Jewish Scholarly Tours with Paul Forgasz

Paul Forgasz has been a staple among the Jewish Museum of Australia community in Melbourne, lecturing on history at Monash University. He’s a longtime partner of Jerulita, leading scholarly tours on Jewish history, in Poland and Lithuania, Spain, Germany, Italy and Austria. His specialty is 16/18-day educational tours on immersive Jewish history, mostly in Europe. We sat down with him to talk about his tours and relationship with Jerulita :

What’s been your educational background?

I’ve been involved with Jewish education for most of my professional life, high school, university, adult education. I was the principal of a Jewish high school in Melbourne for about 10 years, but I’ve taught Jewish studies, Jewish history and community education for around 20.

Pilies Street in Vilnius
Pilies Street in Vilnius

Could you describe your tours?

Around about 9-10 years ago, as I was starting to think about semi-retirement, I got involved with Jewish educational travel. The very first tour I did was a tour to Spain. My travel tours are intensive study programs, sort of like academic-level tourism without the exams and assessment. You get the joy of learning in-depth without having to sit through papers and tests. I tend to focus on European destinations (but not exclusively), and my niche is the Jewish historical narrative in each destination, from the beginning to the present.

When did you get involved with Jerulita Travel?

The very first time I met with Daniel and Jelena was in 2013. I was doing an exploratory tour of Germany, and I thought, well, I’m already in this part of the world – it was a short flight to Vilnius – why don’t I contact some guides for a future tour in Eastern Europe? I reached out to Jerulita and we met at the hotel I was staying. Daniel very kindly took me on a 3-hour garden walk of Vilnius, to give me a sense of how he operates. I was impressed—so in 2014, the next year, I worked with Jerulita Travel in Lithuania and Poland. I’ve done 4 years in a row with them as my on the ground guides in Lithuania. So that was the genesis with my relationship with them.

Can you tell our readers more about how you work with Jerulita Travel?

I prefer to work with local suppliers directly, instead of going through an inbound travel agent, because it cuts the communication delay. My colleague at the university, Sue, has done a lot of work with Daniel, so she made the recommendation.

I usually have a clear idea of where I want to go—I don’t start with locations, instead I choose a country, then start with the narrative and work locations around the story. It’s not the tyranny of place, it’s essentially the narrative that drives my tours. I contact the local tour operator, we decide on the route together, then they arrange all the accommodations, coffee breaks, meeting rooms. I don’t usually include lunches or dinners, but for shabbat I want my guests to get together.

A Different Type of Tour

What makes my tours a little more complex than most, is that I incorporate study sessions. Let’s say in a 16-18-day tour, there might be 10 study sessions. These lectures and discussions happen in the hotels, first thing in the morning or last thing in the afternoon. They’re very helpful as they orient my guests to wherever we are going or where we just went—gives them a solid background. So it’s a fairly complex affair to get everything together, and that’s where Jerulita is immensely helpful.

I would describe myself as the tour educator, working with local guides, who are crucial as I rely on them to direct us to the right place. I do the lectures and interact very closely with the guides. So they can expect at any moment that I might interject, perhaps to raise an issue, read a poem, or have a group discussion about the subject. The guides bring a monument or building to life, and my job is the build the education around that. So it’s very important how well we work together. I’ve been pretty lucky—you know, some guides out in the world get precious about their space and interruptions—but that’s never been a problem with Jerulita.

The Hill of Witches, Juodkrante, Neringa
The Hill of Witches, Juodkrante, Neringa

What are guests who join your tours looking for?

What they want to see is history come to life. A lot of my guests are students, who attend my Jewish adult education classes in Melbourne. For example, I might teach about the Jews of Lithuania for 8 weeks—then they join me. Obviously, when you’re on the ground, it’s got a whole different feel—history comes to life.

In cases like Spain or Italy, many of my guests have already been to these places—but they join my tours for yet another time, as my tour opens up a brand-new window into these locations—and that’s the Jewish narrative. They’ll say, it’s amazing—I’ve been here the third time, but it’s like the first time—because they’re exploring it through a different set of eyes.

Eastern Europe is a bit different, because, for instance, Poland is a place that many Jews, and Australian Jews as many have survived the Holocaust, have a great deal of reluctance in visiting as a tourist. But they might join my tour to Poland because it’s part of a structured, educational experience.

How often are your tours?

Generally I cover around 2-3 locations in a year, and to Lithuania/Poland, 1x a year. They are quite intensive, running around 17-18 days. I might combine two tours back-to-back, do Poland/Lithuania, then follow up with Germany or Spain. Australians, because of the distance, don’t want to come just for a week—because you spend as much time traveling as coming home. So Australians tend to travel longer than, say, Europeans.

How might a guest incorporate a heritage tour or visit their grandparents’ shtetl?

If a guest says that they want to visit their grandparents’ shtetl, I can’t usually build it into the itinerary. Because it’s a scholarly program, we simply don’t have the time for personal requests. However, I do encourage people to come a little earlier or later if they want to do a little extension tracing their heritage. I’ve had people book with Jerulita to do an extension to a village outside of Vilnius before my scholarly tour started.

What has your experience been like with Jerulita?

One day excursion in Vilnius
Yulik leads a tour in Vilnius

It’s been excellent, outstanding. In terms of organization and arrangements, I work chiefly with Lena. I would place her among the best of the best in terms of land operators. She’s very responsive, very reliable, very transparent, very upfront about everything that she’s doing. She’s big on detail, emails get responded to very quickly. I can’t think of anything I could fault in any way.

In terms of guides, I’ve worked with three Jerulita guides. In the first year, I’ve worked with Daniel, in both Lithuania and Poland—in the following year, I worked again with Daniel. The third year, Daniel said that I would be working with Yulik. At first, I was quite nervous—because when you have a very good guide, you don’t want to let go of them—I wasn’t sure how it was going to work out. But Yulik turned out to be outstanding as well, for very different reasons—because he’s much closer to the story he tells, with his firsthand experience.

Last year, Yulik was not available, so Lena told me I was going to have Svetlana—again I was nervous! But then I met her, relaxed a bit, and once she was on the ground—the feedback from the group was just outstanding. So I have to say, if you put the package together, Lena on the organizational side, and all of the 3 guides I’ve worked with, it’s just been excellent service all around.

How might someone who is not from your classes join your tours?

They are open to anyone around the world. If anyone wants to join the tours, they can sign up. The tours are promoted through the Jewish Museum of Australia, so a lot of my guests come this way—but anyone is welcome to join.

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