Project MEGA, run through Minsk Hillel, saw young people from around the world discover Belarus's Jewish life past and present.

A unique educational initiative, the first of its kind, has taken place in the Belarusian capital, Minsk.

For more than a week, 75 Russian-speaking young people from Belarus itself, America, Israel, Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Poland took part in Project MEGA, travelling throughout the country to learn about its history and the contribution made by its Jewish community.

Project MEGA stands for “Memory, Education, Generation, Action,” and was run from Minsk Hillel and held under the auspices of Hillel International and the Genesis Philanthropy Group (GPG). Participants visited cities and towns that had a central role in Jewish life for centuries – Minsk, Mir, Navahrudak, Grodno, Lida and Iwye.

In addition to learning about the past and meeting local Jewish communities, the MEGA participants worked on cleaning and restoring Jewish cemeteries, and decrypted names, dates, prayers and blessings carved on the tombstones, some of them more than 500 years old.

“My grandfather died on this land. And we lost his grave,” said Iliana Svechin, from Rutgers Hillel in the United States. “By helping take care of other graves, it’s as if I’ve paid him my last respects.”

Belarus was one of the prime centres of Jewish communal and spiritual life in eastern Europe. At the turn of the 20th century, half the population of its major towns were Jewish, and once there were almost 400 synagogues.

MEGA and other joint initiatives by GPG and Hillel aim to connect the new generation of Russian-speaking Jews with their history and legacy.

Jeremy Moskowitz, Hillel International’s vice president for international growth and operations, said: “The lasting impact of connecting these students through their shared culture, heritage and language will exponentially multiply the impact of Russian-speaking Jewish engagement at our local Hillels around the world.”

Ilia Salita, GPG president and chief executive, said: “GPG is happy to support the project that combines Jewish learning with action, builds Jewish unity and encourages a further journey into Jewish identity.”