PROFESSOR STRMISKA’S STORY
These Religious Heritage Tours are the creation of me, Michael Strmiska, professor of World History at Orange County Community College in Middletown, NY, in partnership with Vytis Tours of Douglaston, NY and Jerulita Tours of Vilnius, Lithuania, both companies run by tried and trusted friends. I have Lithuanian and Czech ancestral heritage and have been visiting Eastern Europe since February 1996. I conduct research on religious history and modern-day religious movements in the Baltic States and have many contacts in the region. I find the complex history of the region, especially its religious diversity, which embraces early Pagan traditions centered on nature-gods, Christianity from Catholic to Orthodox to Uniate to Lutheran, Judaism from Orthodoxy to Hasidism to the Haskalah, and also the Islam of the Tatars and still more besides, fascinating and inspiring, even though this history also has its dark periods such as the Holocaust. I organize these tours as a sideline to my regular teaching job and run them at very low cost because I am not seeking to make massive profit from them, but to make the cultural and religious riches of this region available to people of modest means such as college students, working-class families and non-millionaire senior citizens, who cannot afford the kind of deluxe trips run by such organizations as The New York Times or the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. At the same time, my trips provide top-quality service, staying in very good if not luxury hotels, focus on the most important historical, cultural and religious sites in each country we visit, and make use of native guides with deep knowledge of their countries’ history and heritage. This is all possible due to the expertise and kindness of my excellent partners, the Jerulita and Vytis Tours companies. The most special feature of these trips is that we visit the sites associated with DIFFERENT religious traditions, seeking to build bridges between religions and break down barriers of ignorance and prejudice. If you believe in the value of interfaith exchanges and cross-cultural understanding, have curiosity about history, culture and religion of this region, have ancestral roots in Eastern Europe or know others who do, THESE TRIPS ARE FOR YOU! I personally accompany all trips, have complete confidence in my travel industry partners, and can assure you of a very personally meaningful experience exploring Eastern Europe.
I asked the Gurevich family for some auobiographical information, about how they started the business and what it means to them. This is what Yulik Gurevich, founder of the company, wrote back to me.
Here is YULIK’S STORY.
“It all started in 1988, along with the winds of freedom and the premonition of independence in Lithuania. There also started a revival of the Jewish life in yet Soviet Lithuania. I decided to learn Hebrew and then later on my wife and I visited Israel for the first time. That was a very strong impact to study more and to deepen in the Jewish history, culture, religion and traditions.
“In 1993-94 I was honoured to take part in the international one year “Senior Educators” program in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem where I continued my Judaic studies. This year in Israel made a real switch in my life and I left my previous occupation as a software engineer for tourist business and guidance.
“I designed my first project called “Discover Lithuanian Jerusalem”. It works till now and contains journeys back into the highs and lows of the Jewish history of Eastern Europe combined with general sightseeing and acquaintance with the present-day vibrant Jewish Communities.
“On this basis I started to run one person travel company “JeruLita”. Later on my son Daniel joined me and we immediately had a powerful team! We have expanded our “geography” and today we do tours in all the countries around the Baltic Sea and even more.
“We have improved the contents of our tours and we seek to portray the history, culture, architecture, folklore, arts of each particular country or city, including, of course, their Jewish components.
“I like very much art and music, especially classical music. Therefore I have designed one more project – “Art and Music Tours”. We visit famous art museums and galleries, such as Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, Mauritshuis in the Hague, Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, Hermitage and Russian Museum in St.Petersburg, Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, Royal Castle in Warsaw and others. We enjoy music in world-known opera houses and concert halls and take part in musical festivals, such as “Mariinski” in St.Petersburg, “Concertgebouw” in Amsterdam, “Sibelius Hall” in Helsinki, Frederik Chopin Festival in Warsaw, Savonlinna Opera Festival in Finland, Riga Opera Festival in Latvia. These tours include lectures on art history and music and afterwards we like to share impressions, notions and ideas.
“I appreciate highly when younger people are coming to our tours and I can acquaint them with the Jewish and general history of the country, broaden their horizons and share with them my knowledge, my experience and my conceptions. I believe in qualified and emotional guidance as means of informal education, having not less impact than the formal one.
“It happens sometime to guide Jewish tour for non-Jewish people. After the first experience of this kind I understood how significant this task is. We seek not only to disperse the two thousand years superstitions but also we show who were the neighbours of their grandparents and what happened to them. And when once during the visit to Ponar forest I saw the eyes of my tourists full of tears I realized that the job I and our team are doing is, among other things, also some kind of a mission.
“I invite you to join our tours in this part of the world. I guide in English, Hebrew, Lithuanian and Russian. I speak also Yiddish and Polish.”