Lithuanian Jews, also called Litvaks, were among the most influential scholars, energetic businessmen, and skilled professionals in Europe prior to World War II. In Lithuania, Jewish secular and religious institutions flourished. With more than 100 synagogues and some of the leading rabbinical schools of Europe, Vilnius was affectionately known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania. The YIVO Institute—the leading academic institution for the study of Yiddish language and literature—was founded in Vilnius, and the Gaon of Vilna was a world-renowned Talmudist and scholar.
In nearby Latvia and Estonia, Jews also played important roles in the economic and intellectual life of their countries. Their Jewish communities flourished, with customs and culture influenced by German, Russian, Polish, and Lithuanian traditions. Over the years, such luminaries as Isaiah Berlin, Rabbi Kook, Mark Rothko, Louis Kahn, Abba Eban, and Amos Oz have come from Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian families.
Join scholar-in-residence and expert on Lithuanian Jewry Professor Sid Leiman and explore the Jewish heritage and culture of these Baltic Jewish gems. Our trip will begin in the picturesque city of Vilnius and continue through the countryside of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Among other places, we will visit Trakai, ancient capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania; the charming city of Riga, a World Heritage Site; and Tallinn, an architectural wonder. Throughout the journey, travelers will enjoy good company, magnificent countryside, and Professor Leiman’s fascinating lectures, which will provide invaluable context and insights.
Evening: Overview by our scholar, Professor Sid Leiman, followed by orientation and an opportunity to get to know one another; opening dinner at our hotel (included).
We will begin this morning with a visit to the old Jewish cemetery (where the Gaon of Vilna is buried) and a walk through the medieval Jewish quarter and ghetto and a visit to the Vilnius synagogue.
Following lunch on our own, we will visit the State Jewish Museum. The hub of the city’s tiny Jewish community, this small museum surveys the history of the Jewish community of Vilnius from the 15th through 20th centuries. It displays rare photographs and copies of diaries and handwritten notes relating to the Holocaust.
Evening presentation by Professor Leiman: The Plight of Jewish Women in Nineteenth-Century Lithuania: Haskalah Versus the Rabbis. Dinner on our own.
Early-morning departure for Keidan (also known as Kedainiai), once an important Jewish shtetl. Here, we will visit the town synagogue and museum, tour Old Town, and have lunch (included). Following lunch in Keidan, we will drive to Kaunus (also known as Kovno) and visit a synagogue that was founded in 1871. Before the Holocaust, this radically designed, neo-Baroque synagogue was one of more than 35 synagogues and Jewish prayer houses in Kaunus. Though few Jews remain in Kaunus, the synagogue houses a stunning Torah ark and encapsulates the rich and famous history of Jewish Kovno. Now a museum, the synagogue contains collections of historical artifacts related to Soviet and Nazi atrocities. Before returning to Vilnius, we will visit the “Ninth Fort” (the ninth in a series of fortifications dating back to Tsarist Russia), today a museum and memorial to victims of fascism.
Evening: Free, dinner on our own.
Depart our hotel for a day trip to Trakai, ancient capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. En route, we will stop in Paneriai Forest to see a site commemorated by a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. In this forest, more than 100,000 Jewish victims were murdered, most over a period of a few days.
In Trakai, we will tour historic Trakai Castle and visit the Karaite Ethnographic Museum, situated on a street dotted with picturesque wooden cottages. Many of these cottages were built by the Karaites, an ancient sect and offshoot of Judaism, whose descendants arrived in Trakai from the Crimea in the 14th century. Lunch in Trakai (included).
Evening presentation by Professor Leiman: The Wisdom of Lithuania’s Maskilim and Rabbis. Dinner on our own.
Morning: Depart our hotel for the Old Town Gothic Corner and Dawn Gate, followed by a tour of the Tolerance Museum, before returning to our hotel. Afternoon free for exploring Vilnius on our own and/or shopping.
