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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

In Europe with NFTY

Dear Friends and Family:

Last month Juca and I met seventy-three NFTYites at JFK and took off for an exciting and emotional journey to Prague and Poland. We were a bit worried at first, being responsible for all of those high school students, but they were an amazing and wonderful group of kids. We gathered at our stop-off, Frankfurt, for a two hour layover and regrouped for the Prague flight without a hitch. What followed was phenomenal. 

First of all, landing in Prague and meeting our NFTY staff was a treat. What a talented and dedicated group of young professionals. Under their gentle yet firm tutelage the group immediately began to form and bond. In all, 100 NFTYites constituted the three groups traveling together through Europe. In our first two days we visited Prague’s Jewish quarter and its ancient synagogues, the Old Town Square, the castle and cathedral. Most remarkable to me was the great forethought and planning that went into making this such a meaningful experience for the participants. Before we entered the Pinkus Synagogue, where names of Holocaust victims are written on and completely cover all the walls, the kids were given pen and paper to find one name particular to each of them (perhaps a family name, or a name of a family they recognize) and to write that name down. The reason was to carry that family name with them to Jerusalem as an honor and memorial. The impact of such a simple act was great and I listened intently as they talked about it later. 

The next day we bussed to Krakow where we walked through the old Jewish quarter and its synagogues. On the bus we watched the movie “Schindler’s List.” Then we actually walked through the Ghetto depicted in the movie, visited Schindler’s factory and lastly visited the memorial at the Ploshow Concentration Camp. Our group leader/teacher was magnificent as he took the NFTYites step by step through understanding the Nazification of Europe and the dehumanizing of our people. The group took everything seriously and appropriately. At the end of the day we all joined hands and prayed the Kaddish for those who had perished there, at that concentration camp. To say that the kids “got it,” would be an understatement. 

That evening, in preparation for the next day’s visit to Auschwitz, our group sat in a circle and discussed expectations for what we all knew would be an emotional experience. Our leader, Chanan, once again masterfully facilitated the discussion. The NFTYites’ remarks were impressive.  This was a group of sensitive, thinking, and bright teenagers. We were all impressed with the amount of respect the group had shown for where they were and what they were seeing. They were attentive and insightful. They were certainly ready for what would be a difficult day to come.  

Here’s what I wrote at the conclusion of the Auschwitz experience: 

"It was overcast this morning in Auschwitz, and windy. The wind caused a few tears in the eyes of our group of 100 high school students and twenty staff...or maybe it was stopping at the cattle car dedicated to the memory of the 400,000 Rumanian Jews murdered in this place. Maybe it was our visit to the gas chambers and crematorium, or the room filled with lost Jewish families’ shoes, or the eyeglasses, or the valises. The rain came down when we entered the unbearable barracks that housed our relatives for the short time they spent at slave labor before meeting their deaths. It certainly was a grey and cloudy day today at Auschwitz. 

I was privileged to lead a short T’fillah toward the end of our Auschwitz experience with six NFTYites.  In the large open space where we prayed there were two other visiting groups, one Israeli and one, another group of Jews.  The Israelis carried Israeli flags and the other group played recorded Hebrew music.  They were off to our right and left.  Before we said our second Kaddish of the trip, this one as a memorial, as testimony, and to honor those murdered there, I noted that we stood among our People, Israeli flags to the left of us, Hebrew music to the right. 

Afterward, we gathered at what was the synagogue in the town of Oswiecem (the Germans called it Auschwitz). We were quiet with thoughts of all that we had seen that day. But in a few minutes someone started singing “Am Yisrael Chai” the Jewish People Lives. A few joined in, then more, then all of us. More than our voices rang out with song. We sang with our hearts; and as I left the synagogue I was not surprised to see the sun peeking out from behind the clouds."

The next day we walked through the Warsaw ghetto and then boarded a plane for Israel.  Juca and I spent the day with the group in Tel Aviv and left the group after their first Israel experience, sitting in a park in Jaffa overlooking the beaches and skyline of Tel Aviv.  I told the group that we had made our own Aliyah; from the depths of the destruction to the living beauty of our JEWISH homeland.  I thanked them for allowing us to be a part of the experience, asked them to stand and bow their heads for the priestly benediction as they were about to trek off into the Negev for three days of camping. 

What an experience for those kids…what an experience for Juca and myself!  

Shabbat Shalom from Bloomington,


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