Eastern European leaders get a taste of Jewish St. Louis on visit with AJC

At the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center,  AJC’s visitors received a tour from museum director Jean Cavender (not pictured).  From left are Dimitry Dubrovsky, Egle Marke-viciute and  Ales Rod.

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

The St. Louis Jewish community played host to three emerging thought leaders from Eastern Europe this weekend in a project designed to educate on democratic values, human rights and better relations among groups.

“It’s a win-win situation,” said Nancy Lisker, director of the regional office of the American Jewish Committee, the international organization that sponsored the program, “not only for those who come here to study about our democratic institutions and how we are trying to prevent racism and discrimination but also for St. Louisans who can learn and be exposed to what is going on in their home countries and how they are dealing with it.”


Known as “Promoting Tolerance,” the two-decade-old program, which is run in cooperation with Germany’s Naumann Foundation, focuses on building ties with academics, activists and political leaders from the budding democracies that came out of the Soviet Union’s decline and eventual breakup in 1991. The three visitors to St. Louis were from a larger group of 10, representing nations from Belarus to Serbia to the Kyrgyz Republic. They all began their journey together in Washington D.C. before heading to New York where the delegation broke into three groups, each visiting a separate location in the United States.

“If anybody had told me a year ago that I would end up visiting the Jewish community in St. Louis, I wouldn’t have believed it,” said participant Egle Markeviciute, a participant from Lithuania. “For me, the St. Louis part was really the closest to my heart.”

Markeviciute, 23, a pro-liberty activist who works for the Lithuanian Free Market Institute, said she found it especially moving to go to Congregation Shaare Emeth where the group attended Friday night services. She said it had a different feel from Jewish worship in her homeland.

“This sort of blend of religion, philosophy and community is really one of the unique things that I’ve never seen before,” said Markeviciute, a Vilnius University graduate who chairs a liberal youth organization in her own country. “I would say that among all the things I have experienced this was at the top of everything.”

Ales Rod, an economist from the Czech Republic, said he enjoyed his visit to the Missouri History Museum, especially the opportunity to learn more about the American Civil War.

“I really appreciated it because for Europeans it is not quite common to teach about the Civil War in the U.S.A.,” said the 27-year-old who serves as chief analyst at the Liberal Institute think tank and teaches economics. “We have little information about it so it was very interesting.”

He said that, working in the somewhat academic profession of economics, he felt it was rewarding to experience the “human” side of the cultural equation during the AJC trip.

“I was touched by the Holocaust Museum in D.C. because I found the name of a small village where my parents live these days,” he said.

Dimitry Dubrovsky, 42, said the Holocaust figured prominently in his feelings as well. The associate professor and director of the Human Rights Program at St. Petersburg State University specializes in multiculturalism and the importance of fundamental freedoms.

“In my country, on the government level it is a very popular idea to promote tolerance without any reference to the Holocaust, without any reference to the victims,” said Dubrovsky, who sometimes works as an expert on hate speech and hate crimes in his native Russia. “It’s important to know exactly what we should not do so we can prevent that kind of tragedy, to prevent genocide.”

The group was able to visit not just the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum but also the local Holocaust Museum and Learning Center where they were given a personal tour by director Jean Cavender who explained some of the organization’s anti-bias efforts.

Dubrovsky said it was vital to combat prejudice everywhere, not just when it is directed at Jews but also when it aims at other vulnerable groups such as Muslims or lesbians and gays.

“That seems to me to be very important because instead of the logic of self-protection, it would be great to understand the logic of the common protection of the human race,” he said.

In addition to the History Museum, Shaare Emeth and the local Holocaust Museum, the three participants were also given the chance to tour the Gateway Arch grounds, the Central West End and do some shopping at the Galleria. Dinners with local families Kara and Robert Newmark and Jane and Ken Rubin were included on the itinerary as well.

The three visitors were set to reunite in Los Angeles with their seven other traveling companions, who visited Dallas and Miami, before concluding the 10-day trip.

Lisker said the program, which has even hosted cabinet-level leaders in the past, speaks strongly to the values of AJC, which was founded in 1906 by survivors of Russian anti-Semitic mob attacks.

“The principle was that in order for Jews to never again suffer pogroms and discrimination, not only Jews had to be protected but all minorities needed to be protected,” she said. “This is precisely what this program seeks to foster.”

Rod said that the greatest takeaway for him was the idea that one must act whenever discrimination or injustice occurs.

“For me, the most important thing is that you cannot just stand by,” he said. “Only action matters. It’s not sufficient to just not hate or not speak against someone. It’s very important to do real effort and activity.”