Evening: Special guest lecture by, and discussion with, Dr. Dovid Katz. An American-born, Vilnius-based scholar and cultural historian of Lithuanian Jewry, Dr. Katz is the author of many articles on Yiddish that have been published in encyclopedias (including YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe) and is intimately familiar with the status and situation of today’s Jewish community in Vilnius. Dinner on our own.
Depart Vilnius for Riga, with a stop at the Baroque Rundale Palace for a private guided tour. One of the most outstanding monuments of Baroque and Rococo architecture in Latvia, the palace was built as a summer residence for Ernst Johann Biron, Duke of Courland and a favorite of the Russian empress Anna Ioannovna. Lunch at Rundale Palace (included).
Upon arrival in Riga, check in to the deluxe Grand Palace Hotel, with time to rest and relax.
Evening: Attend services at Peitav Shul (a ten-minute walk from our hotel). The synagogue is an architectural gem and considered a monument of national significance. The only synagogue to be spared during the Nazi occupation, the Peitav Shul is a magnificent edifice, constructed in the manner of Art Nouveau and well worth seeing. Following services, Shabbat dinner (included).
Morning: Free to relax or (optional) attend Shabbat services.
Afternoon: Walking tour of historic Old Riga (designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site), with its many wooden buildings and Art Nouveau architecture. Included is a guided tour of the Art Nouveau Museum.
Evening: Free; dinner on our own.
Our morning will begin with a private guided tour of Riga’s Jewish Community Center and Museum. At the museum, we will hear a presentation about Riga’s Jewish history by Ilya Lensky, a researcher at the museum. Following lunch on our own in Old Town, we will visit the “Moscow District” and Rumbula Forest, where more than 25,000 Jews were massacred over one weekend.
We will end our day at the Žanis Lipke Museum (a modern, interactive museum designed by a prominent local architect that tells the little-known tale of Žanis Lipke and the network of about 25 people who created an “underground railroad” to rescue Jews from the Nazis during the German occupation of Latvia).
Evening: Free; dinner on our own.
Depart Riga for Tallinn, capital of Estonia. Along the way, we will view the magnificent countryside with a stop in the seaside town of Pärnu for lunch (included) at Villa Ammende. From Pärnu, we will drive to Tallinn and check in to the Hotel Telegraaf.
Evening: Free; dinner on our own.
Morning: Private guided tour of the spectacular Kumu Museum, encompassing the building’s award-winning architecture and permanent collection of Estonian art. In 2008, the museum received the European Museum of the Year Award, one of the most prestigious in Europe. Lunch at Kumu (included).
Afternoon: Walking tour of Old Town, including Town Hall Square, Toompea Castle, Dominican Monastery, and Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (magnificent example of a Russian Revival cupola cathedral). Along the way, a guided tour of the Niguliste Museum, with its collection of medieval and early modern ecclesiastical art.
Evening presentation by Professor Leiman: Lifeboat Ethics: A Jewish Perspective, followed by a meeting to process the experience of our trip.
Morning: We will visit Tallinn’s new Jewish Community Center and the adjoining, architecturally fascinating, synagogue and museum for a guided tour. Lunch on our own; afternoon free for last-minute shopping, or exploring Tallinn.
Evening: Closing, festive, closing dinner at our hotel (included).
Depart for U.S.
The Kempinski Hotel Cathedral Square is a truly distinctive hotel located on Cathedral Square, featuring breathtaking views over the UNESCO-listed Old Town. Major tourist attractions, such as the Presidential Palace and the main shopping street, Gedimino Boulevard (home to many designer boutiques), in addition to galleries, are all within walking distance.
The Grand Palace Riga was originally built in 1877 as the Central Bank of Latvia and was converted into a boutique 5-star hotel in 2000. It now offers a setting that encompasses luxury, warmth, and comfort. Voted as Latvia’s Leading Hotel, the Grand Palace Hotel is located in the heart of the sightseeing district of Riga Old Town.
Hotel Telegraaf is an elegant 19th-century building with a stunning façade perfectly placed in the heart of Tallinn’s historical Old Town. Formerly a telephone exchange, it has been masterfully converted to a boutique hotel that provides the highest standards of accommodations and cuisine.