lita Lives is helping to ensure that Lita doesn’t just live in our hearts, and in our minds, and in our memories, but that Lita can also live in Lita.

Mendi received his Smicha from Machon L’Hora’a in Pretoria, S.A. as well as from The Ariel Institute in Israel. Mendi works with major Jewish organisations in management, marketing and creative direction as well as in production and co-ordination of large-scale events. He also serves as one of the Rabbis at Chabad Of Illovo.

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