Rediscovery Trip to Lithuania

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by Rabbi Nosson Zev Grossman
(Reprinted with permission from the Yated Ne'eman and Rabbi Mordechai Plaut)

Almost a year has passed since that wonderful voyage of discovery to the roots of the yeshiva world in Lithuania, organized by the yeshiva Ahavas Torah-Baranowitz of Yerushalayim, led by HaRav Elchonon Baron. The trip was graced with the presence of several senior talmidei chachomim who have personal memories of those roots, including HaRav Leib Baron, the nosi of the yeshiva. The voyage was chronicled, so that we can all participate, to some extent, in the voyage and the lessons it has for us today.

The airport clerk stops in the middle of examining our tickets and looks up hesitantly. "I see you have just returned from Vilna," she says in heavily accented Hebrew. "I am from there myself; I came on aliya about a year ago. May I ask what you want in Lithuania -- I mean, Jews of your sort?"

Odd, we'd been asked the same question by another young, secular oleh chadash while waiting to board the plane at Vilna. He had gone back to visit his family, but obviously he had already adopted the Israeli style: "Tell me something - -- what is a Dos [Israeli slang for Ashkenazi chareidi] like you doing here in Vilna? Did you lose something here?" Then he answers his own question with a knowing look. "Wait, don't tell me -- I already know. You came to visit the Gaon's grave, right? Don't think I never heard of him. I went to the Gaon's grave myself on this visit. That's what you came for, right?"

The word "gaon" rolls off his tongue with a strong Russian accent that seems to augment the triumph in his voice, as if he had gotten to the bottom of the mystery. So this was why so many chareidim, rabbonim, and roshei yeshivos come to Vilna!

As a matter of fact, our visit to the kever of Rabbenu the Gaon of Vilna, ztvk"l was one of the high points of our recent trip to the destroyed Torah centers of Lithuania. But if anyone had doubts about whether they were really destroyed, this question would easily settle the matter: "What would Jews like you want in Lithuania?" - - clear evidence that only a wasteland is left after two hundred years of glory. Second and third- generation tinokos shenishbu, victims of Communist "reeducation," wonder what on earth bnei Torah could be looking for in Lithuania.

"What did you lose here?" they want to know.

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