Mission, Origins & Programs
The mission of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute — the VYI — is to provide academic and cultural programs for the preservation, enrichment, and continuity of Yiddish and East European Jewish culture. Thereby, it aims to benefit present and future generations the world over, Jews and non-Jews alike.
The Vilnius Yiddish Institute was founded in 2001 by Jewish scholars from the United States and Israel working in partnership with Lithuanian academics who had studied in America and Israel. Together, they were determined to build a viable new institution that would provide cultural, academic, and other educational programs.
The Institute’s origins can be traced to the Vilnius Summer Program in Yiddish, which was founded at Vilnius University in 1998 (where it had relocated after sixteen years at Oxford University). Praised by students of all ages, nationalities, and faiths, the Vilnius Summer Program is an intensive four-week course held each August at four levels, from beginning to advanced. It provides an academic program of language and literature courses each morning, supplemented by a broad array of cultural activities in the afternoons and evenings.
From 2001 onward, the Institute has also been offering credit courses in Yiddish and East European Jewish culture throughout the academic year at Vilnius University. Some of these form part of the new degree program in Minority Studies at the university, and plans are underway for a doctoral program in Yiddish and East European Jewish Studies and for various masters programs. International students—also from the Americas and Western Europe— wishing to pursue advanced Yiddish/Judaic studies for periods of a semester or more are accommodated. The VYI provides the academic base, facilities, and professorial supervision for Fulbright scholars.
The Institute mounts linguistic and cultural research expeditions to seek out the last, tragically forgotten shtetl Jews of Lithuania, Belarus, Latvia, Ukraine, and neighboring countries and to videograph their language and personal histories. Invaluable memories and scenes are digitally preserved. Moreover, concerted material efforts are made to assist these last shtetl Jews, many of whom are living out their last days in abject poverty. In pursuing this task, the Institute works closely with the On-Site Survivor Support Project that is based in Los Angeles, California. (For more details, please visit www.survivormitzvah.org)
In May 2005, the Institute launched its annual intensive two-week Yiddish Educator Program. This is a training program in Yiddish Studies for Yiddish educators at all levels, from day school and evening class teachers to university professors. It equips the participants to meet the culturally specific challenges of teaching an authentic, idiomatic Yiddish to new generations of students in many parts of the world. Thirty participants from a dozen countries helped make the inaugural program an international success.
The Institute’s staff is also active in publishing books intended for a wider, intellectually curious audience as well as academic specialists. In 2003, Professor Sharunas Liekis, the Institute’s director, published his milestone work, Jewish Autonomy in Lithuania, focusing on the early 1920s. Mr. Menachem-Mendy Cahan published his academic satire, Matthias, in late 2003, and it has already seen a second edition. Plans are underway for a series of publications in Yiddish too, including fiction and poetry as well as academic studies. In 2003, the VYI co-published the Jerusalem Almanac, a major anthology of new Yiddish literary and academic work edited by Professor Dov-Ber Kerler of Indiana University at Bloomington. In spring 2004, Professor Dovid Katz’s Lithuanian Jewish Culture, a 400-page folio volume, appeared in Vilnius. This was followed at the end of 2004 by his Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish, published by Basic Books in New York.
The educational, research, and cultural programs of the Institute are enabled through the generosity of people and institutions that care deeply about the perpetuation and advancement of Yiddish and the East European Jewish heritage. The Vilnius Yiddish Institute is a non-governmental organization and a recognized non-profit institution in the Republic of Lithuania. A supporting organization in the United States, the Friends of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, is an independent, non-profit, and tax-exempt educational foundation that sustains the work of the Institute. Arrangements for tax-exempt (charity) status in Britain, Canada, and other countries are expected to be completed during 2006.