Monday, July 14, 2014

Thank You for Sending Your Teens!

My final posting was a thank you to parents. I urge you to take this journey. Not just ot the Shoah, but to see what life was like for hundreds of years and could have been if not for the Shoah. And to see Jewish life beginning to return to Eastern Europe.

Thank You for Sending Your Teens! 
I was honored to chaperone the 46 teenagers in NFTY L’dor V’dor’s Group 11 on their flight to Europe. It was a little hairy making our connection in Warsaw, since our first flight took off almost an hour wait. But when your group is more than half the plane’s passengers, they hold the plane for you.

I found myself moved among the four different groups according to the needs of the staff and the capacity of the busses, so I was able to spend time with most of the members of groups 9, 10a and 11.

Ceremony at Terezin
It was an amazing adventure as we made our way from 13th Century Prague and Krakow to Terezin, Auschwitz/Birkenau and the Warsaw Ghetto to the vibrant communities of today.

As an educator, I often tell parents not to ask their kids “what did you learn in school today?” We all know the answer is genetically encoded: “Nothing.” When these fabulous teens get home they will say “Thanks for this opportunity, folks!” (They are good kids!). “Now I need to sleep.” Of course you will want to hear everything about the trip, even though you have been following it through these blogs and through conversations on the phone, e-mail and texts.

I tell parents to ask leading questions instead. So for a resource for the such questions for the first leg of the trip I recommend clicking on the links below. They are short and will give you an idea of what we experienced in Europe. Ask some questions about those places. For the rest of the trip, I recommend Google searching some of the sites they will be visiting.

Me and my (temple) kids
As I sit in a cafĂ© in Tel Aviv, I want to thank the amazing madrikhim (counselors) and mekhankhim (tour educators) and their unit leader Yotam for the work they are doing – they are wonderful! Jake, Paul and Rich and their staffs have put together a phenomenal team who keep the kids on schedule, keep them laughing and singing, and keep them learning and help them negotiate some emotionally challenging issues.

So thank you for sending your teens on L’dor V’dor. Thank you letting me share their experience. Now you have a job to do – YOU need to come to Israel. Not to support Israel, but to experience it for yourself. If you have already, it is probably time to come back. And I bet you know someone who will give you advice on what to do and see. You just have to wait a month to see them!

Your Homework:
Communities of Today:

After Auschwitz, a Tuba?

I am not sure if I am going to write about the visit to Birkenau in the morning nine days ago or Auschwitz in the afternoon. I will eventually, but I have had an internal issue with Shoah business for many years because of an unfortunate teaching experience involving the documentary Night and Fog. I have been blessed with teachers in my schools who are wonderful at teaching the topic, so I have been happy to leave it to them. That is going to change - at least for my involvement. For now, let's say it was a very emotional day for me and all of the staff and teens on the NFTY L'dor V'dor trip - as it would be for anyone.

After we returned to the hotel in Krakow to wash up and have a nice communal Shabbat Dinner, we joined the local Progressive Synagogue - Beit Krakow - for Kabbalat Shabbat. Here is that posting:

After Auschwitz, a Tuba?
By Ira J. Wise

Friday morning we took the bus from our hotel in Krakow to Birkenau/Auschwitz. It was a very emotional day as you might expect. After touring both camps, punctuated by a series of shared survivor testimonies read by participants and a ceremony to honor and remember the dead, we were all pretty drained, emotionally Dinner.

We returned to the hotel for a shower and Shabbat and tried to return to the land of the living. Who knew all we needed was an accordion, a baritone tuba and a hammer dulcimer?
Rabbi Segal is on guitar at left. And yes, that is a tuba!

Following dinner we traveled to Beit Krakow – a Progressive congregation which holds services at the Galicia Museum. The Galicia is in a building in the Kazimirz, the old Jewish community of Krakow. It is filled with art produced by local Jewish artists and photographers and has a book shop and coffee shop. The museum is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.

Beit Krakow held services in a large open space in the back, amid exposed brick and more another rt exhibit. The room was filled with people – over 160 of  us with NFTY – plus more than 100 members of the community and visitors in town for the annual Jewish Festival.

Services were led by Rabbi Tanya Segal. She was joined by three musicians, One played what appeared to be a hammer dulcimer as well as a flute. Another had and accordion and the third played a baritone tuba! Most of the tunes were familiar to most of our teens – especially those who attended our camps or are part of NFTY youth groups. The phrasing was a little different, but it was a joyful noise! Some our teens and madrikhim got up to dance in the side exhibit hall.

