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My Diary from the Rest of the March of the Living

My Diary from the Rest of the March of the Living

My apologies for the length of this dispatch. I was kept so busy and tired that I fell behind in updating it. I hope you will find it of interest.

Friday, 4-20:

Today we returned to Auschwitz. Just writing those words is somehow chilling. We were there on Thursday. Why would anyone go there twice? The answer is that on Thursday we were there as participants in the March of the Living. Friday our bus returned to tour the Auschwitz Museum. I confess to some ambivalence about this experience. Auschwitz attracts large crowds of visitors. There is a book shop and a cafe, like any other tourist attraction. Buses line up as tour groups of all sorts, including many non-Jews, arrive to visit the greatest murder machine ever created. Yet the museum is an essential experience. We’ve all read about this terrible place, and seen the photos of the mounds of human hair and piles of children’s shoes, but the reality is greater than any secondary knowledge.

A few impressions from the day. In addition to our guide Gila, we had a docent from the museum, a young Polish man. He was very well-informed and added greatly to our understanding. I asked him what had led him to this work, and he told me that his great-grandfather had been a prisoner at Auschwitz, and his grandmother had been a guide there for 30 years. They felt a family responsibility to tell this story.

Throughout our time in Poland, Gila continually reminded us that the huge numbers of the dead can numb us to the essential reality that 6 million weren’t murdered—6 million individuals were. Statistics can get in the way of our seeing the true—and enormous—human cost. So I tried to look at one shoe among the mass, or one hairbrush, and remember that it belonged to a human being, a fellow Jew.

We then returned to Krakow to get ready for Shabbat. One of the themes of this particular day was the renewal of Jewish life in Poland, which takes many forms. Friday night we went to the Temple, which was a liberal synagogue before the war and has been beautifully restored. It was filled with locals but also with many visitors because of the March. The services were conducted by Orthodox leaders, who used the familiar Carlebach melodies, with enthusiastic participation by the congregation and many moments of dancing (of course, it was less fun for the women, who were upstairs and had to be spectators). Still, everyone reported that they enjoyed the service and its ruach (spirit).

Saturday 2-21:

The next morning most of the kids, exhausted, slept in. I went back to the Temple with one of the teens because I had been led to believe there would be an egalitarian service. We walked in late to discover eight people and someone on the bimah leading the early part of the service. He turned out to be an American born Conservative rabbi who serves a congregation in Australia (In fact, he grew up in LA, and my father officiated at his father’s bar mitzvah.) More people arrived, but who would read Torah? The community, we learned, was davening nearby at another synagogue, the Kupah. Then a large group from Miami arrived, accompanied by a wonderful Orthodox Rabbi. He knew the person who was reading Torah down the street, and got him to come over after he had read there and read for us. That left some time to fill before we could start the Torah service (and after the person who had the key to unlock the Ark was found!) So the two of us gave short, extemporaneous derashot. We both spoke on the theme of Jewish solidarity and unity which the March of the Living embodies. Here we were, a group of people from all over the world, from different religious movements, putting together a service on the fly with mutual respect, a common liturgy, and even many of the same melodies. It was great.

That afternoon we toured the old Jewish neighborhood of Krakow, rich in history. Rabbi Moshe Isserliss, one of the two composers of the Shulchan Aruch, the most authoritative code of Jewish law, lived here and we saw his synagogue.

The day was also enriched by meeting some non-Jewish Polish teens, and also a wonderful woman, a Christian American-Polish woman who has lived in Poland for 23 years and was instrumental in creating academic programs on Jewish-Christian relations. Walking was cut short by a sudden downpour.

At the end of Shabbat, we had havdalah. At that time I told the kids that havdalah means separation, but also distinction. Usually we thank God for separating between kodesh l’chol (holy and ordinary). But in the next 24 hours we would be going from kodesh l’chol l’ kodesh (holy to ordinary to holy), because we would be journeying to our holy Land of Israel. Even those of us who have been to Israel before would appreciate it all the more having witnessed the results of Jewish powerlessness and lack of a safe haven.

