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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Heritage Trip to Poland 2015/5775: Day 5

This Friday night, in a small shul in Kraków, Poland stood 400 young adults, some with their eyes closed in prayer. Some with their eyes in their siddur, drinking in every word of the holy text. And some looked up towards the elaborate, beautiful ceiling and prayed to G-d in the hopes that the neshamot we learned of over the trip, would ascend to heaven. The songs during Kabalat Shabbat reverberated as people from all corners of the world sang as loud as they possibly could. Girls from Israeli Seminary, boys from Israeli Yeshiva, high school students from Yeshivah of Flatbush, Ramaz, it didn't matter. We were all one on that cold, rainy Shabbat night. The Karlbach Ashkenaz nusach was a new experience for some of the Flatbush students on this heritage trip. Despite the unfamiliarity, the song was just as strong. When some songs began to get louder and louder some even formed circles and danced and sang to welcome the Shabbat. 

Following a unifying prayer, Flatbush students walked to a restaurant to experience Shabbat dinner together. As everyone sat around a long, beautifully decorated table, Rabbi Prag made his way to every student and quietly whispered to each person that he would love it if they could speak at dinner, addressing everyone. Once people began to speak, the chain was unable to be stopped. Almost every person on the trip: teachers, parents, grandparents stood up and spoke. People stood and gave every bit of passion they had into what they said. The students spoke of their experiences, the lessons they learned, their newfound Emunah, their strengthened bonds, their connection to roots, appreciation and much more. As the night progressed, so did our unity and the light of the Shabbat table. We had walked back to the hotel through dark, sparsely lit streets, appreciating the food from the meal. Upon arriving at the hotel, a small group of students immediately went to the first floor to form a small kumzits with Rabbi Prag, Rabbi Shiloni (our incredible historian/tour guide and Flatbush alumnus), and Rabbi Skolnick. Stories were shared, tears were shed, and songs were sung. But most importantly, on a cold rainy night in Kraków, hearts and minds were opened and united.  
~Abby Shegelman


I carried the inspiration for Erev Shabbat into Saturday morning, as we made our way through Kraków to the Hoiché Synagogue for our Flatbush-Sephardic Minyan. We were surrounded by the remains of the Hechal, the home of a Torah, which was used once again for the first time in tens of years, as we placed our very own Torah there. We were also surrounded by the words of prayer painted on the wall, so that congregants could participate in the prayer because there were no printed books back then. Here, the students stepped up to the plate, acting as the Chazanim, Torah Readers and even congregants, making the Hoiché Synagogue filled with holiness and Hashem's presence once again. This experience surpassed, by far, a typical Shabbat morning. 

After Kiddush and breakfast, Rabbi Shiloni took the group on a tour of the Jewish quarters in Kraków. From the Alta Shul and Isaac Shul, which are no longer in use, to the Kuppah Synagogue, used today, we learned of the level of spirituality and religious depth these Jews reached. It seemed as if there were more synagogues than Jews living in this town. Yet it is still so important to the Jews living there to maintain the essence of our religion and the center of our Jewish lives, the shul. Our group then made our way to the restaurant for lunch. Besides for the religious meal, we were delighted to here a few more speeches and powerful words from two students (Victor Zeitoune and Oren Moskovitz) about their experiences on Heritage and lessons they've each embodied. We ended Shabbat with some down time, to rest for the adventures of the night, and said a sad goodbye to our Shabbat in Poland. 
Now, it was time to go out: Rabbi Prag warned us to dress warm as we'd be deep in the forest for several hours late at night. "In the forest," "night," "several hours," "cold outside." These are the words of the typical mystery; the description of a place we'd see horrific events and a place we might, and probably would, discover things that may alter our lives forever. At least that was my instinct. Unfortunately, both, the setting and instinct were correct. As we walked in pairs through the woods -no light, no sense of direction, and no idea where we were going - we arrived at the Zbilatowska Gora. What we saw, although it wasn't much without light, were the blue railings bordering small patches of grass. As we made the shape of the Hebrew letter chet surrounding one of the plots, Rabbi Shiloni went on to explain that these were not just monuments, but graves; graves of children. Children whose lives were cut short out of nothing but hate. Soldiers kill for safety and protection: to save lives of those they love or even to defend their beloved country. But these precious souls, were not taken by soldiers, but by murderers. Merely out of hatred and cruelty. These children, are faces we'll never see again, names we will never know, stories that were never told. These children were revolutionaries and people who would have not only impacted the world, but would have been a son or daughter; a father or mother; a brother or a sister; a friend to someone. They were people, but now they watch us from above as just souls. We reminisced over what we do and love, which they may never have had the chance to do; things as simple as going to school, enjoying certain foods, saying Shemah and Praying to God, and even singing the blessing of "Hamalach Hago'el" before we go to bed. 
In their honor and in their memory, we took turns lighting a candle and saying our names: for all we know, we could have the same name as a child in that grave who never had the chance to be a child, while we did. Together, we sang the words of "Vezakeini Le'gadel." "May they light up the world, with the Torah and good deeds..." In their memory, I want to live a life where my actions, and our actions as the Jewish People, will be positive; where we will be a light to look up to, a people to be proud of, and a nation that the enemies of this world cannot afford to live without. In their merit, may we live up to David HaMelech's line in Tehillim, "In thy light shall we see light." We then sang the words of "Shemah Yisroel," because these babies and children we lost, were just too young to know these words. In Majdanek we heard that "Shemah Yisroel" were the final words of the Jews in the gas chambers, as they expressed a faith I can't imagine anyone in our times will reach, with few exceptions. Their children and babies, however, didn't have these words to express their faith. They didn't have the chance to go to a Yeshivah, as we do today. They never learned these words, and on the slight chance they did, these souls never got to see the layers of their meaning; layers that were revealed to us day by day through experiencing and seeing the horrific actions that took place here, while hearing of the indescribable leaps of faith that these Jews made at the very same time. So as living testimony to our victory, to our survival and too these thousands of lives, we sang the words they never had the chance to say. ~Victor Zeitoune

