April 30, 2011
Chag sameach! Happy Easter! Happy spring or fall depending on where you are in the world!
I recently got back from a wonderful 2 and a half week trip to Europe. I went for the purpose of attending the JSC midyear conference which was held in Berlin this year (and yes, this means that I have been in BA for six months now!). Then, because of Semana Santa and Pesach holidays, I traveled afterwards. There is no way that I can even come close to describing everything that happened in those two and a half weeks, but I will attempt to recap. Feel free to skim or ignore parts. It’s way tooo long (I know). Also, check out my photos so you can visualize these places if you want (http://zaraabroad.shutterfly.com or http://www.facebook.com/media/set/fbx/?set=a.1810739745679.2098658.1155540036&l=1ecc6c8c5e ). It would have taken toooo long to put photos in throughout the blog…sorry!
The midyear session was an amazing experience. All of the JSC fellows met up in Berlin for a four day conference. We came together from Argentina, Israel, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Serbia, Russia, India, Turkey, Estonia, and Rwanda. I hope I’m not forgetting anyone! The point of the conference was to catch up with everyone, review what we have done, and think about ways to improve and take advantage of the six months we have left in our respective placements. The four days consisted of presentations by all of the fellows concerning their work, group conversations on work related themes, presentations by a few of the regional directors, and other opportunities such as a Q and A session with some members of the Berlin Jewish community (which was incredibly interesting and powerful). Also, given that we were in Berlin, we were all able to see firsthand the work that the two fellows (Molly and Sarah) do there for the JDC. If you are interested in learning about what they do, check out their blogs
Molly – Serving in Berlin, Germany: http://mmmfried.com
Sarah – Serving in Berlin, Germany: http://sjberliner.tumblr.com/
During the conference, we also had some time to explore Berlin. We all went on a tour of Jewish Berlin and visited some particular sites and monuments related to the community (both before and after WWII). I was particularly lucky that I decided to come to Berlin 2 days early because I got to see and experience much more of Berlin. I arrived on Saturday morning and by the time the conference started on Monday morning, I had spent 4 hours at the Jewish Museum (which I absolutely love! I could have spent all day there!) On Sunday, I went on a 4 hour walking tour of the city and saw lots of important sites and learned a lot about Berlin and its history. I was also incredibly lucky because the weather was amazing. It was about 70 and sunny! In Berlin, I also got the chance to see Andrew, a friend of mine from Pomona who is doing a Fulbright in Berlin for the year, so that was great!
After Berlin, I traveled to Stockholm with four other girls who are JSC fellows: Laura, Orly, and Helene (who all live and work in Jerusalem), and Ariana from Cordoba. We had a wonderful time in Stockholm and we absolutely loved the city. We had great weather (it was warmer there than in Berlin!) and we spent most of our time there walking around and exploring the city. Although we were only in Stockholm for a little over 24 hours, we mananged to see a lot of the city. We went to the old city (Gamla Stan), the Ostermalm district, and other sites such as the Royal Palace and the Stockholm Modern Art museum. Visitors often do a cruise of the 17 islands that make up Stockholm, but we saw these sights when we took the ferry to Tallinn.
Also, on the first afternoon we found this amazing Mediterranean cafe overlooking the port and the old city that had free coffee, delicious food, and a great outdoor area to sit and relax. Needless to say, we ended up going there two days in a row we loved it so much!
After Stockholm, we headed to Tallinn. We decided to take the overnight ferry there from Stockholm, which is a popular mode of transportation in Scandinavia and the Baltics. Let’s just say it was quite the experience. First of all, it was really a cruise ship with cabins, restaurants, entertainment, and more. The boats even have themes, and oddly enough, ours was Carnaval Latino. We thought it was hilarious! There were shows and salsa and cha cha dance lessons (which yes, we participated in), and there was even a Cuban themed buffet. We had a great time on the boat and we highly recommend it as a means of transportation in that part of the world.
So we arrived the next morning in Tallinn where we were greeted by Esther, the JSC fellow living in Tallinn. We went to her apartment, put our stuff down, and then headed out to the old town. We spent the day exploring and eating typical Estonian food (including Estonian pancakes and these flavored almonds that are cooked in the huge iron skillets in the street). We also tried some unique Estonian ice cream flavors, including rye (yes, like the bread) and Estonian berries I don’t remember the names of. Throughout the day we managed to see the main view points in the city and we even found a cafe built into an old medieval tower to relax at.
During our stay in Tallinn, we also got the chance to visit the local synagogue and the Jewish community center where Esther works. To give a brief background, there are about 3,000 Jews living in Tallinn today, and a majority of them are Russian. I am really not qualified to explain the makeup of this community, so if you are interested in learning more, check out Esther’s blog:
Esther – Serving in Tallinn, Estonia: http://estinestonia.tumblr.com/
In addition to seeing where Esther actually works with her teenagers, we also checked out the Jewish museum that is housed in the community center and tells about the history of the Jews in Estonia. It was super interesting to learn about this community that I knew nothing about.
Monday we explored the old town a bit more, but spent most of the day preparing for our seder that Esther hosted at her apartment for the teenagers she works with. We prepared all of the basics (boiled eggs, charoset, horseradish, parsley and salt water) and then made a vegetarian “meal” consisting of matzah ball soup, deviled eggs, beet and feta salad, moroccan carrot salad, matzah toffee, and flourless chocolate cake. It was all delicious! Overall, the seder was a success and we had a great time being together and celebrating pesach in such a unique setting.