Sunday, 4-22:

We touched down at 3:40 A.M., with applause and relief. We met our guide, none other than Rabbi Eitan Julius, formerly of Congregation Sinai. We had breakfast at a beautiful restaurant in Zichron Yaakov (the kids were delighted to have fresh vegetables and a great breakfast after the more limited menu in Poland.) We were on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, which gave us the opportunity not only to say the she-hecheyanu, but also the specific blessing (which we had recently studied in my Friday morning Talmud class) for seeing the Mediterranean.Then we quickly toured the pedestrian mall in Zichron, and headed for the north. We stopped at Karei Deshe, a beach on the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). Rabbi Julius led the kids in saying a berachah over grape juice and bread, to celebrate having arrived in Israel, and then a dip in the lake as if it were a mikvah to purify us from the evil we had witnessed in Poland. We stayed at a beautiful guest house/youth hostel overlooking the Kinneret. Then the teens went on a disco boat on the Kinneret with a group from Greensboro, North Carolina, and Susan Gavens and I had dinner with my sister Judy, who lives nearby.

I will have more to say about the unique impact of tracing the arc of Judaism’s cataclysmic history in the 20th century. Suffice it for now to say: it’s good to be in Israel!

By the way, since our group led the entire March, and we were in distinctive colors, we got news coverage all over. One example is a photo montage in the Denver Post, with two pictures of our group (in orange and blue) leading the way: Note pictures 2 and 12.

Monday, 4-23

Today was a chance to experience Israel’s natural beauty. I think that we tend to think of Israel either in terms of history and antiquity on the one hand, and dramatic (and often worrisome) current events on the other. This can lead us to neglect the great variety and beauty of our tiny land. Our excursion today was a walk down the Hatzbani Stream, in one of Israel’s many nature preserves, and one of the sources of the Jordan. We had been told to bring water shoes, and indeed there were times we walked in the stream. It was quiet (except for us!) and lovely.

Then we went to Tzfat, one of Israel’s four holy cities and a key place in the history of the Kabbalah. It’s also a great place to shop. We toured synagogues and then did our best to help Israel’s economy. Then we drove to Tel Aviv for our overnight in preparation for our morning encounter with Israel’s history.

Tuesday, 4-24

This morning we went to Independence Hall, where Israel’s declaration of independence was signed. As we sat in the historic hall, our guide, Itzik, held the kids’ attention with an eloquent and gripping account of the background of the founding of the state. Some of the points he made:

  • How do you know when a war is over? When you can go home. In May of 1944, the war in Europe ended. Soon, the Americans went home, the British went home, even the Nazis went home, but thousands of Jews were in DP camps with nowhere to go.
  • The phrasing of the declaration of independence is precise—Ben Gurion knew ten languages!—and declared “the establishment of the Jewish State in the Land of Israel to be known as the State of Israel.” It is the state not just for Israelis but for the entire Jewish people.
  • All of you have cell phones (a lot of the technology in them was created by Israelis–a cell phone is a piece of plastic with a Jewish brain). You can call 911. The Jews of Europe had no one to call. But now the Jewish state exists to answer 911 calls from Jews any and everywhere.

We then heard the historic recording of Ben Gurion reading the Declaration of Independence, the recital of she-hecheyanu, and the singing of Hatikvah. I confess that I always cry when I hear it.

After some time shopping in the colorful area of the Carmel Market, we rode to Jerusalem, for a brief stop at Yad Vashem. The teens learned that Yad Vashem was established in 1953 by the Israel government, as “the world center for documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust.” They visited the memorial to the Righteous Gentiles, and the simple and moving children’s memorial. The other part of Yad Vashem that we visited had particular meaning: the Valley of the Communities, described well on their web site: “The Valley of the Communities in Yad Vashem is a massive 2.5 acre monument literally dug out of natural bedrock. Over 5000 names of communities are engraved on the stone walls in the Valley of the Communities.” We found the names of the places we had visited, and some kids also knew their grandparents’ home towns. After Poland, we had a context for understanding the enormity of the loss that the Valley represents.

We then drove to the Massada Guest House. That night was Erev Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day), and we were privileged to join with Kibbutz Ein Gedi for their commemoration. In additiontosolemn national observances, every community all over Israel has such a ceremony, where those from that place who fell in Israel’s battles are remembered. We assembled outside, waiting for the sirens to sound, as they do all over Israel both Erev Yom Hazikaron and at 11:00 on the next day. The whole crowd of several hundred people stood in silence, and then we went into the auditorium for the ceremony. I’ll just mention one detail that was meaningful to me. At the beginning, they showed pictures of community members who died in Israel’s wars—most of them heartbreakingly young. One young man was named Danny Frishman. He looked like he could have been a cousin of mine. I have attended a few of these local observances over the years, and they drive home very specifically the human cost that Israel has paid for its security.

