By Carly Lipkowitz
Six fellow students from Binghamton University and I began our summer vacation this year with an unforgettable experience in Eastern Europe. We participated in "Project Restoration," which sends Jewish students to Poland and Belarus to learn about their Jewish identity. A visit to the small village of Swir, Belarus, where we restored an unmarked, aging cemetery that had not been maintained for more than 60 years, was the centerpiece of our journey.
Though I had heard that the people of this village were friendly, I was still concerned about how we would be treated. We were received warmly by the residents – all non-Jews – and were even welcomed with a concert by high school students. The highlight of the day came when the Belarusian students walked us back to our hotel. We were the first group of Americans to ever stay at this hotel, and for most of the students, the first Americans they had met. We were treated as though we were celebrities.
Jews have been scarce in recent years in Swir, where a Jewish community thrived until the Holocaust. Located in northwest Belarus not far from the Lithuanian border, Swir once boasted a population of 1,100 Jews out of 1,900 residents. In 1920, the cemetery we restored offered a safe haven to Swir's Jews, who were caught in the crossfire of the Polish-Bolshevik War. By hiding behind the trees in the cemetery, the Jews were mistaken for a group of Polish civilians by the Russian Army, and they were able to return home safely after the Polish troops surrendered. Sadly, Jewish life in Swir disappeared after World War II. The synagogue was destroyed, and the 100 surviving Jews scattered around the world, with the majority moving to Israel.
Our program, Project Restoration, was started at Dartmouth College last summer. We were the second college group to go on the trip, which was initiated by Dr. Michael Lozman and sponsored by Hillel at Binghamton University, in conjunction with the Office of International Programs of Binghamton University.
One of the unique aspects of this project was our integration with the general population of the town. To better understand the Belarusian culture, each student spent one night in the home of one of the Swir villagers. I was shocked to learn that there was no running water in the house and all of the water came from a well in the front yard. Compared to the multi-bathroom houses in America, it was surprising to see that the closest thing this family had to a toilet was an outhouse in the front yard. However, these differences, along with the family's friendly and welcoming attitude, made for an enjoyable and eye-opening visit. I even got to try milk that had come straight from the family's cow.
The townspeople were eager to help, whether it was mixing cement or uplifting a fallen gravestone back to its proper place. Our group arrived at the cemetery each morning and met young children and their parents who had brought their gardening tools along. One time, the principal of the local high school let the eldest class leave school early to join us in the restoration process. One of the most important parts of the process was erecting a metal fence around the cemetery's perimeter, designating the area as an entity unto itself. Each part of the fence had a large Jewish star in its center, which served as a symbol of renewed pride. We had spent days digging holes for this fence, placing it into the ground, mixing cement by hand and pouring it into the holes and painting the fence. The cemetery, which started out as an unmarked mass of fallen gravestones and excess vegetation, was transformed into a respectable burial ground.
It felt wonderful to know that this cemetery had been completed through the combined efforts of non-Jewish Belarusians and Jewish Americans. Considering that America does not have strong relations with Belarus and Jews no longer live in Swir, it was a great accomplishment to get to know these people on an individual basis and to overlook the obvious differences between us.
The last day in Swir was a day of dedication and remembrance. We were proud to see the cemetery completely restored. To honor those who had passed away, we held a brief ceremony where we recited seven psalms at seven graves. After each psalm, we carefully sprinkled a small amount of sand from Israel at the foot of the tombstone.
This final act signified the importance of our trip. We came together as a small family of Jews, determined to give our ancestors a proper burial ground. A mutual respect developed among the group because we knew how much effort we had put in to complete the project. We truly fulfilled the mitzvah of "Tikkun Olam," by repairing the world and showing pride in our past.
Carly Lipkowitz is from Great Neck, NY, and is a sophomore at Binghamton University.