Heritage Trip to Poland 2015/5775: Day 4

As I stepped off the bus I drew in a deep breath and prepared myself for what's to come. We were about to enter Auschwitz. Over the years I have heard countless stories that have taken place in this very camp. However, I didn't really know what to expect or how I was going to feel. Before we entered, our anxious group stood in a circle outside the camp and a few members from our group shared the survival stories of their relatives, myself included. As the stories were told, slight variations of voices were heard through quivering lips. Once we concluded our stories with unsteady gazes, we stood in two lines on railroad tracks facing the direction of the camp. We walked in standing tall and proud of our past, proving that we, the Jews, remain standing no matter how the Germans tried to exterminate us. 
We marched in on the ground that carried the cattle cars packed with daily victims. As we arrived, we were greeted with a replica of the famous entrance that read "Arbeit Macht Frei"("Work makes you free"). The cruelty of those three words stung my heart. The deception of the words that taunted the Jews, because the Nazi's knew that it didn't matter how hard you worked eventually their body would only amount to mere ashes.
Cattle Car outside Auschwitz
Once inside, we toured through the rooms of barracks in the museum of Auschwitz I. These rooms were filled with piles of individual belongings; large piles that stretched for many feet. We were overwhelmed by shoes, shoe polish, suitcases, glasses and hair. Jews brought these items because they thought that they would have a need to be used. They brought house keys with them. That means they locked their doors and the Jews were expecting to return home. They had no idea what horrors awaited them. Some locks of hair were in braids just like my friends and I wear our hair. It is immensely difficult for me to understand what its like to be stripped of your identity in only a few minutes. To become unrecognizable in an instant. To lose your favorite hairbrush or pair of shoes.

As our tour came to a close we scurried into a room that held a book with all the names of survivors and victims during the war. As I found the last name of my ancestors and the small villages they were from my eyes turned hazy and drenched in sorrow and I had difficulty locating their first names.
Standing strong outside Auschwitz
Our next stop: Birkenau, Auschwitz II. We marched down more tracks going through a play by play of what happened to the Jews as they arrived. We walked down to where the selection took place. The very place that families where torn from each other, separated and never to be seen again. We stood on the round where mothers gave up their children and their greatest fear in life came true, right before their eyes. Where the flick of one hand determined who would go right and who would go left. We continued walking. Our shoes leaving imprints in the muddy ground only to be washed away, just like the lives of millions where attempted to be covered up and concealed, as if their bodies never walked upon the Earth.
Walking on tracks to enter Auschwitz
We approached the changing room where 2000 people once stood at a time undressing, leaving their last remains behind. They were then stuffed into a smaller room that they would come to know as the last room they ever saw. The chamber they took their last breath in.

