Having spent two months in Israel in January, February and early March, and a few more days at the end of April, I thought I would share some of the things that I love about Israel in honor of Israel’s 64th birthday:
Tel Aviv has 1500 bicycles at 150 rental depots throughout the city and more than 100 kilometers of bike paths.
Where else will you see two young men carrying a Kisei Eliahu/Chair of Elijah down the street from a synagogue to a private home for a brit milah?
The outdoor markets, Machaneh Yehudah in Jerusalem and Shuk haCarmel in Tel Aviv are the best place to buy almost everything from fresh fruit to CD’s to clothes to Jewish ritual objects.
A story clerk will speak to you in English while helping another customer in Hebrew while speaking to a family member on the phone—in Thai.
Picnics on the beach – in January.
Felafel is still the best fast food.
An Israeli company, Given Imagining invented the PillCam capsule endoscopy.
Door handles the shape of a shofar.
Despite the Iranian nuclear threat and ongoing tensions with Turkey, Israel, Iran, Turkey and Jordan are each committing $5 million toward a UNESCO sponsored Synchrotron light facility based in Jordan to help build cooperation among scientists in neighboring countries.
The Japanese consumer electronics giant Sony is actively seeking to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in Israeli medical technologies and has established a team to review the Israeli market to seek out companies for investment or acquisition.
Intel’s Sandy Bridge Processor, developed in Israel, is responsible for 40 percent of Intel’s worldwide sales in 2011.
Despite shelling of Israel from Gaza earlier in the month, Israel transferred 450,000 liters of diesel fuel to Gaza in March to alleviate a grave fuel shortage.
Thirteen of the latest Forbes Magazine list of the world’s billionaires are Israeli.
An Israeli company, Landa Corporation, has invented a nanotech printer that could revolutionize digital printing.
There is nothing more moving than seeing the country come to a stop as a siren sounds on Yom HaZikaron, Israeli Memorial Day.
Kosher for Passover Sbarro Pizza.
The Israeli Conservative movement has approved the ordination of gay rabbis.
The Mekorot Water Company is investing half a billion shekels to bring large quantities of treated wastewater to Negev farmers.
Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin’s plays are becoming popular… in Poland.
Eilat hosted the first European Championship triathlon to be held in Israel.
There is a d’var Torah at the weekly Rotary meeting.
Israeli dances have been choreographed to such classic Jewish songs as “New York, New York” and “Locomotion.”
Hamentaschen is available a month before Purim.
Almost every story carries Purim costumes.
All Israelis welcome rainfall, even if it interferes with their plans for the day.
Avihai Shelly of Netivot, who is visually and hearing impaired, will receive the Green Globe environmental award in Israel for improving bus service between his city and Tel Aviv.
Israel has more engineers and scientists per capita than any other country.
Israel produces more scientific papers per capita than any other country.
Israel has eight universities and 27 colleges.
Israeli research institutions were the first in the world to commercialize academic discoveries.
Yeda, the Weizmann Institute’s program for marketing its research was, in 2006, ranked first in the world among academic institutes.
Yissum, Hebrew University’s program for marketing its research, has registered more than 5500 patents and 1600 inventions.
Netafim, the first kibbutz-based industry, is the largest provider of drip irrigation systems in the world.
Forty-five percent of Israelis are university educated.
The best and the brightest Israeli youth serve in the Israeli military.
Israel’s economy grew 50-fold within its first 60 years.
Israel is home to more than 70 different nationalities and cultures.
Most Israelis speak at least two languages.
New immigrants are offered six-months of free Ulpan classes to learn Hebrew.
At age 87, Israeli President Shimon Peres, continues to think about Israel’s future and support innovative technology such as the electric car.
There is so much construction happening in Israel that Israelis joke that their national bird is the crane.
Israelis continue to have a sense of humor despite the seriousness of the challenges that they face.
You don’t have to take off your shoes to go through security at Ben Gurion Airport which is considered to be the best airport security in the world.
A record 31 feature films are competing for the Israeli academy awards this year.
Israel has the highest percentage of home computers per capita.
Israel is the only country in the world to enter the 21st century with a net gain in trees.
Israeli bookstores are still flourishing.
Israel has more museums per capita than any other country.
Israel was the first country in the world to adopt the Kimberley process, an international standard to certify that diamonds are “conflict free.”