Wednesday 4-25

We were up at 4:00 AM to ascend Massada by the snake path. If you don’t know about it, its name describes it well—a winding, steep climb, some of it stairs, 1200 feet up the sheer side of the Massada mount. We reached the top in time to see the sun rise over the Dead Sea and the mountains of Jordan. It was a small challenge to keep up with the teens, but I managed. It’s been a long time since I came up that way, but it was worth it. The view from the top was magnificent, and davening there was very meaningful. As we toured the site, our guide Eitan pointed out that the archeologists had found tefillin there and other evidence of the Jewish life of the time. We also heard the story of the last stand by the Zealot fighters, and got a sense of the fearsome and cruel power of the Roman war machine.

From there we went to ride camels and float in the Dead Sea. By “we” I mean the teens. Having done both activities in the past, I put them in the category of the essay by David Foster Wallace, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”

Then we went up to Jerusalem, stopping at the Haas Promenade south of the Old City for one of the best views in the world. That night, erev Yom Ha-Atzma·ut (Independence day) was spent on Ben Yehudah Street, a pedestrian mall/tourist magnet. The whole central triangle of Jerusalem was surrounded by security barriers (we needed our March of the Living wrist bands to get through). There were bands playing, people dancing, and a general joyous balagan (a useful Hebrew word that means “chaos”).

Thursday 4-26

Yom Ha-Atzma·ut. The main event for the March of the Living was a gathering in Safra Square near the Jerusalem City Hall, where there was more music and dancing, and then marching to the Kotel (Western Wall). This was an experience of world-wide Jewish solidarity, as we were surrounded by teens from Canada, Mexico, Panama, Argentina, Brazil, Belgium, France, and even Cuba! We all knew the same songs and we were all there sharing a love of Israel. At the Kotel, of course, the women were separated, and I’m sure that effected their experience, but nonetheless it was moving to hear all the voices sing out with the Shema and the Hatikvah.

That night there was dinner and a concert at the Tank Museum at Latrun, which has a large amphitheater. In an impressive feat of logistics, thousands of people were fed outdoors with vast buffets of food, on tables with tablecloths, real plates and flatware. Then it was on to the concert, which was done in a spectacular, even an over-the-top way, with dozens of dancers, fireworks, lasers, video-screens, etc.

Friday, 4-27

The morning was spent in tunnels. The first was Hezekiah’s tunnel. This dates to the 8th century BCE, and was designed to give Jerusalem a secure water supply in the event of siege. It still has spring water flowing through it, so there we were walking through water again! It is pitch black, so we took flashlights. This also gave us the opportunity to see the latest results of the excavations in the City of David. This drives home how far back our history extends, and how old a city Jerusalem is. The kids were in good spirits and the third of a mile went by quickly. You come out of the ground, turn around and enter another tunnel recently opened to the public. This is a drainage tunnel from the Second Temple period, which brings you up at the Davidson Center, near the southwest corner of the Temple mount.

We returned that night for services. We chose to be at Robinson’s Arch, which has been designated as a place where egalitarian worship is allowed. We were joined by the group from North Carolina and southern Virginia. Again, we had that wonderful feeling of Jewish unity as we prayed together and felt the holiness of Shabbat in Jerusalem.

Shabbat, 4-28

Shabbat morning, some of us got up to go to services at Moreshet Avraham synagogue, the oldest Conservative synagogue in Jerusalem, which is at the Fuchsberg Center. The woman service leader was wonderful, the Rabbi greeted us and other visitors warmly, and we ran into Charlie and Miriam Marr from Beth David. Shabbat afternoon was for rest and receiving visitors. That evening we gathered on the terrace of the hotel for Havdalah, and then the teens took turns expressing how much the trip meant to them. It was very moving and inspiring to hear their heartfelt words. I then said farewell to this group of wonderful young people and their dedicated staff, and (at 2:00 AM), they left for the airport. You should know that Ruth Zaltzmann as group leader and Susan Gavens as chaperone were absolutely wonderful.

