By Evan Bazel, Bus 6 Participant
I feel Judaism in America is a concept and practice plagued with superficialities and grey areas. Speaking from experience in both the Conservative and Reform sects, I can declare with the utmost confidence that the religion itself, an entity comprised of numerous teachings and superstitions, has lost its importance and worth not only within Jewish-American households, but with their respective synagogues as well. Taking this into account, the NFTY in Israel trip first appeared to me as it does to most rising Juniors involved with the organization or one of the various URJ Camps partnered with it – a chance to travel with my best friends. So, as we touched down in Paris then subsequently in Prague, the idea of an exploration and unearthing of not only my Jewish self but my whole self seemed beyond preposterous; it had indeed failed to even cross my mind.
As we took our first steps into Czechia, I inhaled, allowing for my air passages to accept the foreign oxygen so graciously presented to them, or so it felt after nearly a day hurriedly navigating airports and being confined to a single seat for hours on end. It smelt of vegetables I could not put my finger on and meat, chicken or duck perhaps, being boiled for consumption, an aroma that grew on me as I wandered about Europe. This acceptance of the unfamiliar pervaded multiple aspects of my European experience, the most notable of such being the aforementioned Jewish quarter of my being.
It is not until you are a stranger in another’s land that you notice how distanced you are from yourself. In Czechia and Poland, lands void of the large of the tremendous Jewish populations present in my home of Westchester County, New York, a sense of importance surrounding being in touch with that aspect of my identity grew in a continuous, persistent manner as my stay progressed. Walking through streets and sitting in restaurants in which people similar to me forced me to walk with a bit more of me, them, and in a sense both of us, in each step, as if we walked together. Each step and each breath I took was not merely the step or breath of Evan Bazel, but the Jewish people as well.
As I finally reached my long awaited journey to the famed Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the subtle stream of Jewish identity running within me, slowly eroding its barriers and growing, expanded in a seemingly explosive manner into a raging river. What I consider to be even more remarkable, however, was that the water running through this river consisted not just those from the small yet ancient sea of Judaism, but of seas much more vast and seas much more minuscule. I felt a great deal of confusion in my attempts to comprehend the sheer amount and magnitude of death still hanging above the barbed wire and stone chimneys reaching towards the sky, having once aided the fumes and smoke in their escape from the rooms in which the residents, or prisoners, of the camp were led to their untimely death and disposed of through means of incineration. An unrelenting wave of self despise attacked me as the overwhelming despondence and shock I expected to feel continued to fail to arise. However, being clear minded and not allowing for overwhelming emotion to usurp my common sense and reasoning, I was able to do a great deal of thinking, as Auschwitz proved to be a greatly introspective experience for me.
I learned not a newfound love and passion for Judaism. Rather, I was pleasantly surprised to find an acceptance for a piece of my being which, though I held no malice towards it, I had often neglected and deemed unimportant. The idea that there was, within my heart and the veins running to and from it, a trait which had the power to unite millions, a number so large I still to this day am incapable fit it within the highly flexible walls of my mind for inspection, and lead them to their ultimate ends provided me with a improved and mature outlook on that which makes me who I am. I looked at each aspect of myself with a swift diligence and saw an individual of great importance and character. No longer did I value the pieces of my being by how they would appear to others, but how each elevated me, in spirit and in character, emphasizing that what made me a better, more whole individual.