The grass was patchy and the ground was muddy, dirt obscuring the stone paths. Illegible headstones, bent and weathered, peaked out like weary denizens of this neglected place.
This was the view that greeted 22-year-old David Lysenko, a recent graduate of Georgetown University, when he arrived at a Jewish cemetery in Minsk, Belarus to help with restoration efforts as part of Project MEGA.
Project MEGA (Memory, Education, Generation, Action) brings Jewish students from around the world together to repair and restore abandoned Jewish cemeteries in eastern Europe. The five-year-old program is funded by Hillel International and the Genesis Philanthropy Group, the latter of which works to preserve Russian-Jewish heritage.
Lysenko’s session, which took place over eight days in July, had 75 students participating from nine countries, including Russia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and Israel. They spent their time digging out sunken headstones, standing them up and cleaning them, said Lysenko. The Israeli students helped translate the
inscriptions on the stones.
“The last Jew in the town died a couple of years back,” he said, “And nobody has been buried in the cemetery since World War Two.”
Before the war, there were some 800,000 Jews living in Belarus. Most of them were killed in the Holocaust. In 2014, there were an estimated 70,000 Jews living in Belarus, and many more Belarusian Jews living in Israel.
After spending all day in the cemetery, the group would have dinner and then settle in for classes focused on Jewish history, stories and symbols. Everything would connect with what they were doing in the cemeteries.
For Lysenko, the clean-up effort was a new way of connecting with his Judaism. He said he wasn’t very involved with Hillel prior to the trip.
“My experience with Judaism has always been through my synagogue with people older than me,” he said in a phone interview. “It was a unique experience for me connecting with people my age through Judaism.”
One of Lysenko’s friends participated in Project MEGA and encouraged him to do the same. He decided to trust her and was ultimately surprised by what the trip had to offer, he said.
“I’ve been to Eastern Europe in the past and studied it in school, but I never felt a connection before,” he explained.
The trip also affected him emotionally. One of the tour guides on the program, a Holocaust survivor from the area, knew the stories of everybody in town. She also raised money to build memorial statues for some of the local victims of the Holocaust.
“I was very emotionally moved. She had the biggest impact on me,” he said.
With all of this physical and emotional heavy lifting, there was still time to make friends and explore the area. Lysenko became really close with two Ukranian students participating in the program, and the group discussed differences in Jewish life for people growing up in the United States versus Ukraine.
“That was really interesting to see,” he said. “In the U.S., Judaism is really widely accepted. [The Ukranians] practice Judaism in a musical kind of way. Because of how repressed Judaism was, people practiced as they could. I think they tend to try and live the prayer. It’s more about the spirit of the actions.”
Now that he’s back, Lysenko wants to learn more and connect further with his Judaism. He plans to study at a yeshiva; he said another participant on the trip signed up to be an IDF soldier as soon as he got home.
“It’s interesting how this trip has effected so many people on it. I learned a lot of this history, and felt it,” he said. Lysenko and his group only cleared up about a third of the cemetery in the eight days they were in Minsk, so the project isn’t over yet.
I believe this cemetery is in Mir, not Minsk. I visited the Mir cemetery a week after this article appeared and our guide praised the work of the students. They are pictured in front of the Mir Castle.