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Inside Lithuania’s Community of International Jewish Students

Inside Lithuania’s Community of International Jewish Students main image

Nestled on the southeastern shore of the Baltic Sea, Lithuania is a striking European country. Whereas other countries across eastern and western Europe have seen large demographic changes over the centuries of human civilization - resulting in a diverse and multi-cultural population - many modern-day Lithuanians can trace their ancestry back to the end of the Stone Age.

As a result, Lithuania is one of the most homogenous nations in Europe, with ethnic Lithuanians making up a staggering five-sixths of the country’s population.

Given this, you’d be forgiven for expecting Lithuania to be an unappealing study destination for international students. Which is why its sizeable community of international students is so intriguing. Why do so many international students choose to study here? And why do so many of them come from one country in particular: Israel?

A historical connection

While there are few signs of it today, historically Lithuania had a thriving Jewish community. At the time of the Second World War, it’s thought the country’s Jewish population totaled approximately 220,000 people. Around 90 percent of these people were killed in the Holocaust.

Some of those who survived fled to Israel, and this is partly why Israeli students have come to Lithuania ever since the country regained independence from the Soviet Union at the start of the 1990s. 

As one of the few central European universities offering medicine degrees taught in English, the Lithuanian University of Health Sciences (LSMU) began to attract students from Israel and elsewhere. Over time, expats and graduates have recommended the university to other Israelis and the Jewish community at LSMU has grown as a result.

Today, 17.4 percent of the university’s students come from abroad, with more students coming from Israel than any other country.

A home from home

Pictured: Sivan Najar (right), LSMU odontology student

Fourth year odontology student Sivan Najar is one of the hundreds of Israelis currently studying at LSMU. For her, studying abroad at a university with a significant Jewish community was crucial.

She told us: “When you are far from home, you like to have customs and holidays that remind you of home, such as the Shabbat.”

There are other benefits too, especially when it comes to your studies. Sivan told us of how Israeli students often look out for each other:

“Upper year students will transfer material and summaries to new students which really helps with approaching a new period of study. The social life has a big influence as well, as there are dinners and meetings with other Israeli students.”

Given the strong community bond Sivan has come to depend on, it’s perhaps surprising to learn she didn’t know a single person in Lithuania before arriving here to start her studies. The same is true of another Israeli student we spoke to, Omri Azarzar. Omri told us: “I didn’t know any other people here, but I heard from people that it’s very nice here. Now, I know many Israelis in Kaunas [the Lithuanian city where LSMU is located]. It’s very important for me to keep in touch with them as it reminds me of my home.”

The cycle continues

In just 30 years since the first Israeli students arrived in Lithuania and at LSMU, the Jewish community has grown significantly. Many of the current professors at LSMU were in fact part of that initial wave of international students from the early 90s, while the positive word-of-mouth passed down through generations will likely continue to inspire Israeli students to make the trip to Kaunas.

Both Omri and Sivan have plans to return to Israel after their studies are completed, using their skills to enrich their native country. Should they be successful, there can be little doubt that their positive experience of studying in Israel will encourage the next generation to move abroad for university too, continuing the cycle of academic pilgrimage.

Lead image: Omri Azarzar (left), LSMU student

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Written by Craig OCallaghan
As Head of Content, Craig is responsible for all articles and guides published across TopUniversities and TopMBA. He has nearly 10 years of experience writing for a student audience and extensive knowledge of universities and study programs around the world.

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