It was during the time of Ray Shonholtz transitioning from being the founding director of San Francisco Community Mediation Boards to his founding Partners for Democratic Change that Ray and I worked together. Ray was interested in my thoughts on technology and organizing. He wanted to know how we could help the emerging Eastern European Republics, fresh on the heels of the Soviet Union crumbling. What resulted was the opportunity of a lifetime.
To make a very long story short, I had met Ray a number of times based upon my work for the Oregon Mediation Association and Academy of Family Mediators back in the 80’s and my involvement with John Helie and ConflictNet. A big part of our emerging success at that time was the incorporation of computer and Internet technologies into organizational management and services. In founding Partners, Ray was intensely interested in how we could use technology and best ADR and mediation practices to serve the new Eastern European Republics.
What ultimately resulted for me was a two-week trip to Vilnius, Lithuania within months of that country’s declared independence and breaking off from the Soviet Union. You have to imagine a country completely starting over. The integrated Soviet economy was no longer. Lithuania airlines were the 13 jets on the ground on that Independence Day. I learned that 7 of the jets were now considered “parts planes.” We entered the “Yak” aircraft by climbing stairs into what seemed to be the plane anus. The pilot was clearly military, with a jacket right out of Urban Outfitters, but more than 20 years ago. He wore reflective sunglasses. He clearly enjoyed flying the plane.
At the airport, the initial cab quote was more than 10x what I ultimately paid. There were only 3 cars in the parking lot of the largest hotel in Vilnius. The front door of the hotel did not fully close. The receptionist “babushka” was wider than tall and sleeping on the sofa next to the reception desk when I entered.
In the morning, at the hotel café, I was the only customer. The attendant said they had two kinds of omelets, cucumber omelets and tomato omelets. I asked for a cucumber and tomato omelet. She said they did not have those. So much for total customer satisfaction I thought.
When I entered the institution to teach, I noticed that they kept the lights all off to save energy. In fact, each quarter of the city of Vilnius only got hot water one out of every four days. One learns to enjoy a cold shower and use toilet paper that passed for sand paper.
In one training, I spoke to representatives from 14 republics (with simultaneous translation) for 3 days about the establishment of national conflict resolution associations. At that time, using my breakfast example, I emphasized “total customer satisfaction” and the emerging Internet technologies. After the organizational training, I also had the opportunity to offer a 3-day mediation skills course.
It was during that course that I met “Israel,” a small and elegant Lithuanian in his mid 70’s. Over the course of the first two days, I paid a bit of special attention to Israel, he clearly being the oldest participant, and also shared a bit about myself with him on breaks, including that it was my understanding that my own relatives were from Vilnius.
It was during the third and last day of this training that Israel told me that his son was the curator of the new Vilnius Jewish Museum and that, if I liked, he was prepared to take me the next day on a tour of historic sites, including the Vilnius Jewish Ghetto, tunnels and all, and also to the remaining Jewish cemetery. I was told that two Jewish cemeteries had been fully or near fully destroyed under a soccer stadium and freeway, but that a portion of one Jewish cemetery remained in tact which we visited. I did not find “Melamed” on any tombstones, but I did look for more than an hour. I sensed that Israel's son knew I would come up empty.
The truth, as I understand it, is that my dad’s parents fled Vilnius following the pogroms. Most, by far, of their families were then and there killed. My grandparents were in fact close relatives and without even a high school education. The ended up raising 3 radiologists and a lawyer in America (my dad and his 3 brothers).
Around Vilnius, people were selling Hersey Bars, milk, bread and eggs from the top of milk crates. Larger operations sold goods off the top of a card table. There were a few emerging stalls selling fruits and vegetables. The only commercial operations I saw were a couple of food stores, a butcher, and small stores that sold Lego and Kodak film.
Lithuania and the other Eastern European Republics were economies and societies to a great degree starting over, reinventing themselves as democratic republics. Ray Shonholtz saw this happening before anyone else and acted without hesitation to get involved by forming Partners for Democratic Change. He convinced the U.S. State Department to sponsor my and a number of other substantial efforts in Eastern Europe.
This is just scratching the surface of this amazing trip to Lithuania shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, for which I am beholden to Ray Shonholtz. These experiences were and continue to be amongst the most powerful of my life and for this I say “thank you so much” to Ray. This trip helped me to appreciate the very many blessings of my own life and also that how we deal with conflict is indeed a choice and one that can be powerfully and beneficially impacted by dedicated and passionate efforts over time.
May we all be so inspired to “go for it” by Ray. Ray dreamt. He consulted and refined his dreams. He boldly went where no dispute resolution person had ever gone before. He got the money. He delivered. He made and continues to make a huge difference. Ray Shonholtz serves as a model and inspiration for us all.