by: Wyman Brent
You never know exactly what is going to happen when you set out to travel the world. There are times when even heading down the street to your local grocery store can be an adventure. Will you meet someone you know and end up spending more time talking than shopping? Perhaps you will make a new friend while trying to decide which flavor ice cream to purchase.
My big adventure started off by boarding a plane in San Diego to fly to San Francisco where another flight would carry me off across eight time zones to London. Loaded up with books for the long flight and for any downtime in the UK, I was ready to head over to an eventual meeting with a person I truly admire.
Sir Martin Gilbert is the author or editor of seventy-nine books. He is also a professor and lecturer and an all around amazing person. He invited me to visit his home to discuss the Vilnius Jewish Library over a cup of tea. His invitation was extended even before Rebecca Spence wrote an article about the library for the Forward, which is the oldest, and largest U.S. Jewish newspaper based in New York. This was to be an adventure filled with honors. Meeting Sir Martin was the first of many and certainly not the least of them. Imagine being invited by someone to his or her home, someone you truly respect to talk about a project, which until that time seemed a bit quixotic.
Just a couple of days before my birthday, I found myself drinking tea with Sir Martin and his wonderful wife. While there I met the son who was rushing out the door to somewhere. Later I met the daughter who was working in the library building just behind the home. Imagine having a beautiful study loaded with books and your own library as well. That is what I would call heaven on earth. Knowing that Sir Martin is donating one copy each of all his books makes life just that much more heavenly.
Shortly after the meeting in London, it was time to head on over to Tallinn, Estonia. The idea was simply to spend a week there before heading down to Riga, Latvia for another week and then on to Vilnius in Lithuania. Things never quite work out the way you plan…kind of like when you are in the grocery store and end up somehow walking out with something you never knew existed but you just couldn’t resist.
Life at times seems to be made up of signs guiding us in new directions. The sign in this case was posted on the wall of the hostel in Tallinn where I was staying. It said not to leave Tallinn, as the hostel needed volunteers. A sign is a sign and sometimes it is an omen as well. I applied to stay as a volunteer and ending up meeting a true hero.
The hero in this case is Rabbi Shmuel Kot who moved from Israel to Estonia to become the Chief Rabbi of the country. He chose to move to a place with frigid winters and a tiny Jewish population. Tallinn is a lovely city but also one where you can’t go out and expect to meet Orthodox Jews in the shops and walking the streets. It is not a place where you have your choice of which kosher shop to pick up supplies in.
Tallinn is not the place where one raises six Jewish children. However, if Rabbi Kot did not lead the few Jews of Tallinn then who would do it? I ended up meeting with the Rabbi thanks to another person staying at the hostel. He was a young French Jew moving to Tallinn to start a business. He told me about going over to the synagogue to attend Friday night services and asked if I would like to go along. Considering I was in Europe to build the first Jewish library in Lithuania since the war, you can well guess what my answer was to the invite.
First I met one of my heroes in London and now in Tallinn. I already knew about the former before starting the journey and discovered the second along the way. Imagine the honor of sitting and talking with the Rabbi and breaking bread and drinking wine after the services. Imagine being there when the Rabbi shows up a few minutes late for the service with the announcement that he just came from the hospital where a son was born. For some reason, I had brought with me that night two calendars I had bought during the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center annual book fair. The calendars were a gift for the Rabbi. Since I had no way of knowing the date of the birth, the Rabbi said that G-d must have whispered in my ear. The next week I brought a card in which I wrote, “May your children grow up to make a mighty noise which will change the world in a wonderful way.” There is no doubt that this wish or prophecy or what have you will come true.
Finally I will say that it was a pleasure and pleasant surprise to find in Europe such an interest in the idea of the library. The weekly newspaper Baltic Times did a story on the Vilnius Jewish Library, which led to the Israeli Embassy based in Riga, Latvia to contact me. The Baltic Times is sold in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The contact led to new adventures in Vilnius which I will discuss with the next article for the Gantseh Megillah.
Wyman Brent is a non-Jewish man who, out of his love for the Jewish people, has begun a project to build a Jewish library in Vilnius, Lithuania. You may contact Wyman at firstname.lastname@example.org, for information and to offer support.