We went to see the room in which names where exchanged for numbers and strands of identity was removed from the scalps of millions. Rabbi Shiloni then made a special stop to Lager C, bunker 23. Now only rubble remains, but this was the barrack my great grandma spent weeks suffering. I was given another opportunity to share memories of her strength and how she survived Auschwitz with her sisters, caring for one another. My eyes filled with uncontrollable tears once more as the group sang and I lit a candle for her and all my other relatives that struggled through the torture and for those my family lost in the Holocaust. I didn't have to cry alone because more tears where coming from the sky. 
Candle lit by Emma Burekhovich in memory of her relatives lost in the Holocaust
We found closure in the unfathomable day by singing Am Yisrael Chai, because while the Nazis may have succeeded in killing 6 million Jews, they will never succeed in killing our spirits and our legacy. 
~Emma Burekhovich

Friday, March 27, 2015

Students Experience Life of Immigrants at Yeshiva University Museum


On Wednesday, March 25, about 20 Yeshivah of Flatbush students went to the Yeshiva University Museum to experience the life of a New York immigrant in the 1920’s. More specifically, we were able to experience the “wonderful” job immigrants had at textile factories, making denim clothing. In reality, we got to experience the labors of an immigrant working in a noisy factory, with a boring and repetitive job. 

We got a feeling of how it was like for the immigrants 104 years ago, on this day, during the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, when 145 workers were killed due to the gross negligence of the factory owner. Everyone on the trip would like to thank our chaperon, Mrs. Idy and Mrs. Hanon and the Pathfinders Program for giving us an opportunity to connect with New York’s and Jewish history. ~Josef Kusayev nd David Azrak

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Heritage Trip to Poland 2015/5775: Day 3

Today, on the third day of Heritage, the students and adults embarked on a resounding journey that tested and informed their values of identity, legacy and community/family responsibility. Our first destination was the Lodz cemetery located in Lodz, the second biggest city in Poland. We were told that before the war there were about 230,000 Jews living in Lodz, a third of the city's population. When we arrived at the cemetery we learned that this cemetery was the largest in all of Europe and held the graves and mausoleums of Jews before, during and after the war. This meant that at this one stop we would get to see Jewish life and morality over vast periods of joy and devastation. What we found was fascinating and laid out a template of thematic ideas for the rest of our day.

As we stood by the grave of Lodz's only rabbi, Rabbi Eliyahu Chaim Meisel, we were exposed to a character with supreme philanthropic values and a binding sense of community responsibility. We were told a story of when someone had asked Rabbi Meisel why he had never written a book. Rabbi Meisel then reached into his pocket and took out promissory notes with which he borrowed funds to provide for the needy. The notes which comprised "his book" were far more expository than anything he could have written on his own. We then continued to the incredible mausoleum of the Pozanski family, that used their own benevolence to provide for the community's needs. As we continued through the cemetery we came across a new theme, that of respect and defense for Jewish identity and legacy. We learned about the significance of putting a stone on a grave as Rabbi Prag explained the Hebrew acronymic definition of the word "stone" and it's allusion to Jewish legacy. 

