Jewish Travel – Outside Israel
Jewish-themed travel takes wing.
By Debra Roth Kane
For many American Jews seeking travel that speaks to their history and heritage, Israel is often the destination of choice. But, Israel is just one of countless places that offer sites of historical and cultural significance.
Those who have taken other paths in search of a Jewish travel experience invariably are passionate about the value of this travel. Their goals are different—from supporting struggling Jewish communities and exploring family roots, to simply learning about our history as a people.
Katie Applefeld of Roland Park has been on missions to Ethiopia and Israel, to Odessa and to Berlin. She is clear as to why: “I love to travel. It’s fascinating and each mission is focused on a Jewish story. There’s a point, whether it’s educational or engagement in a particular agenda. In each country, you can interact with other Jews who have different foods, customs and traditions. We’re one people, but often so different.”
This was perhaps most apparent during her travels to Ethiopia. Airlift operations have taken large numbers of Jews from Ethiopia and resettled them in Israel. The results have been mixed and Applefeld’s trip to Ethiopia in May 2007 helped her to understand why. “In Israel, Ethiopian Jews are at risk of becoming a permanent underclass; the cultural obstacles that they face are huge. When you see their communities in Ethiopia compared to Israel—as they say, it’s like going from the Flintstones to the Jetsons.”
Without question this is, as Applefeld describes it, “hard, intense travel. But there’s also a story of hope. There are programs in place in Ethiopia to help Jews—for example, they have a great immunization rate. And after a trip like this, you come back with knowledge.”
What Applefeld took from her trip to Odessa in October of 2007 was quite different. Odessa is a port city in southwest Ukraine with which The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore has formed a community partnership to support Jewish culture and institutions. There, a Jewish population and culture stifled by years of Soviet oppression has been revitalized. Applefeld was struck by “the way they embrace Judaism, how much they want to be Jewish. We take it for granted. They have been through so much.”
Many Jews these days choose to take a “heritage” trip, with the goal of exploring the birthplaces of their ancestors. David Shapiro of Pikesville has been on several trips to Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus, and he hopes others will not hesitate to follow in his path. “All you need is a little information about where your family is from. With the Internet, anyone with an interest in genealogy can find links. And wherever you go, Jews are still there, by choice or by necessity,” he says.
“I was surprised, but wherever we went you could find a kosher store, a JCC, a minyan. There are good hotels, excellent roads, good maps to little shtetls. It is not that hard to travel in Eastern Europe these days, with a guide or not.”
Among the highlights of Shapiro’s travels have been visits to Vilnius and Kovno, the two largest cities in Lithuania. “Vilnius,” Shapiro says, “was a vibrant community of Jewish thought in the 1700s and 1800s. It was very poignant going back there to walk the streets.”
Though the Jewish community there was decimated by the Nazis and by Lithuanians themselves, Shapiro notes that you can still find a minyan anytime you visit the one remaining synagogue in Vilnius.
Other people choose to honor the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust, to live out the directive to “never forget” by visiting the sites of concentration camps in Eastern Europe. In tandem with such visits, it can be gratifying to tour places that demonstrate just how far some countries have come since the dark times of World War II.
Applefeld recalls seeing neo-Nazis when she visited Berlin right after college. When she visited in May 2008, she found the city different, as she says, “warmer and friendlier. A lot of thought has gone into not forgetting, even in the general community. They are not trying to hide it (the Holocaust). A lot of public dialogue has gone into, for example, creating the Holocaust Memorial.”
Europe is by no means the end of the road. Opportunities for Jewish-oriented travel are found worldwide. Thirty-one people from Baltimore traveled on a mission to Cuba organized by Chizuk Amuno Congregation in February 2007. It combined travel with education and service. Those who went brought clothing, medicine, and other donations to what is a very poor 1400-member Jewish community.
Michael Greenebaum of Pikesville went on the trip as a musician, invited to do a concert at the Patronato Synagogue in Havana with Cantors Lisa Levine and Emanuel Perlman. “Cuba is one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever been to,” say Greenebaum. “It’s like going back in time.” Yet there were surprises as well.
“Services were very similar to services in our own communities. There was no high security; the doors were unlocked while services went on. It was very open. For all religions in Cuba, there has been a change. They are able to practice; there is less discrimination,” says Greenebaum.
“You can find a Jewish story anywhere,” says Applefeld.
For example, there are historically significant sites in places where you may least expect them. Visit St. Thomas or Curacao for their beautiful beaches and you can also tour two of the oldest synagogues in the Western Hemisphere.
Applefeld stresses the greater legacy of travel with a Jewish historical or cultural agenda. “You get so much more out of it than you put in; you learn so much.”
Asked what she has taken away from her trips, she answers: “A greater appreciation of what I have and a strong desire to ensure a Jewish future everywhere.”