Tuesday morning we all headed out early to Helsinki, Finland, which is a two hour ferry ride from Tallinn. We got in around 930am and then spent the whole day walking around and exploring the city. Since Helsinki is known for being VERY expensive, we packed a picnic lunch with our seder leftovers and enjoyed it at Suomenlinna, a maritime fortress located off the coast of Helsinki where we ended up spending three hours. After we took a 15 minute ferry to get there from the Helsinki harbor, we walked around, learned about the fortress, and enjoyed the beautiful views . We also found a great spot to picnic right near the sea. Needless to say, we loved Suomenlinna (although I am sure we don’t know how to pronounce it correctly).
Later on, we headed back to the mainland where we saw some gorgeous buildings and churches, went up to a popular bar on the top of a hotel to see a great view of the city, and relaxed in a gorgeous public square. We were lucky again with the weather. It was about 60 and sunny most of the day.
Since Helene and Laura were leaving for Israel from Helsinki, Orly, Esther, and myself said our goodbyes and headed back to Tallinn in the early evening (Ariana had left early in the morning from Tallinn to go to Amsterdam).
Wednesday morning, I headed off to Riga, Latvia (Latvia is located just south of Estonia). I really enjoyed my experience there. It was interesting to compare it to Tallinn and Berlin (or at least East Berlin), which were also formerly under Soviet occupation. The Russian influence is still highly present, which really surprised me.
Anyways, in Riga, I saw a lot of important sites while I was there. I went to the Occupation Museum (which chronicles the Soviet occupation of Latvia) and saw prominent churches, soviet era buildings, and art deco architecture. I also went to the Central Market, which is a huge market that is partially inside old zeppelin hangars. They have tons of fresh fish, meat, vegetables, etc and it was super cheap! I was able to visit the Jewish Museum in Riga, which is fairly small but covers the history of the Jewish community in Riga and Latvia in general. The nightlife was also surprisingly fun in Riga. I went out with the people staying at my hostel, who were from all over including USA, England, Australia, Spain, and France. Traveling in Europe and staying in hostels is one of the best ways to meet young and interesting people. I highly recommend it!
After Riga, I headed to the last stop on my European excursion: Munich. Overall, I really liked Munich and found it to be an incredibly interesting city with all of its history and strong sense of tradition. In addition to being notoriously Bavarian with its love of pretzels, beer, sausage, beer gardens, and lederhausen, Munich is also known for being one of the wealthiest cities in Europe and for being extremely conservative and Catholic. Furthermore, Munich was known as the hub of the Third Reich, which adds another level of interest to the city.
During my time in Munich, I saw and learned a ton. Even though it was Easter weekend and most of the shops and restaurants were closed on Friday, Sunday, and Monday, most of the museums were open and the tours were still running (lucky for me since I ended up doing three of them!)
Anyways, when I got to Munich Friday afternoon, I went to the Jewish museum there. It’s a fairly small museum, but very well done and informative about the history of the Jewish community in Munich. I also ended up having a tour guide who was originally from Uruguay and his Spanish was better than his English, so he ended up showing me around in Spanish! It was a fun experience.
On Saturday, I took a day trip to the Neuschwanstein Castle, which is located in the village of Hohenschwangau at the foot of the German Alps. On the day tour, I learned about the history of the castle, which was built by “Mad” King Ludwig II, which is associated with a lot of romance, absurdity, and magic. It´s definitely worth researching if you are interested. We also went inside the castle (which I highly recommend) and then headed to this great lookout point called the Marienbrucke where you can see a picture perfect view of the castle and the gorge beneath it. We also enjoyed the view of the Alps from the Alpsee lake at the base of the castle. I highly recommend this Bavarian day trip!
Sunday, I went on a tour of Dachau, which was one of Germany´s first concentration camps located right outside of Munich. It was my first time visiting a concentration camp, and it was a very powerful and meaningful experience. To give a bit of background, the first 5,000 prisoners of Dachau were political enemies of the Nazi regime. In the following years, other social, ethnic, and racial enemies were imprisoned as Dachau went on to become the only concentration camp to remain active during the entire Third Reich period (1933-1945). When Dachau was liberated, the American soldiers discovered over 200,000 prisoners there, in a place designed for around 6,000 people! I can´t even imagine what the conditions must have been like. Anyways, in the 1960s, the Dachau memorial was founded at this site and it has been open to visitors ever since. I highly recommend going to Dachau. It may not be the most fun thing, but it is so important to go there and to be in the physical location of a concentration camp (it is also thought provoking to realize how close it was to civilization!).
Last but not least, I went on a general tour of Munich on Monday before I left for the airport. It was a three and a half hour walking tour, and I learned a ton about Munich´s history, including the royal family, its relation to the Third Reich, and what Munich is like today. We saw the basic touristic sights, like the Glochenspiel and Hofbrauhaus, the most famous beer hall in the world where they serve huge glasses of beer and pretzels the size of my head! It´s nuts.
In addition to the great tours I went on, I also loved exploring the city. There are absolutely beautiful gardens in Munich and the weather was perfect! I also made friends with a girl from Montreal and a girl from New Zealand during my time there, and we walked around a lot together and went to a great beer garden in the English Gardens. Now I understand why Octoberfest is so popular! It must be a ton of fun to go!
Overall, I had an amazing trip! I think one of the most interesting parts for me was learning about how Germany has dealt with its past. I was really impressed by its level of openness, and I was confronted about a lot of my own prejudices against Germans that have been constructed in relation to WWII. I think Germany is an amazing country to visit, especially for Jews. I think it is important to see how the people have reacted to its unfavorable history, and interesting to see how they have decided to memorialize it. In both Berlin and Munich, there are a range of memorials, from small to large and public to hidden, and they all honor those who suffered during the war. I also loved going to Scandinavia and the Baltics, which were completely new and different for me. This trip made me remember why I love travelling so much!
Anyways, sorry this post has been so long but there is so much to say!!!