By Rabbi David Wilfond, Director of Education
In three weeks I will fly to Europe with our NFTY in Israel Educators to teach them how to lead our teens in Prague and Poland. We will visit all the sites that our teens will visit during the summer and learn how to make the story of European Jewry come alive and be relevant for our youth.
We will begin our tour in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. For many of the participants this will be their first time in Europe. Our teens are usually awed by the beautiful medieval architecture of the Prague Castle and the 12th century Charles Bridge decorated with historical statues. Prague is lively, picturesque and fun. Even the historic Jewish quarter has a joyful feeling about it. At the end of our time in Prague, the group will learn that until 1940 there were more than 90,000 Jews living in Prague. Today there are only about 3,000 Jews in Prague. Where did they all go? What happened to this beautiful, creative and productive Jewish community?
To answer this question, we will travel to Terezin, following in the footsteps of the Prague Jewish community that was deported from Prague to Terezin in 1940. One of the most moving sites in the Terezin Ghetto is the secret synagogue. Here people prayed in secret for strength to cope and for hope of a better tomorrow. (All this under the noses of the Nazis and under penalty of death.) We will also have the opportunity to hold a prayer ceremony in this holy space.
From Terezin the group will journey to Krakow, Poland. In Krakow, we will visit the Jewish neighborhood of Kazimierz to learn about the history and life of the Jewish community. In the afternoon the teens will walk silently across the bridge to the site of the Ghetto learning how people coped in the time of tragedy and cruelty.
We will prepare the teens for their visit to Auschwitz, which can be a sobering lesson of the potential for cruelty that can lurk in the human soul. A visit to Auschwitz can be also an inspiring opportunity to encounter the stories of survivors who refused to surrender their dignity, their morality and encouraged others to survive if only to be able to tell the tale of survival against all odds.
We then turn tragedy into celebration for Kabbalat Shabbat, hosted by the Krakow Reform Congregation for a lively Shabbat service. When one sits among the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors in their vibrant and modern Reform Synagogue in Krakow one is filled with hope that Jewish life can be re-built. Even after conflagration, the Jewish flower can re-blossom and thrive again! The contrast between the depths of the Auschwitz morning to the joyful heights of the Krakow Shabbat will be grist for group processing and the subject of many a conversation in the following days.
Our journey then takes us to Warsaw. They will start by visiting the last surviving remnant of the Wall around the Warsaw Ghetto that was built by the Nazis and then travel to Warsaw’s Old Jewish Cemetery. Here members of the group will learn about the lives of Warsaw’s playwrights, novelists, stage and film stars, Hasidic mystics, socialist ideologues and Zionists who were active in the Warsaw’s rich culturally diverse life prior to their burial in Warsaw’s largest Jewish Cemetery.
We close our visit at Europe’s newest and largest Jewish Museum to summarize their experiences in Prague and Poland. On the grass under the shade of Chestnut trees the group will discuss “Where was God during the Holocaust?” They also will talk about “What lessons do we learn from the Holocaust for our lives as American Jews in 2019?” and “What are the lessons we can take from this place as Reform Jewish teens in 2019?”. This part of the program helps our teens prepare for the physical and spiritual journey to the land of Israel.
Emotionally and intellectually, our journey through Poland promises to be intense and meaningful. The participants will learn about 1,000 years of Jewish creativity and coping though one of humanity’s darkest chapters. The Jewish People have never been the same since and Europe has never been the same since. One of the main discussions in Poland will be on “What lessons can humanity learn from the Holocaust that can help us improve life on this planet?” With deep discussions and sharing, the participants will prepare to transition from the gray skies of Poland to the vibrant Mediterranean pulse of modern Tel Aviv. As the group leaves the gray days of Poland behind, we hope they will look forward to their arrival in the sunshine of the Land of Israel.
Our upcoming trip to Europe is a valuable part of staff preparation for what promises to be one of the most important summer in our teen’s journey on NFTY in Israel.