It was the Jewish heritage trip of a lifetime when 37 Emet Outreach students visited Poland and Prague this summer. To be eligible for the experience, students attended at least one semester of the Emet Leaders Fellowship, an eight-week college program that provides an introduction to Judaism with inspiring classes and uplifting Shabbatons. The emphasis of the multi-faceted itinerary was to appreciate Jewish survival from the midst of destruction. A quote by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on the cover of the schedule set the tone for the week-long visit: “Jews were commanded to become the people who never forget. And they never did.”
The students were accompanied by a devoted Emet team of Rabbi Mordechai Kraft, Co-Founder and Educational Director; Rabbi Reuven Kigel, Campus Director; Ms. Chava Zaretsky, Campus Mekareves, and Ms. Rivka Amrami, a mentor in the Women’s Division. They were also joined by Rabbi Tzvi Shiloni of J-Roots, who served as a dynamic and sensitive tour guide. “We don’t just view this as a history lesson. Students are discovering what it means to be a Jew,” Rabbi Kraft explained. “We engage them both in the history of Jewish life, and the great rabbis and thinkers who still influence our lives today.”
Designed to offer an in-depth perspective of Jewish life in the pre- and post-Holocaust era, the trip began in Warsaw and continued to other former Jewish epicenters in Poland like Lublin, Lezajsk, and Krakow. Towns with notable histories, like Bychawa, Zamosc, Izbice, Sandomierz, and Tarnow, were also visited. There were thought-provoking visits to cemeteries, synagogues, and yeshivos to understand the richness of the Jewish communities before the war. Tours of ghettos and concentration camps, like Majdanek, Belzec, and Auschwitz, rounded out the students’ understanding of the attempted annihilation of European Jewry.
An important aspect of the way the sites were explored was to show joy along with the despair. “From the beginning of the trip, Rabbi Tzvi brought such light and meaning to the darkest places. We had a song book and he taught everyone appropriate nigunim to sing at each part of the trip. It was especially moving to sing ‘Am Yisrael Chai’ at Auschwitz,” Chava said. “When we walked around cemeteries, Rabbi Tzvi brought the people buried there to life by sharing inscriptions on their gravestones. This also helped quantify the magnitude of the destruction of the Shoah, because each person was a world in himself or herself.” Rabbi Kigel added, “The most frequent thing I said on the trip is, ‘When you are faced with death, you are inspired to live.’”
The final day of the trip was spent in Prague in the Czech Republic, where the group could relax after the intensity of the Poland journey. They enjoyed a beautiful walking tour of the main historical areas and the Jewish quarter. At the closing banquet, to commemorate the experience, each student made a commitment to expand his/her Jewish observance. These mitzvos included keeping Shabbos, putting on t’filin, saying T’hilim, and davening.
After the trip, the participants were left with renewed gratitude for their daily lives and a profound appreciation for Jewish unity. “My time in Poland and Prague was extremely impactful. I was already going through a spiritual transformation by incorporating more Jewish elements into my life. The experience of being on the trip – seeing the sights, singing the songs, and feeling the energy of the people around me – really pushed me to another level,” said Joshua Raziyev, a student at St. John’s University. “Rabbi Kraft, Rabbi Kigel, and Rabbi Tzvi have intense knowledge and expertise, and they did an amazing job of making the trip meaningful. As Jews in America, it’s difficult to comprehend how special we are as a people. After seeing the travesties that the Jews of Europe went through and how close they were to extermination, it’s incredible that almost 80 years later we can walk freely as Jews and enjoy ourselves in Prague. I highly recommend this trip.”
Noa Fuzaelov, a Hunter College student, shared: “This trip was by far the most meaningful experience of my life, and I’m so grateful to Emet for giving me this opportunity. The most memorable part for me was visiting the children’s burial at the Buczyna Forest in Tarnow, Poland. It made me feel determined to ensure that those beautiful lives wouldn’t be lost in vain, through my commitment to being Jewish and hopefully through my future children embracing Hashem and Torah.”
Rabbi Kigel explained the magnitude of the trip: “Almost all of the students mentioned that this was literally the best eight days of their lives. The reason is because we didn’t just see how the Jews died in Poland, but we also saw how they lived for hundreds of years. It was incredible to visit the k’varim of tzadikim, learn about chasidim, see where the Bais Yaakov movement started, and spend Shabbos in Krakow. It made everyone feel grateful for the way we get to practice Judaism here in America. Everyone, staff included, felt appreciative, more aware of our history, and inspired to live life better.”
For further information about Emet programs, visit EmetOutreach.org. To experience Emet’s comprehensive video library of Torah lectures, visit EmetTorah.com.