Israel has the third largest number of companies listed on the Nasdaq exchange (next to the United States and Canada).
Dan Schechtman of Israel’s Technion University won the 2011 Nobel Prize for chemistry.
Israel became the first country to pass a law banning the use of underweight models in advertising and to require ad agencies that photoshop photos to disclose the fact in the advertisement.
Hebrew is one of the oldest languages and one of the newest, continuing to develop new words and phrases to keep up with the ever-changing world.
Israeli streets are named for prophets and kings, prime ministers and presidents – both Israeli and American (there is a Lincoln Street in Jerusalem and both l’s are pronounced!).
Israeli street signs will often tell you the significance of the name of the streets.
Ben Gurion airport has the world’s largest kosher mezuzah which greets all who arrive to Israel.
A special project is turning written stories about Israeli soldiers who died in war into short animated films.
Haaretz, one of Israel’s leading newspapers, is now available on all major mobile devices. (Information about downloading can be found here: http://www.haaretz.com/news/haaretz-now-available-on-all-major-mobile-devices-1.426047).
Two Arab-Israeli schools, both named Alzahraa, won Green Globe awards for environmental education.
An Israeli cartoonist won the Golden Keg 2012 international contest in Presov, Slovakia, for cartoons about beer.
The winner of the A Star is Born singing contest comes from a town under fire, Sderot, and from a family that crossed Sudan on foot.
The high price of cottage cheese led to a national consumer revolt.
Brothers Omer and Sela Nevo from Tel Aviv University won the World Universities Debating Championships in the English as Second Language category in Manila, Philippines.
As we arrived in Israel early yesterday morning, we saw signs of Israel Independence Day everywhere. Flags are flying from buildings, lampposts and car antenna. Store windows are decorated in blue and white.
The markets are selling Israeli flags, inflatable hammers (for hitting each other - why I am not sure), aerosol cans of string (another interesting custom) and other things to enjoy the holiday.
Families are gearing up for barbecues or other outdoor activities. Excitement is in the air.
First though, beginning this evening, Israel will observe Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day. Yom Hazikaron is a significant observance since virtually every family has lost a relative or friend in on of the wars. Things will begin shutting down this evening —no movies or other entertainment. A one-minute siren will sound and things will come to a stop on the streets and everyone stands and reflects.
There are ceremonies throughout the country; we are planning to attend one in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv.
I have found the following poem appropriate for Yom Hazikaron and remembering those who have given their lives so that Israel could survive.
The Silver Platter
And the land grows still,
the red eye of the sky slowly dimming over smoking frontiers
As the nation arises, Torn at heart but breathing, To receive its miracle, the only miracle
As the ceremony draws near, it will rise,
standing erect in the moonlight in terror and joy
When across from it will step out a youth and a lass and slowly march toward the nation
Dressed in battle gear, dirty,
Shoes heavy with grime, they ascend the path quietly
To change garb, to wipe their brow
They have not yet found time.
Still bone weary from days and from nights in the field
Full of endless fatigue and unrested,
Yet the dew of their youth. Is still seen on their head
Thus they stand at attention, giving no sign of life or death
Then a nation in tears and amazement will ask:
"Who are you?"
And they will answer quietly,
"We are the silver platter on which the Jewish state was given."
Thus they will say and fall back in shadows
And the rest will be told In the chronicles of Israel
It was much more difficult leaving Warsaw and the congregation at Bet Warsawa than I had imagined. In the short time that we have been together, we have developed close relationships with the community.
Below is the sermon I gave at last Friday’s service.
Endings and Beginnings
April 20, 2012/28 Nisan 5772
The Talmud says that all beginnings are difficult. But I have found that it is the endings which are really tough. As most of you know, this is Barbara and my last Shabbat at Beit Warsawa. On Sunday evening we will board a plane back to Israel for a few days. Next Thursday evening, after celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut/Israel Independence Day, we will return to Tacoma, Washington so that I can resume my position as rabbi of Temple Beth El on May 1.
It has been an incredible four months of Sabbatical in Israel and here in Poland. We spent two months in Tel Aviv, where our son, Micah, is a medical student. We explored the city, visiting almost every museum, attending a number of concerts, and walking the glorious beach as much as we could.
When we first agreed to come to Beit Warsawa, we were just going to teach in the monthly Shatz program in January, February, March and April and perhaps help out in Lublin and lead a Passover Seder somewhere in Poland. The rest of the time would be ours to explore Poland and visit other places in Europe where we had not been before.