I have stayed on a few extra days in Israel to be with my sister, who lives in Israel. I will then be taking a few personal days with my daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter in Washington, D.C. After that I will be attending the Rabbinical Assembly convention in Atlanta, and will be home on May 10th. I know this dispatch has been long, but I’d like to conclude with the D’var Torah I gave Friday night. It was well-received, and I have been encouraged to share it with you. It expresses some of my feelings and reactions to the whole March of the Living experience.

Acharei-Mot Kedoshim 5772: Jerusalem

So here we are praying together at the holy Temple Mount, in the holy city of Jerusalem, in our holy Land, celebrating the holy Shabbat. And if that isn’t enough holiness for you, this week’s Torah reading is Aharei Mot-Kedoshim. Kedoshim is a particularly rich parashah. Tonight I want to talk just about its first words: va’y’dabeir Adonai el Moshe leimor: dabeir el kol adat b’nei Yisrael v’amarta aleihim: kedoshim tih’yu ki kadosh ani adonai Eloheichem. And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying, Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them, You shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy.”

This is one of the great overarching principles of the Torah. We must be holy, which includes striving for closeness to God, living an elevated spiritual life, and treating others with kindness and compassion.

Unsurprisingly, people usually focus on the second part of the text: “You shall be holy.” But one great hassidic rabbi, Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman ha-Levi Epstein, who lived in Krakow [which we visited] asks us not to ignore God’s introductory words: Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them. This is an unusual phrasing. He asks, “What is the significance of knowing that this section was proclaimed in full assembly? Isn’t it likely that most mitzvot that apply to all of Israel were proclaimed in full assembly?”

He answers, “What this means is that the topic of this very section—the quest for holiness—must be ‘in full assembly,’ that is, within community. For it is impossible for a person to achieve holiness unless he first joins a community devoted to sacred service.”

We are so used to the communal nature of Jewish life that we can forget that there are many religious traditions which believe that if you want to be holy, or religious, or Godly, you must detach yourself from the world. Judaism recognizes that sometimes we need quiet, private time, but it insists that the highest degrees of holiness require a community. The minyan is both symbol and practice of this idea; There are certain holy prayers—kaddish and kedushah, for example—and certain practices—like public reading of the Torah—which must have a minyan, the minimum number that can be called a community.

Our rabbis and teachers understood that community gives us the support of like-minded individuals. Community gives us fellowship. Community tells us that we are not alone in our desire to be holy. Community gives us connection with others, but also connection with God.

In short, Judaism can’t be practiced in solitude. For example, imagine having a Seder all by yourself. Pretty lonely! Now try to imagine doing our March of the Living journey all alone. I suppose that someone could arrange a private tour of Poland followed by a private tour of Israel. I’m sure that they would get something out of it. But how can that be compared to the impact of walking ten thousand strong from Auschwitz to Birkenau? And where would they find the emotional support that we received from friends, guides, staff and survivors? Furthermore, if one Jew stands at Auschwitz and says, “I am here! Hitler did not succeed in wiping out the Jews. I pledge to strengthen my Jewish commitment and to support the state of Israel,”—that’s great. If ten thousand people do that—that is holy.

Likewise, if one person walks from the new city of Jerusalem into the Old City, stands by the Wall, and says, “Am Yisrael Chai—the people of Israel live”—that is wonderful. But when thousands join their voices, it multiplies holiness. Being surrounded by throngs of fellow Jews, feeling at ease with them, knowing we share history and values, gives us a sense of being part of kol adat b’nei Yisrael—all the congregation of the people of Israel—a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

More specifically, our bus from four Jewish communities has become our own kehillah kedoshah, our own holy community. We have shared unique experiences and deep emotions. We have followed the trail of our people’s tragic and triumphant 20th century history. It has been an exceptional and challenging experience. Because we did it together with concern for each other, it was also holy. May our new understanding of the holiness of Jewish community continue to guide us as we learn and grow as Jews.

May we keep and build on what we have felt for these past two weeks — tears for the Holocaust, love for our fellow Jews, commitment to Judaism, and devotion to Israel. Because, as Rabbi Epstein taught, holiness comes from community, and as we have learned, we need each other, we need community, we need Israel and Israel needs us. When we know that, and we act on it, we will be what God called us to be: a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Shabbat Shalom.