2011-11-30 / Editorial

Beth El’s Cantor Alisa Pomerantz-Boro reflects on her historic trip and concerts in Lithuania


Hazzan Alisa Pomerantz- Boro performs at the Aula Magna of Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas as Hazzan Nate Lam (seated) of the Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles looks on. Hazzan Alisa Pomerantz- Boro performs at the Aula Magna of Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas as Hazzan Nate Lam (seated) of the Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles looks on. I have walked onto many stages throughout my life…never have I felt such tremendous emotion as last week in Vilna.

Three colleagues and I were invited by the U.S. Embassy to help in the State Department mission of educating the people of Lithuania. Our purpose was to make sure that our history is not forgotten; to enlighten those who don’t want to remember the horrors of the Holocaust; to remind them of the beauty of our culture and our people; and to help the morale of the Jews who remain.

After flying all night with a layover in Germany, I landed in Vilnius, what we Jews called Vilna. The city was the center of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. It was referred to as the “Jerusalem of Europe,” boasting hundreds of thousands of Jews…95 percent of whom were killed in the Shoah. Ninety-five percent!

We were taken directly from the airport to the 9th Fort in Kovna, a prison in Kaunas, where over 30,000 of our people were killed. The historical significance of this place was not lost on us as my dear friend and colleague Hazzan David Propis chanted the El Maleh, in memory of his uncle who was murdered there. Needless to say, this was a most moving and powerful beginning to our journey.

Today, there are only 4,000 Jews in Vilna and Jewish life is almost non-existent. Interestingly, what does exist are some remnants of Jewish culture. For example, every Friday, the grocery stores carry a twisted egg bread…and every September, one can find honey cake…no one remembers why, but we know.

The hotel where I stayed was on Yehudah Street. While once known as the Jewish quarter, there are almost no traces left now. Around the corner once stood the Great Synagogue of Vilna, built almost 400 years ago, brutally destroyed by the Nazis. The current government is excavating the area…they have discovered a door to the original ark and part of the bimah, and there are promises to cover the remains with a see-through floor to serve as another reminder. Here is the really cool part for me: My grandfather, Cantor Gedaliyah Pomerantz, z”l, studied at the teacher’s college in Vilna and sang in THAT VERY SHUL!!!

We proceeded to our rehearsal at the university in Kaunas where we performed a concert to a standing-room-only crowd of appreciative students, professors and citizens. Part of the purpose of this mission was to motivate those who teach and to enlighten the generations to follow.

Exhausted and emotional, we returned to the hotel for a very late dinner, a brief sleep, and got up early the next morning for our appearance on the national morning show, “Good Morning Lithuania,” to sing, be interviewed and promote our evening concert. (www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJgIy_rB3_g)

This second concert proved to be an overwhelming experience. We were in Vilnius…at the Museum of Tolerance… filled beyond capacity…crowds standing in every possible spot because every chair in the house was filled. (www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSAGjgJHISA)

There were many dignitaries there, including the U.S. Ambassador to Lithuania, Ann E. Derse, the chair of the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania, as well as other foreign politicians and officials. It was an honor for us to use music as our vehicle for communication and education. We sang in Yiddish and English and Hebrew. About halfway through the concert, we sang Ani Ma’amin a capella, as it was sung in the camps…followed by the “Hymn of the Partisans.” The crowd at once rose to their feet. Now I have sung at many Yom HaShoah programs throughout our country and this has never happened. You could hear a pin drop. The four of us on stage began to cry…

The next song was slated to be Modim. I wrote this melody in honor of my daughter Rebecca and I usually talk about her and gratitude and miracles. On this night, though, it resonated in an entirely different way. I spoke of the difficulties in our lives, and I reminded the audience that we still MUST be thankful to G-d that we are here. Together. In this moment. I, a hazzan, was standing on stage in Vilna, singing Modim. Who would have dreamed this would be possible? From the stage, I taught them what the prayer meant and encouraged them to sing with the refrain with me. Remember, most of the crowd was not Jewish.

Not only did they sing…there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. It was an overwhelming experience. It was a G-d-filled moment; it felt as if the souls lost in the Shoah filled the room and filled our souls. In Europe, concertgoers applaud in a rhythmic pattern to show appreciation…they wouldn’t stop; it got louder and faster. I don’t mean to sound immodest…this wasn’t really about me. I could hardly contain my emotions. The power of music and the power of prayer were so intense, it defies words.

Who knew this would be a part of my journey in life? Who knew that I would be a part of the rebirth of the Jewish community in places where we were decimated? I only feel blessed to have had this opportunity to show the world that we remember, that we care, and that we are still here!

It is up to each one of us to do G-d’s work. You don’t have to travel overseas; there is plenty to be done right here. However, if you do want to experience a taste, I invite you to join me on our next opportunity, this June, as I travel with my colleagues and congregants to Germany, to remember, to heal, and to remind.

For more information visit http://bit.ly/rvOFyw or www.- alisapomerantzboro.com

Hazzan Alisa Pomerantz- Boro’s reflections on her recent trip to Lithuania were adapted for the Voice from remarks she delivered from the bimah at Cong. Beth El on Shabbat Lech L’cha.

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