But, as they say, God works in strange ways; when there was unexpectedly a need for rabbinic leadership here, we agreed to come for a longer visit in February and then return in early March and stay through April 22 to lead services, teach Step-by-Step, Shatz and help with other programs.
Truthfully, before our first weekend visit in January we were quite apprehensive. When we had told people that we were going to Poland, they asked why we would want to go there. “Are there any Jews left in Poland?” they asked. And, of course, we heard a variety of concerns regarding deep-seated Polish anti-Semitism.
Now, throughout our marriage whenever Barbara and I set out on a new adventure, we have a routine. One of us says, “I think that I am going to be sick.” And the other says, “If it is really bad, we can always leave.” Indeed, Barbara made me promise that if things were bad in January, we did not have to come back in February, March and April.
Well, things in January were quite good and have only gotten better. We have fallen in love with the Beit Warsawa community and have had a very meaningful, enriching experience here in Poland. We have been impressed by the enthusiasm for worship and thirst for serious learning.
We have been pleased to contribute to this community, to share our love for Judaism and the Jewish people, in a number of ways, through teaching, leading worship, meeting with groups, and –of course—Barbara’s wonderful cooking and baking.
But as much as we have given you, we have received so much more in return. A rabbi once said that while he learned a great deal from his teachers, and a lot from his colleagues, he learned the most from his students. We have found that to be true here. You have all taught us many things.
Let me share a few of the things which we have learned.
First of all, I learned that I am a very lucky man. You see, every time that Barbara would cook or bake something for the community, Isa would say to me: “You are a very lucky man.”
Second, I learned that a sermon does not have to be complicated to be effective. Whenever she was translating, Marta would ask me before the service: “Is it complicated?” She wanted to be prepared for what she was going to have to translate. Rabbis often need to be reminded that saying something clearly and concisely is better than going on and on and using fancy, complicated language.
Third, we learned that lack of facility in Hebrew does not need to be a barrier for enthusiastic participation in worship. You sing the prayers with as much energy and feeling as any community.
We also discovered what it means to show courage: to attend synagogue and participate in the life of the Jewish community even though friends and sometimes even family members would not approve. We have come to appreciate that it continues to be a challenge to openly embrace Judaism here in Poland and are inspired by your willingness to do so.
We have seen a thirst for learning that is very strong. We first saw this in the Shatz students who have committed a weekend per month to study the liturgy in order to be able to lead worship services. We also saw this in the Step-by-Step students, who in many cases are just beginning their formal Jewish education, but always came to class thirsty for more knowledge and prepared with excellent questions. And we saw this in the Shabbat afternoon Torah study where we wrestled with our ancient texts and discovered their insights for our lives today.
One of the Principles of Progressive Judaism in Poland refers to the importance of Talmud Torah as the “foundation for leading a Jewish life and securing its transmission from generation to generation. In many Polish families that “chain of tradition” has been broken, but each of you is repairing it and assuring that it will continue into the future.
We learned the importance of hospitality and welcoming. We felt welcome from the moment we arrived. We have seen this expressed through your wishing of Shabbat Shalom to one another at the beginning of the service, to the delicious meals you share with all who come to worship to the welcome you extend to visiting individuals and groups. It is not easy to accommodate 65 teenagers and madrichim in a community that is usually about half that size, but you did it with joy and delight.
But most of all we learned that Progressive Judaism is alive and well in Poland at Beit Warsawa. Despite the many challenges that this community has faced, you are a vibrant, loving Jewish community trying to rebuild Jewish life in a place that has been quite cruel to Jews and Judaism. Like all Jewish communities you have your challenges. But you also have incredible resources to meet those challenges.
A few of you have expressed some concerns about what is going to happen when we leave here. It is only natural to be worried when the future is not clear. But let me suggest that you have some incredible resources that will help you survive and thrive in the months ahead.
In sharing these remarks, I feel a bit like the wizard in the movie the Wizard of Oz. Are you familiar with that movie?
(Dorothy Gale, a young girl from Kansas, ends up in the land of Oz after a tornado hits her home. She wants to go home, but is told that only the Wizard of Oz might be able to help her. She sets out on her journey to the wizard – along the yellow brick road—and encounters a number of characters: a scarecrow without a brain, a tin man without a heart, and a cowardly lion, who offer to accompany her along the way in hopes that the wizard will also give them what they lack.
