| Kovna Rewrite |

Kovno Rewrite — Revisited


Photo: Shutterstock

Kaunas Lithuania. Winter 2014. Stepping into the Moadon HaYehudi in Kaunas Lithuania feels like venturing up (down?) Penrose’s impossible staircase stepping back in time while moving forward just the same. It’s been almost two years since we left and we’re back as visiting lecturers.

The main hall hasn’t changed: earth-toned décor warm ambience. We exchange greetings. So many old faces so many new ones. Of the students we’d connected with during our stay many have graduated and left. To the new students we’re just two strange faces people traveling through. And yet this was our home for almost a year. Just visiting is an odd appellation.

Here and there we see indisputable change hard evidence of the passage of time. Moshe Sheinfeld and his wife members of the Nefesh Yehudi network have adopted the Moadon and are showering it with care. A beautiful new paroches adorns the aron kodesh; a recent delivery of seforim adds weight to the bookshelves both literally and figuratively. And there are other innovations too.

Three laughing girls face the new snack dispenser proudly ensconced in a niche near the door. As they run a heated debate over which buttons to press I glance closer and see row upon row of familiar fare. Bamba Bisli and other Israeli childhood favorites — just waiting to be claimed. They are sent in ironically overland from the UK by a benevolent Mr. Stern. The machine is divested of its assets with unmistakable glee. Beyond the (debatable) nutritional value of anything on show it is the touch of their faraway Promised Land that is key to these snacks’ appeal.

Photo: Shutterstock

The hum of dining students provides a pleasant backdrop to our lunch when a drama unfolds in the front of the room. Two students have sat themselves squarely before the drop-down screen that graces the wall. Joysticks in hand suspense fills the air as they count down to a virtual tournament. The scenes change rapidly. Horse racing billiard balls bowling pins… you name it. As the suspense escalates one player leaps up and spins his chair backward. Dropping back into his seat arms hugging its spindles his fingers maneuver the fiddly controls with lightning finesse.

I watch transfixed. Honestly I find it hard to relate to the fun of the game. Perhaps it’s my age. Perhaps it’s the setup. But by providing entertainment that the students can sink into the Sheinfelds have upped the ante. Students gravitate here daily. Increasingly they stay to study as well as to socialize and it is clear that while we have resettled into our Israeli reality life here continues to flourish.

Ramat Bet Shemesh, Israel / Autumn 2016

Our succah is bursting at the seams. The kids are excitedly handing round plates of refreshments and I’m trying to just keep up a pleasant conversation with the women in the dining room. It’s a Succos get-together, but not the regular family kind. It’s another kind of family.

We have kept up contact on a one-on-one basis with numerous students since our return to Israel, though not all of them, to be sure. There was the time we had Ilan and Lee over for Purim. The times my husband travelled to their hometowns to deliver a grassroots machshavah shiur. The time Gil met my husband over coffee to discuss a sticky personal issue. And — best of all — the many weddings we have been delighted to attend. Yes! Our pseudo-kids have grown and are building their nests, and the questions that arise along the way are too many to enumerate.

My husband, far more than I, is in close touch with these family guys. Despite being culturally entrenched in secular surroundings, they are digging their way out of spiritual inertia one phone conversation and email message at a time. Of the more traditional students, most have married wives who now cover their hair. They keep Shabbos and kashrus — and are still climbing tenaciously. Our initial year-long investment keeps growing.

We may have left Kaunas behind, but Kovno, it seems, is here to stay.

(Originally Featured in Family First, Issue 500)

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