Mausoleum in the Lodz Cemetery
Our next point at the cemetery was more eerie. We had arrived at the location of graves constructed for people deceased during the wartime period. We arrived to a seemingly endless lawn filled with small signs. We were told that the Israeli Defense Forces had returned some 10 years ago from Israel to construct graves for thousands buried during the war. We then discussed the idea of respecting Jewish identity, inasmuch as everyone shall receive a proper individual burial and subsequently a provisional grave marker by the IDF. To find that Jewish identity, the very reason why the Jews had been faced with such devastation, still remained essential during the war was astounding. But even more astounding was the idea of Jewish identity after the war which we found at our next point in the cemetery. We arrived at the edges of 6 deep pits in the grass along the edge of the cemetery. We were told that these were graves that Jews working in the nearby Lodz Ghetto had dug for themselves after the liquidation of the ghetto. Miraculously, the evening before these graves were supposed to be put into use, the Russians came and rescued the Jewish workers. Our tour guide, Rabbi Shiloni, had told us a story of a group he had lead 2 years ago to the same site. At this site a non-religious young lady found that one of the workers was her grandfather. Along the edge of this pit the young lady uttered two word which she had never uttered before "I'm Jewish." This refreshed sense of Jewish identity and acknowledgement of our legacy and family responsibility was one we carried for the rest of our day. 
Lodz Cemetery
Our next destination was a quick look at the Lodz Ghetto area where we considered the disparity that the Jewish value of family responsibility faced during the war. We stood along the fence of the ghetto and were handed photos taken by Mendel Grossman that were taken in the very place we were standing. We learned about the history of the ghetto and its unsettling statistics. We were told of the organization of the Ghetto and it's director, Chaim Ruchovsky. We considered ways in which Jews were able to resist the harsh treatment and stringent organization of the ghettos. We looked in our own hands, that were holding the somber images of misplaced families and children along the ghetto fence to find that we were holding the strongest force of resistance. Mendel Grossman, commissioned to photograph the glory of the ghetto, instead used his camera as his artillery to attack the conditions which contested the Jewish people's heritage and values.
Cattle cars at Radegast Station
Next stop was Radegast Station, right along the Lodz ghetto. There we entered the station which served as offices for arrivals and departures of the ghetto. We found infinite names listed on pages and pages of records. We then walked to the platform and into a cattle car. Attempting to place ourselves in the same horrific conditions that our ancestors faced, ran a chill down each of our spines. We stood packed like sardines, but within this aggregation we found a unifying bond, a connection to our legacy and to one another. We sang a resounding rendition of "Ani Maamin" and were then told the story of a man who witnessed the death of his father in one of these carts. He had begged the other men in the cart to help him in the reciting of Kaddish, and they did so out of dedication to the notion of community responsibility. Then Margie Bijou, mother of Isaac, read the story of a young lady who was separated from her mother. Her mother had told her to remember two words "t'harat ha'mishapcha", maintaining the sanctity of family identity. We saw again our 3 integral themes in the small confines of the cattle cart.
Students at Radegast Train Station experiencing being squeezed into a cattle car 
The next destination were the two extermination camps that comprised Chelmno. The earliest and most primitive form of a death camp that was created and in use even before Operation Reinhard. At the Schlosslager, or "Palace Camp" we had arrived at the ruins of a castle that served as the grounds for which Jews from the Lodz Ghetto and neighboring villages were rounded up and forced into cargo trucks that doubled as gas chambers. We entered a museum alongside the ruins and saw what the Jews had brought along with them upon entering the death camp. Everyday object such as keys, toothbrushes and dentures proved that these people had not anticipated their deaths.
Exploring the museum at the Chelmno death camp
We then reached the second part of Chelmno, the Waldlager, or "Tree Camp," a burial site nestled into the forest a few minutes away from the other site. Here each one of us sat along the edge of the unfathomably large pits to read and reflect upon the atrocities the Jews faced in this camp. We then arrived at 3 small pits outside the entrance of the burial site. These 3 pits served as the burial site for bodies that were found under the ground. Our tour guide had found small bone fragments within the site and collected them. At these 3 pits we proceeded with a moving burial service for the bones we found and discussed once again the value of preserving Jewish identity and upholding our legacy. Sol Horovitz then recited Kaddish at this site where it was most likely that 15 of his unknown relatives were buried.
At Waldlager, the burial sight for over 330,000 people who died in the Chelmno death camp
Our next stop was an impressive one as well. We arrived at an attic in an apartment building in the town of Donbia where we found the remnants of what was once a shul. Boys prayed mincha facing what was left of the Aaron Ha'Kodesh.

To end our poignant day we entered a Bunker in Czestochowa. The experience was extremely frightening as we recreated a story of a family of Jews who hid out in a locked cellar for 12 days packed tightly in absolute darkness. Feeling the heat, darkness and lack of air consume our minds only gave us a taste of the peril the family must have faced during the war.

Thursday in Poland was truly a moving and inspiring day. We saw joyous lives and successes of communities and devastating and often frightening realities faced by family's during the war. What we do not forget, however, is that Jewish ideas and values are eternal and no matter how desperate or uplifting our experiences may be, our values create and permeate all aspects of our existence. ~Michael Zalta

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Heritage Trip to Poland 2015/5775: Day 2

We woke up in Lublin for our second amazing day of Heritage. First we went to Yeshiva of Chachmei Lublin, to try and experience the rich Jewish life that took place there. We did this by studying and learning Torah at one of the first modern Yeshivot. We studied together in a room where great scholars studied and learned pages of daf yomi.
Rabbi Prag giving a shiur in Yeshiva of Chachmei Lublin
Students learning with Rabbi Skolnick in Yeshiva of Chachmei Lublin
From there we went to the Majdanek death camp, where so many people were killed. We walked into the shower rooms and gas chambers in which Jews were stripped of all their clothing, dignity, and many times their lives. We saw the white walls stained by blue chemicals from the gas. Scratches remained on the wall from people trying to catch their last breath. Emotions poured from all our hearts, thinking of the innocent, beautiful souls that were murdered here. We sang שמע ישראל together as one for those who could no longer. 
Majdanek Shower Rooms
Students walk to the Majdanek Barracks
Next, we walked into the barracks, and heard stories about the terrible sleeping arrangements and food conditions. We then went to the crematorium, and saw the ovens that were used to burn dead bodies. We saw a mountain of ashes and bones, the only remnants of those who perished. We left Majdanek by singing a few songs to lift the souls of the dead and saying Kaddish. It was truly an emotional and eye-opening experience.
Students outside of Majdanek death camp
Abby Shegelman sharing how her family heritage impacted her life
Last but certainly not least, we visited a small town that was once 90% Jewish called Peshuscha. Now, there is not one Jew left in the town. There, we brought to life a shul that was built in the 1700s and was destroyed and abandoned during the war. It wasn't used for 75 years until we came and sang and danced like the chasidim that used to pray there.
Students singing and dancing in Peshuscha Shul
After we embraced our inner chasidut, we walked to the grave of Rabbi Yaacov Yitzchak, known as Yehudi ha-Kadosh, a great chasidic rabbi of Poland where we prayed a meaningful Arbit, recited tehillim, and lit another candle. 
Meaningful Prayers in Peshuscha
Meaningful Prayers in Peshuscha
After an emotionally draining day, we ate a delicious dinner and checked in to our hotel for the night in Lodz. We expressed our feeling in a processing session and tried to make sense of it all.  ~Becky Waldman