Toward the end of the movie, the wizard affirms that each of the leading characters –the scarecrow, the tin man and the cowardly lion—already had the talents that each thought he was lacking, but just needed to be reminded of it.
So in the spirit of the Wizard of Oz, let me point out some of the many talents in your community.
You have very talented Shatz students, Piotr, Anna, Malgorzata, Piotr Kondrat and Kasha, who can lead Shabbat worship services even without a rabbi. They have spent many hours in study and preparation and are already sharing their passion for Judaism with you. And we have another group of students in the process of learning, who will by next year be ready to lead services as well.
You have a devoted Shammas, Mr. Leshek, who is always one step ahead when it comes to preparing for the next service or the next holiday. Barbara and I came down to breakfast a few days before Passover and discovered that the cupboard was bare; Mr. Leshek and Mr. Darek had already cleaned it out for Pesach, so we had to search for the chametz that we craved that morning.
You have a wonderful librarian, Kinga, who knows every book in the library and when one is missing. We are the people of the book, and having someone responsible for the books is very important.
You have well-educated members of the community who could teach classes: from Hebrew to Musar to other Jewish subjects, or lead discussions on the weekly Torah portion or another Jewish topic or review a book of Jewish interest.
But most of all, you have a devoted core group of individuals who are here every Shabbat to worship and study and assure that Beit Warsawa is a vibrant community.
So while this is indeed, an ending – the end of our time here with you—it is also a new beginning for you to discover and utilize the many talents of your community and move forward. Rabbi Beliak will be here in a couple of weeks and hopefully it will not be long until you have a permanent rabbi. But until then, know that you have the talents and ability to sustain this community and assure that it remains strong.
At the end of the Wizard of Oz, the Good Witch reminds Dorothy that “There is no place like home.” And, indeed, there is no place like home. Thus, we will return to our home in Tacoma, Washington.
But we now have another home, here, at Beit Warsawa, where we know we will return. And even when we are not here, this community and the experiences we have had here will be with us in our home.
One of the delights of my Sabbatical has been the opportunity to read books, something that is often hard to do on a regular basis as a congregational rabbi. The library at Beit Warsawa, as might be expected, has quite a few books about the Polish-Jewish experience, many of them in English.
On the one hand, reading these books has been quite a sobering experience, because of the details of the anti-Semitism in Polish society before, during and after World War II. On the other hand, these books have also presented a much more nuanced and complicated understanding of Polish society and its attitude toward Jews and Judaism.
Robert Wistrich, Professor of Jewish History at Hebrew University, calls Poland “a land overflowing with anti-Semitism,” and much of what I have read has corroborated that description. Professor Jan Gross of New York University, in his book Neighbors, chronicles the destruction of the Jewish community in Jedwabne, Poland when, on one summer day in 1941, virtually the entire Jewish population, about 800 men, women and children, were murdered by the local Polish population led by the town’s mayor. It is an unbelievably brutal story.
In writing about these events in 2001, Gross admits, “The massacre of Jedwabne Jews leaves a historian of modern Poland perplexed and groping for explanation.” He attempts to identify the various factors that led ordinary people to commit such a brutal act. These include deep-seated anti-Semitism in the Catholic Church, Jewish support for the Soviet occupation of Poland in September 1939 (apparently remembered in great disproportion to reality), and eagerness to please the Germans, who captured the town in June of 1941.
In another book, Fear, Gross examines anti-Semtism in Poland after World War II, particularly the experiences of Polish Jews who returned to their hometowns after the war, culminating in the Kielce pogrom in July, 1946, in which some 40 Jews were brutally murdered. This pogrom led to significant Jewish emigration from Poland, as Jews understood that there would be no place for them in Polish society.
Wide-spread anti-Semitism in Poland also led to another post-War phenomenon: Poles who had helped the Jews during the war –and there were thousands of them—were reluctant to publicly acknowledge what they did for fear of a backlash from the general society. Furthermore, in post-war communist Poland, there was an unwillingness to admit to any Polish misdeeds or to identify the Jews as victims of the Nazi regime. Finally, the widespread outbreak of anti-Semitism in Poland in 1968, in response to anti-communist protests, has led Poland to be called the only country where there is wide-spread anti-Semitism without Jews.