Beit Krakow's
I grew up singing Cantor Steve Sher’s Dodi Li. It is one of my favorites. It sounded fabulously different with accordion and tuba! It was the same and different all at once. The way Rabbi Segal led the service was a bit different than what most of us are accustomed to. Yet realizing that we had spent the day quite literally in the valley of the shadow of death it was amazing to see how Polish Jewry is coming back to life!

If you have the opertunity to make the pilgrimage we have to Birkenau/Auschwitz, I highly recommend you make arrangements to spend Kabbalat Shabbat with Beit Krakow! – it will soothe your soul after the turmoil of the visit to the camps!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Terezin: A Good Day. Hard, But Good.

On June 30, I was fortunate enough to escort the 46 teens on Buss 11 of NFTY's L'dor V'dor trip to Eastern Europe and Israel. My job, as a "Friend of NFTY" was to safely chaperone them on the Lot Airlines flight to Warsaw, negotiate passsport control and security and make our connection on Lot to Prague in the Czech Republic, where the tour began. We met three other groups of teens, campers from Eisner and Crane Lake camps, who travelled on two other flights and got to Prague before us.

Before I go any farther, no - this is not a "what I did on my summer vacation" slide show and brag fest. As a chaperone, I was asked to submit posts to the group blog a few times and I am sharing those. So they will appear in order, but quickly. As I write this I am sitting in Jerusalem after a wonderful week - much of which I must share as well. Here is the first:

Terezin: A Good Day. Hard, But Good.
Greetings from just over the Czech/Polish border. We are at a rest stop on our way from Terezin to Krakow. This morning was a very somber and thoughtful day. We checked out of the hotel in Prague and drove to Terezin.

The town and fortress were established in the 18th century but the Nazis remodeled it three or four times. First an SS prison, it became a concentration camp and later a death camp. Yesterday, when we visited the Pinkus Synagogue and Prague we saw the names of all of the people from throughout Bohemia and Moravia who went to Terezin and never returned.

At Terezin, we visited a barracks where the prisoners lived. Becky Molinoff said that “on the one hand the triple bunks and the tidy shelves made it look like summer camp.  Then you think about how crowded the prisoners were on the bunks and what finally happened to them and the comparison became very disturbing.”

We saw the art, poetry and representations of the theater they created. Jacob Rodier said “The art work really struck me emotionally. It was so real how they were allowed and able to express themselves through their paintings.” The exhibit showed how the artists gradually changed their themes from beautiful images of nature and Jewish life to vivid portrayals of life in Terezin under the Nazis. And then the artists were killed.

Crane Lake Campers sang Debbie Friedman's
Shema in the secret Synagogue in Terezin.
It was beautiful, haunting and a little Triumphant.
And we visited a synagogue that had been kept hidden from the Nazis. I was with Bus 9 from Crane Lake as we crowded 46 people into a space smaller than most of our living rooms as Noa, one of our mekhankhim (trip educators) led us in Debbie Friedman’s Shema.

It is a strange kind of concentration and death camp. It had been given a makeover in 1944 to fool the Red Cross inspectors. It almost looked like the Jews were on vacation. And today, the town functions as community of 2,000 Czechs living a daily life – interrupted by busloads of people coming to visit the remains of the camp and crematorium.  Carolyn DelAngelo said “The town looks so normal. It was a real place before and it is a real place again. It is kind of disconcerting.”

Finally we gathered at the banks of the Ohre River, behind the town, at the place where the Nazi’s forced the Jewish inmates to dump the ashes of the dead into the river. There we held a tekes (ceremony) in memory of the martyrs of Terezin.
Jacob Wunder remarked on a Czech father and son who came by the site of our tekes and used the stairs down to the river to launch their canoe while we sang “The Last Butterfly:” “I think it is interesting that people moved into the town after the war. I hadn’t thought about it before, but the father and son in their canoe told me that life has been brought back to a place of death. I think that is good.”

Tomorrow we will see Krakow, where Jewish life thrived for six centuries – until the war. I know we are not done with the somber sites, but we are all looking forward to learning about the long period when life was good. In Krakow.

Ira Wise is one of NFTY’s Flight Chaperones who escort our teens on their flights to Euorpe. He is also the Director of Education at Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, CT, where Jacob, Becky, Jacob and Caroline are members. And he is a faculty member at Eisner and Crane Lake Camps, where all four have been campers.