Record-setting Cabinet trip explores Latvia, Hungary, and Estonia

Record-setting Cabinet trip explores Latvia, Hungary, and Estonia

Mar 23, 2023

In March, 175 members of the National Young Leadership Cabinet participated in a Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) Study Mission. The group visited Riga, Latvia, and Budapest, Hungary; some made a pre-mission trip to Tallinn, Estonia.

This was the largest JFNA Cabinet Mission in history. We talked to two members of the JEWISHcolorado contingent about their experiences on the trip and their thoughts about joining Cabinet. Loren Knaster was on his first Cabinet trip and Marisa Porter has been on Cabinet for six years.

2023 NYLC MissionWhy did you decide to join Cabinet?

Loren: It was always a matter of when I was going to join, not if, because I knew I was going to join Cabinet. I enjoy connecting with Jews who are my peers and building relationships with leaders of the next generation.

Marisa: It gives you a great opportunity to meet like-minded individuals in similar life stages with similar values, while also exploring Jewish communities on a domestic and global level. It’s a forum where you can share stories, give advice, and talk about best practices in the ways that we, as lay leaders, can interact with our Federations. I think it’s important to realize we are part of a global network of people with a shared history and culture so that we can preserve and continue our Jewish heritage. The global experiences inspire you to be involved locally.

This trip is described as a “study mission.” What is the goal of a study mission?

Marisa: We learn about the Jewish communities in the places we visit—how they differ and how they are similar to the communities we live in. You are also able to see the Federation in action—the way JFNA supports communities that are overseas. JFNA also ensures you see how other organizations—Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), Organization for Rehabilitation through Training (ORT), and the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC)—have boots on the ground and direct impact in these communities.

Rumbala Forest Memorial in LatviaLoren: Another result of being on a Study Mission in a new environment with other young leaders is that you build relationships and deepen connections. I liken it to summer camp or the Joyce Zeff Israel Study Tour. You spend five days together, and you feel like lifelong friends.

There is a lot of Holocaust history in the area you visited. Was there any one experience that stood out to you?

Marisa: In Riga, we visited the Rumbula Forest, site of the Rumbula massacre, where about  25,000 Jews were murdered in 1941. They were marched into the forest, stripped of their clothes, and shot in mass graves. It’s unfathomable. These people were brought to this remote area and killed for no other reason than they were Jewish. The day we visited was cold, damp, grey. There was some snow on the ground, and it was muddy. The weather fit the environment. We visit these places to experience this dark side of history.

Loren: I have been to Auschwitz, walked through the gas chambers, visited Yad Vashem more times than I can count. But it does not get easier to go to a place like Rumbula. I thought I could handle it. I took 99 steps, and I was fine. Then, on the 100th step, I was overcome by emotion.

Dohány Street Synagogue, Budapest, HungaryWhat opportunities did you have to experience the ways Jewish life exists today in the countries you visited?

Loren: I took the pre-mission trip tour of Tallinn in Estonia, and it ended up being my favorite place we visited. I had envisioned an Eastern European city with a grim vibe, but it was modern and with a beautiful medieval old city. After WWII and Soviet oppression, the Jewish community had been reduced to zero. It’s still small, but it’s growing. They have one synagogue, but you sense that there is momentum, resilience, and the drive to build back from nothing.

Marisa: In Budapest, we visited The Great Synagogue which is also known as the Dohány Street Synagogue. With seating for about 3,000 people, it’s the largest synagogue in Europe, and it is gorgeous. Right next to it, we saw Theodor Herzl’s birthplace.

Of all the experiences on this trip, which had the most impact?

Marisa: We traveled to a Jewish summer camp—Camp Szarvas—that is about 2 hours outside Budapest. During the summer, it would have Jewish young people and families. But right now, the JDC is using the camp to host Ukrainian Jews for two-week visits, giving them respite from life in a war zone. One woman was there with her 10-year-old son. In Ukraine, they had been sleeping in a bunker every night. One night, her son begged her to stay above ground for the night. The bunker was bombed that night. Had this woman not listened to her son, they would have been killed.

Camp SzarvasLoren: The people we met were not Ukrainian refugees. They have chosen to stay in Ukraine during the war because it’s their homeland. They came to the camp for two weeks for some normalcy. What they are dealing with in Ukraine is hell. I had dinner with a family of five, and even though we couldn’t communicate very well because of the difference in language, I could play with their toddler until we were in tears, laughing. I thought to myself, “This is another example of Jews being quick to help out their own.”

What was it like to be with a group from JEWISHcolorado?

Marisa: We had nine people on this trip from JEWISHcolorado, so great representation of our state. It shows the importance of Judaism to young people in Colorado. It shows the value they place on being Jewish and being part of a global community.

Loren: Colorado has a vibrant, growing, successful Jewish community. I would like to figure out a way to engage more young people because once you do a trip like this, you realize it’s transformative. I can’t wait to go again next year.

If someone is considering joining Cabinet, what would you tell them?

Loren: I have always been a leader in my local community, thinking about tikkun olam, repair of the world. On this Cabinet trip, I was now out in the world, helping people, making an impact. I was able to practice tikkun olam in places I never would have explored if it had not been for Cabinet.

Marisa: Don’t think twice about joining. But don’t join unless you can become fully engaged, going on the trips and the missions. If you are going to do it, really do it.