Indeed, the communist take-over of Poland complicates the picture and in many ways helps us understand why it has taken so long for Poland to begin to acknowledge the mass destruction of Jews which took place on its soil and the role that Poles played in their deaths. The Poles rightly see themselves as victims of Hitler and Nazism, and certainly many Poles were murdered by the Nazis in addition to the millions who were killed in the war itself.
Indeed, both Jewish and Polish scholars realize that for almost 50 years after the war, Poles and Jews had very different understandings of the events that took place and the interpretation of those events. According to Prof. Joshua Zimmerman of Yeshiva University, “the literature on war-time Polish-Jewish relations was divided into two mutually exclusive camps: apologetics [on the part of Polish scholars] and condemnation [on the part of Jewish writers].”
These attitudes began changing in the 1980s culmination in what is considered “the first public challenge to the dominant Polish narrative of heroism and martyrology” in an essay by Jan Blonski, a professor of literature at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, in 1987 entitled, “The Poor Poles Look at the Ghetto.” ( http://www.ucis.pitt.edu/eehistory/H200Readings/Topic4-R1.html)
This article provoked widespread debate among the Polish public, as many Poles refused to accept Blonski’s claim that Poles needed to acknowledge their guilt and responsibility, rather than continuing to rationalize their response because they, too, were victims of the Nazis.
The subsequent fall of Communism in Poland allowed much freer debate of sensitive topics which had once been taboo, allowing for at the very least much more discussion of the Polish role in World War II. There is still, of course, a long way to go before these ideas are embraced by a majority of Polish society. But it is only a matter of time until Poles will honestly come to terms with their history and begin to act in ways that acknowledge what occurred on Polish soil. We have already seen evidence of this in Lublin where the Grodzka Gate NN Theatre has played a crucial role in preserving the history of Jewish Lublin and bringing it to the attention of the general public. Projects such as this bring hope that new generation of Poles will look much differently at the past, and therefore be able to look differently at the future.
(Below is the d’var Torah I delivered this past Shabbat at Beit Warsawa to the EIE students and Congregation.)
A few weeks ago, my wife, Barbara, and I visited Auschwitz, as you did today. It is an overwhelming experience to be in a place of death and destruction, confronting evil face to face.
And as we have continued to explore Poland this past month: the Warsaw Ghetto, Maidanek, what remains of the Old and New Cemeteries of Krakow, it is difficult not to despair. How do we remain hopeful, despite what we experience? How do we maintain faith –both in God and our fellow human beings—when we have seen with our own eyes, the suitcases and shoes and hair and the crematoria?
This week’s Torah portion, Tzav, continues describing the sacrifices offered in the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary which accompanied the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness. Twice, within the first six verses, we are told that “the fire on the altar shall be kept burning on it; it shall not be extinguished” (Leviticus 6:5).
This repetition has inspired a number of creative interpretations. For example, Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the founder of Lubavitch Chasidism, said that the text should be read, “The fire on the altar shall be kept burning within him (the Priest). You shall extinguish the negative.”
Rabbi Abraham Twerski explains that this means we must recognize that the animal nature within us must be subdued. Rabbi Twerski, of course, is referring to the Yetzer Hara, the evil inclination, which is part of every human being. The rabbis compare the yetzer hara to animal instincts, which are powerful and destructive unless they are tamed.
In the context of our experience of the Shoah, the yetzer hara might be described as our inclination to allow the negative to prevail, to allow what we have seen and experienced to become the primary lens with which we look at the world and to determine how we live our lives. It is quite easy to allow this to happen. There are those who look at the world this way; and at times each of us may be tempted to do so. It is, in fact, the rational response to what we have seen.
But we also know that there is much more to the story than death and destruction. Within the overwhelming evil there were sparks of light. There were the righteous among the nations who risked their lives to save Jews. More than 6200 Polish men and women – more than 25 percent of the total number –have been recognized by Yad VaShem.
There were Jews who resisted the Nazis in ways both great and small. The Warsaw ghetto uprising is, of course, the best example, but there were many who resisted by sharing their meager rations with another prisoner of secretly celebrating a seder in the death camps or refusing to eat bread on Pesach, even if it meant risking one’s life.
There were sparks of light among the darkness, sparks of hope among the despair. These are the sparks that can allow us to subdue the negative that we experience.
