It was unlike any place I had ever seen. Small houses dotted each side of the road, similar to those you would find in a children’s fairy tale book. It appeared as if the town had not changed in 300 years. I wondered: What kinds of people live here? What would happen if I were lost here, alone? Would these people accept me? Our massive coach bus seemed to be the only thing out of place besides the smoke stacks in the distance. The bus stopped in front of one of the small, all wooden, home-like buildings. Along with forty other Jewish teens, I stepped out of the air conditioned bus onto the cobblestone ground beneath me. The first step I took through the aged doors sent shivers down my spine. In my mind, this was not a proper place for a temple to stand. A temple should be in an area where Jews are accepted, where community holds a strong presence, and it should be surrounded by a sense of safety. Little did I know, the next half hour would change my life forever.
In the summer of 2008, I, along with thousands of other Jewish-American teens, traveled to Poland and Israel. Along our journey to the concentration camp of Auschwitz and Birkenau, we stopped at a musty, aged synagogue that had stood in that very spot before the Holocaust began. It was a miraculous sight since most of the synagogues had been burned to the ground during WWII. It resided in a suburban town a mile or so from the concentration camp. We walked into the sanctuary and sat down on the wooden pews. The stained glass windows reflected a golden color onto every wall surrounding us. It was as if the sun was just rising after being dormant for an entire night’s sleep. The Rabbi let us sit there in order to absorb our surroundings. All forty of us looked around at how this simple temple survived, yet all its congregants had not.
After what seemed like a lifetime the Rabbi spoke with a firm tone, “Please Stand. Every Jew who lived in this village was murdered. We are going to sing and pray for all those who were lost in the Holocaust, and rejoice for those who survived. We are going to show all the people in this village that keeping quiet, not objecting, did not and will not defeat us.” Everyone stood up and began to pray. We sang songs of Israel, the Sh’ma, the Mourners Kaddish, and with every song our voices transformed from uncertainty to confidence. Our voices went from forty individuals, to one united group, from fear to hope and compassion. By the last song, we all sang at the top of our lungs, and not a single one of us could stop the tears from flowing down our faces.
After spending about a week in Poland, we reached our final destination, Israel. In Israel I learned so much about my heritage and where I come from. We visited the Western Wall and experienced the true culture of Israel. We spent a week with a group of Israeli teenagers. At 6 in the morning we climbed Masada just as our ancestors had. We visited a mosque in Israel where we learned of the differences and conflicts between Muslim and Israeli cultures. This trip changed my life. I encourage any teenager to seize this opportunity and seek out what being a Jew truly means to them.
To find out more about how you can take part in this wonderful experience go to http://www.nftyisrael.org/programs/ldorvdor/.
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