A Jewish heritage route through Belarus
A Jewish heritage route through Belarus is a much-needed initiative that is currently in the initial development stage. The route is a community-building project from The Together Plan to support the revival of Jewish community life, benefit wider civil society, and attract interest from outside of Belarus. Jewish communities, as well as representatives from the wider non-Jewish community, will be involved in researching and building the route. The route will highlight sites of cultural interest to visitors while giving communities ownership of their local Jewish heritage, and will give visitors, tourists and diaspora Jewish communities an opportunity to find a way back to their ancestral homes. The route will show visitors that there is Jewish life in Belarus; additionally, one of its key aims is to develop responsible Jewish heritage tourism, credibly researched and approved.
Belarus plays a vital role in Jewish history with many stories to tell, which at this stage often remain buried secrets. Conversely, there are still many Jewish people in Belarus who identify with the Jewish community but who express a desire to further explore their heritage. There is enormous potential for a Jewish heritage route to be developed by the community and for the community, which could benefit the wider diaspora. Belarus is a complex country, and sadly, its Jewish history and heritage are currently being neglected, along with the Jewish people who remain there. The building of this route is an opportunity to shed light on this oft-overlooked part of the world while supporting the revival of Judaism in the region.
The Jewish Route through Belarus will develop in phases as the project grows. Initially, the route will be represented in Brest, in the south of the country on the border with Poland; Slonim; Slutsk; Minsk; Novogrudok; and Polotsk and Vitebsk in the north of the country. These centres are being featured in phase one of the project, as The Together Plan has a presence in these areas with community representation who will play a role in developing the route on the local level. This decision gives ownership of the route to grassroots community organisations, ensuring that the information the route contains is accurate while empowering local actors.
Jews have lived on Belarusian lands for 600 years, developing their own unique culture, contributing to Belarus’ own cultural and economic development, and, naturally, influencing the character of the country. They were an integral part of the cultural landscape of Belarus.
At its peak in the early twentieth century, the Belarusian Jewish community numbered around a million people, and included a rich cultural and institutional array. Since 1991, following the break-up of the Soviet Union, Jewish institutions have been engaged in providing the basic health, welfare, and employment services to the 25,000-plus Jews living in Belarus. The Together Plan’s mission is to empower these communities to strengthen engagement around Jewish identity, heritage, and history, while connecting those in the diaspora to their Belarusian ancestry and the homes their forefathers left behind.
Through The Together Plan’s work over the last ten years, the organisation has found that Jewish people in Belarus have a strong desire to talk about their heritage and identity. The Together Plan believes that rebuilding community through tangible connection to the past is the route to cultural revival. In this vein, the Jewish Route through Belarus will center local Jewish communities, as well as wider non-Jewish communities. Visitors to Belarus will have access to a web site that will show the location of Belarus’ existing Jewish communities, and what Jewish trails exist in those towns and cities. When the project is fully developed, visitors will ultimately have access to a Jewish guidebook to Belarus, and communities will offer their own organised Jewish heritage tours; in microform, this is already a reality. In time, an annual Jewish music, art and cultural festival may even appear on the Jewish landscape in Belarus.
In its initial stages, the route will cover seven locations from Brest in the south of the country to Vitebsk in the north. The aim is to create local working groups to foster dialogue around history and heritage, and we plan to have external partners/mentors for each location to support and collaborate with these groups to create content together. In Belarus, local organisations sometimes lack awareness on how best to engage with outside institutions, or how to present the valuable knowledge they have to offer. Our hope is to address these issues. Furthermore, this project has the potential to scale exponentially, as more locations and communities come on board. Our pilot project in Polotsk is already demonstrating success.
In parallel, The Together Plan will also offer support to develop practices around community transparency, good governance, and due diligence. After years under the Soviet regime, communities now have the opportunity to regain autonomy, plan for their futures, and take responsibility for their development. Understanding the past informs our future. It is in this vital area that The Together Plan has begun to have a significant impact, working across communities irrespective of Jewish religious affiliation. Our approach is collaborative and unique, and aims to put Jewish Belarus back on the world map.
The opportunities for economic and cultural collaborative developments resulting from this project are extensive. The rich Jewish narrative in Belarus is currently at risk of being lost. An authentic, well-researched trail will serve as a tourism product for Belarus, bringing visitors to the country. It has the potential to build close ties between Belarusian Jewish communities, as well as with non-Jewish communities and Belarusian institutions. It will build support for the Jewish communities within Belarus, and will help diaspora Jews with Belarusian roots to connect with their ancestry. Cross-border projects and educational programmes would be a natural outcome as the trail grows[ימ2]
The Belarus Jewish heritage trail will create dialogue, interest, and opportunities around tangible and intangible heritage. Cultural heritage does not end at monuments or collections of artifacts. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants. In Belarus, many Jews experience a sort of absence, having lost a connection to ritual practices and knowledge of religious Judaism during the Communist era. A Jewish heritage trail in which Belarusian Jews are stakeholders will help these community members connect with their past and restore lost or broken relationships with their heritage.
According to UNESCO, ‘while fragile, intangible cultural heritage is an important factor in maintaining cultural diversity in the face of growing globalisation. An understanding of the intangible cultural heritage of different communities helps with intercultural dialogue, and encourages mutual respect for other ways of life.’
Within Belarus, there is currently a disconnect between Jewish groups, communities and individuals. Jewish communities in Belarus are equally isolated from the wider Jewish world. There is great potential to create a heritage network to share knowledge, build community, and develop programmes around inclusivity.
“People will share expressions of intangible cultural heritage that are similar to those practised by others. Whether they are from the neighbouring village, from a city on the opposite side of the world, or have been adapted by peoples who have migrated and settled in a different region, they all are intangible cultural heritage: they have been passed from one generation to another, have evolved in response to their environments and they contribute to giving us a sense of identity and continuity, providing a link from our past, through the present, and into our future.” (UNESCO)
There are many people of Belarusian descent around the world, and they too play a role in the discussion and understanding around Belarusian Jews’ intangible cultural heritage. By default, this relationship contributes to social cohesion, encouraging a sense of identification and responsibility to multiple communities, as well as to society at large. Belarus offers an extensive Jewish history and heritage that includes music, poetry, the Yiddish language, activism, Partisan activity, and important religious and political leaders. All this can be discovered, shared, and digested with a wider audience. The opportunities for education and conversation around tolerance, inclusivity, understanding, respect, and the strengthening of civil society are boundless.
Debra has been working in Belarus for over ten years and is a passionate advocate for Jewish community, history, heritage and identity. Debra has worked tirelessly to grow The Together Plan in order to give agency to Jewish people coming out of a traumatic past, to empower them and give them skills and self-belief to rebuild and revive. It is Debra’s mantra that together we can make a real and positive difference for a better, stronger and more cohesive Jewish landscape in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Artur was born in Minsk and spent two years living with a relative in Nashville, Tennessee. It was there, as a child of the Soviet Union, that he discovered Judaism; he studied Hebrew and had a bar mitzvah. It was his first foray into Jewish life. He spent a year living in a boarding school in Israel before returning to Belarus where he completed his education in Minsk, studying Human Rights Law.
Having had a taste of Jewish life, he has made it his life’s work to strive for a revival of the Jewish community in Belarus. He met Debra Brunner in 2009 and together, since that time, they have worked to build and grow The Together Plan.