And today, in Poland, there are more sparks. Communities like Beit Warsawa which are working to revitalize Judaism in Poland. Communities like the Jewish Community Center in Krakow which provides a wide range of Jewish programs from Hebrew classes to Israeli dancing. Projects like Brama Grodzka, the Grodzka Gate NN Theatre Center in Lublin, which is attempting to record the history of Polish-Jewish Lublin.
And there are sparks among the men and women who discover, often as adults, that they have Jewish ancestry, and are exploring what that means.
It is these sparks that keep the fire on the altar burning. Even in the darkest of times; even in the most destructive places, even in the face of pure evil, there are sparks which continue to burn, sending a message of hope to our world.
Blessed are the sparks which continue to burn among the ashes.
Last Shabbat Beit Warsawa hosted more than 70 students and staff members from EIE, Reform Judaism’s high school semester in Israel program. (Barbara and I are very familiar with this program since our son, Micah, participated in it in 2003 and we had a chance to attend the parents’ program.)
Among the students was Rebecca Stark, a member of this year’s confirmation class at Temple Beth El. It was great to see Rebecca and hear about all of the incredible things that she has been doing these past few months.
She, and the other students have been in Israel since January at Kibbutz Tzuba, outside of Jerusalem. Each student continues his or her regular high school studies with teachers provided by the program. In addition all the students study Hebrew and take a semester-long survey course in Jewish history. During the course, the students travel throughout Israel, visiting appropriate historical sites to enhance their studies.
And when they study the history of the Jews of Poland and the Holocaust, they travel to Poland, visiting both Concentration Camps and other important historic sites such as the Warsaw Ghetto and learn about the contemporary Jewish experience in Poland.
Thus, they attended Friday evening services at Beit Warsawa and —during the Shabbat dinner after services— had an opportunity to speak with members of the community and learn about Jewish life in Poland in the 21st century. The community at Beit Warsawa is very welcoming to guests, particularly young students. Many tours of Poland such as March of the Living offer little or no contact with the contemporary Jewish community, giving the impression that Poland is no more than a Jewish graveyard.
The members of Beit Warsawa appreciate it when groups visit and learn about Reform Judaism in Poland. A couple of weeks ago, a Congregational group from Iowa City, Iowa came for Shabbat (with a few of its members even returning on Shabbat morning). And last Tuesday, a group of college students with CET Academic Programs in Prague had dinner here and had an opportunity to speak with the Step-by-Step (Introduction to Judaism) students as part of their trip to Poland.
If there is anything that I come away with from my time in Poland it is that visiting the Camps and other historical sites is not enough; it is also important to interact with the Jewish community and learn about their accomplishments and challenges. It is not enough for us to learn about the past, we must also learn about the present and try to understand the possibilities for the future.
Below is a picture which Barbara took of me, Rebecca (next to me) and two other students from the program.
Poetry before Visiting Auschwitz
It’s a nine-and-a-half zloty train ride to Auschwitz,
in a spacious passenger compartment,
not a cramped cattle-car.
Passing through the Polish countryside,
lined with houses and those who live in them — bystanders,
still pretending they don’t know where the trains are going.
A church whose priest certainly taught
that the Jews killed Christ and “Love your neighbor as yourself” in the same breath.
A forest of trees where a few Jews must have escaped.
Are their spirits still there…or their corpses?
A distant chimney bellowing smoke—
Are they still burning Jews?
Or is it just a reminder of a past
that won’t leave them alone even when they try to ignore it.
A lone deer scampers through the trees.
Or is it a Jew trying to escape
from the commanding voice of Auschwitz.
The duty to see with one’s own eyes
Hell on earth
or what is left of it?
Poetry while Visiting Auschwitz
Auschwitz is a museum…
Or is it a cemetery or a monument?
Tour buses lined up like Disneyland.
Young Poles directing traffic:
—to the right
—to the left.
Visitors marked with colored stickers:
—blue for the English tour;
—green for the French tour;
—white for the Polish tour;
—yellow stars for Jews;
—red triangles for political prisoners;
—purple triangles for Jehovah’s Witnesses;
—pink triangles for homosexuals.
A well-rehearsed guide reciting
the facts of murder without emotion.
Trying to speak about the unspeakable,
Trying to describe the indescribable,
Trying to explain the inexplicable evils
that took place here yesterday,
or was it long ago.
Arbeit Macht Frei.
The lie that greeted the inmates
and still welcomes those who dare to enter.
Piles of suitcases with no one left to claim them.
Eyeglasses once worn to look the Germans in the eyes.
Artificial limbs and leg braces from broken bodies.
Shoes which trod miles upon miles and are all that is left.
Two tons of shorn hair still waiting to be made into rope
or something else useful.
Pictures of prisoners and a father trying to explain it all to his young daughter.
A shuttle bus to Auschwitz II – Birkenau.
Not a museum, but a memorial.
A vast windswept plain
with train tracks leading in.
The ruins of a crematorium.
Proof the Nazis tried to hide their crimes.
Groups of Israeli high school students
Waving blue and white flags
Learning about why Israel exists
And why they fight,
And where they came from
And where they are going
And who they are
And who they are not
Poetry after Visiting Auschwitz
There is sacred ground
hallowed by those who experienced the Divine
and built an altar or a Temple.
And there is sacred ground
hallowed by those who experienced evil
and were sacrificed on the altar
or in the gas chambers and then burned.
And there are sacred memories
which cry out from that sacred ground
like Abel’s blood.
Do not forget.
The words Warsaw Ghetto provoke certain images: crowding and starvation, disease and death, resisitence and heroism. Yet it is difficult to conjure up those images from what is left of the Ghetto today. We spent a few hours yesterday walking through what had once been the Ghetto. We started at Prozna Street, the only former Warsaw Ghetto street which still has its original tenement houses. These buildings have large pictures of the men, women and children who at one time lived here. These buildings are, for the most part abandonded, except for a few shops on street level. Once a year in September, the Festival of Jewish Culture is held in this area.
Nearby is the Ester Rachel Kaminska and Ida Kaminska Jewish Theater, the only Jewish theater in all of Europe, which continues to stage plays in both Yiddish and Polish, and the Nozyk Spouses Synagogue, the only pre-war synagogue in Warsaw still in use. It is adjacent to the building which houses many of Warsaw’s Jewish communal institutitons, including the Foundation for the preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, The Jewish Combatant Assocation and the office of “Midrasz” journal.
A few blocks away is The Jewish Historical Institute; it was originally the library for the Great Synagogue of Warsaw, as well as a Judaic Studies Institute. During the war, the building housed the Jewish Mutual Aid Society and was the place where Emanuel Ringelblum created the underground archive of the Ghetto, much of which survived the war and is now displayed in this building along with a permanent exhibit about the Ghetto. In addition, a gallery features rotating exhibits of Jewish artists.
The Great Synagogue, which once stood next door, was destroyed by the Germans as a response to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. A large modern office building occupies the space now; income from the building serves to fund the official Jewish community of Poland (although Beit Warsawa is not considered part of that community).
A few blocks furthre away, the Musuem of the History of Polish Jews is under construction, slated to open next April on the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. This impressive building will house exhibits chronicling the 1000-year history of Polish Judaism.
There are a few other remnants of the Ghetto and monuments to it as well: a manhole leading to a tunnel which was used by those escaping the ghetto, a fragment of the ghetto wall, plaques and cast iron plates which indicate where the ghetto wall once stood, and the Ghetto heroes Monument.
What struck me is how inadequate these few remnants are to represent what occurred in the ghetto. I have seen much newsreel footage and still photographs of the ghetto. These only begin to tell the story. I have read a number of accounts of the day to day life in the ghetto and of the uprising. These also offer just a glimpse of ghetto life. I suppose, therefore, that what remains of the ghetto appropriately reminds us of the fragmentary material that can only begin to tell the story of the Warsaw Ghetto
At Ben Gurion airport earlier today, one of the security personnel, upon learning that we were heading to Warsaw asked if we were going to visit the death camps. That was a logical question, not only because there were hundreds of Israeli high school students at the airport departing for their high school trip to Poland, but because most Jews who visit Poland never get much beyond the experience of Judaism during the Holocaust. Some in Israel even cynically refer to the high school trip as “Death tours.”
Our purpose in coming to Poland to work with the Reform community at Beit Warsawa is to challenge this idea and help enhance the Jewish community that is struggling desperately to develop here despite the tragedy of the Holocaust, the subsequent decades of communist rule and lingering antisemitism which keeps many individuals from publicly acknowledging their Jewish roots.
We will, of course, visit Treblinka and Auschwitz and the Warsaw Ghetto. But we also will visit congregations in Poland which attempting to create Jewish life in a place that has known so much Jewish pain, suffering and death.
We have already had the opportunity to work with two classes of students who are in the process of studying Jewish liturgy in order to become a shaliach tzibur (shatz) - messenger of the congregation, and lead worship services in their home communities. Although most of these men and women know they have Jewish roots, few were raised as Jews and many of them have had to convert to Judaism to affirm their identity. Their passion for Judaism and enthusiasm for study and worship are inspirational.
The second-year students, who are currently studying the high holy day liturgy, are already capable of leading Shabbat worship. Indeed, I had the privilege of leading services with two of them on our last visit to Warsaw. The first-year students, many of whom are still learning the alef-bet (Hebrew alphabet), are hungry to absorb everything Jewish; each is on his or her own path to developing a Jewish identity that has often only been acknowledged as an adult.
In the near future, there will be another important Jewish institution in Poland: The Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Currently being built on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto, and scheduled to open in April 2013 in the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, this museum will chronicle the 1000-year history of Polish Jewry. It will, of course, not ignore the Holocaust, but will put that horrific event in the context of Polish Jewish history.
Barbara and I were invited to meet with staff members of the museum to help them develop a strategy to market the museum to Jews in North America. They understand that Jews (and many non-Jews as well) will continue to come to Poland to visit the death camps; but they hope that they will begin their visit with this museum in order to better understand the Holocaust, particularly as it affected Poland. They also hope that this museum will be one of the top tourist attractions in all of Warsaw. You can learn more about this institution at www.jewishmuseum.org.pl.
This museum, and the students with whom we are working, are an important part of Jewish life in 21st century Poland. Certainly visiting the death camps will continue to be important for Jews and non-Jews who want to better understand the horrors of the Holocaust and see for themselves the place these horrors took place and how they are commemorated today. But experiencing how Judaism is being observed today should also be an important part of one’s visit and we are proud to be playing a part in that story.
You may recall that last year, Hagit Damri and Amal Elsana Alh’jooj, Executive Directors of Hagar: Jewish-Arab Education for Equality, spoke about their school in Beersheva. Yesterday, Barbara and I traveled to Beersheva to see first-hand this remarkable place.
The Hagar Association was founded in 2006 by Jewish and Arab parents, teachers, community organizers and other concerned residents from Beersheva to create successful relations and equal opportunities for Arabs and Jews in the Israeli Negev. The school currently offers nursery school through 4th grade classes as well as day care for infants and toddlers.
Hagit met us at the school (Amal was in Paris working on another of her projects to promote peace) and gave us a tour. We saw a building full of energetic students (it was raining outside, so recess was indoors) playing and laughing with each other. We saw bulletin boards for Purim and a variety of other subjects, including one featuring Jewish and Arab children’s authors who had visited the school last year. We saw pairs of teachers —one Jewish and on Arab— leading classroom activities. We had a wonderful conversation with the principal about the values of the school and the challenges that it faces as it brings Jewish and Arab Christian and Moslem children together to learn in one classroom.
Hagar is a public school, but students apply to attend much like students in Tacoma would apply to attend a magnet school. The school is committed to having an equal number of Jewish and Arab students in each classroom. Students already enrolled in the school have priority for future years, as do their younger siblings.
Teachers teach in their native language, so both Hebrew and Arabic are spoken in the classroom. Virtually every Arab students knows Arabic, but many of the Jewish students have not heard Arabic spoken on a regular basis until they get to the school, so they have some catching up to do. Students are allowed to speak in whatever language they wish, although Hebrew tends to become the default language, even for Arab students, since it is better understood and spoken by most students.
The school has two separate locations: one for the day care and nursery school programs and one for the primary grades. The primary school is, for the first time, in its own building (rather than sharing with another school), a school that would have been closed due to declining enrollment. While the building is old and was in disrepair, the parents and teachers have pitched in to begin fixing it up.
Future plans are to add a grade a year through middle school (rather than create a separate middle school) and be able to create a high school by the time that this year’s fourth grade class is ready for ninth grade.
It was clear to both Barbara and I that the Hagar school is breaking down barriers between Jewish and Arab children. It was impossible to tell which students were Jewish and which were Arab. The students truly care about each other and the parents have also formed lasting bonds of friendship.
You can learn more about the Hagar school at its website: www.hajar.org.il.