Flatbush Students Compete in Yeshiva League Model Congress

Congratulations to the entire Yeshivah of Flatbush High School Model Congress team for their performance at the annual Yeshiva League Model Congress, organized and hosted by HAFTR High School, on Wednesday, March 25. Over 200 student “delegates” from various yeshivah high schools took part in the event, breaking into different committees to present original bills, debate, amend and vote on other bill proposals and learn firsthand how the legislative process works. Kimberly Alweiss, Daniella Babaee, Joseph BenHaim, Raquel Cohen, Sarah Coopersmith, Max Edeson, David Idy, Gabe Vizgan, Ben Wade and Miri Zenilman all participated at a very high level, while Shlomo Husni was awarded a certificate for outstanding performance within his committee. The event was an educational and enjoyable experience for all concerned. We look forward to future success in this program with next year’s sophomore, junior and senior members!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Heritage Trip to Poland 2015/5775: Day 1


Today, 37 Yeshivah of Flatbush seniors, and 12 adults including parents, family members, and three faculty members: Rabbi Prag, Rabbi Skolnick, and Ms. Zimmerman along with historian, Rabbi Tzvi Shiloni (HS ’89) arrived in Poland for our annual Senior Heritage Trip to Poland.

After a long flight, we jumped right into a long and inspiring day. We began our journey with a visit to the Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. It is one of the largest  Jewish cemeteries in Europe with over 450,000 Jews buried there with over 150,000 standing tombstones as their monuments. The people in the cemetery were buried backward, with their heads facing the exit instead of their feet. This was because the first person buried there was buried facing the wrong way by accident and the rabbi of Warsaw at the time didn't want him to be the only one who would have to "turn around" to face the fence during תחיית המתים.
Students walking through the cemetery in Warsaw
We saw many graves with engravings that told the people's life stories. Scholars had books engraved, actors had masks, lumber shippers had trees and ships.  Even though we did not know the people buried there personally we got good sense of who they were. A man by the name of Abraham Karmi once lived in that very cemetery for three years. Karmi even had his bar mitzvah in the cemetery! When the Nazis came, he had to hide along with his mother in the graves that they dug for themselves. The thought is heart-aching.
Students at the grave that Abraham Karmi dug for himself as a hiding place.
We visited graves of many important people in our Jewish heritage. All 49 of us squished into the ohel around the graves of the נצי"ב, (Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin) and Rav Chaim Soloveitchik where we sang nigunim and recited tehillim. We also saw the grave of י״ל פרץ, a Hebrew author whom we studied in Hebrew class and Adam Cherniakowa, a member of the Judenrat who gave up his own life in trying to save the lives of others.
Grave of Rav Chaim Soloveitchik
We stopped at a corner in the cemetery with no tombstones- just dirt. We were standing in front of a mass grave, קבר אחים, that is likely the burial site for the great- grandmother of one of our own students (Rachel Singer). We said Kaddish, lit a candle, and sang Acheinu together. It was a special moment for everyone to witness the togetherness of our group in a place where our ancestors once stood in such unity.
Abby Shegelmen and Nicole Yankovich folding paper to visualize how tightly packed the Jews were in the Warsaw Ghetto
After the cemetery, we visited what was once the Warsaw Ghetto where over 33% of Warsaw's population was stuffed into less then 2.5% of Warsaw. We prayed Mincha at the only remaining wall of the ghetto. Nothing else remains of the ghetto because the Nazis destroyed it all after the ghetto's uprising.
Nina Haber praying Mincha at the Warsaw Ghetto Wall
We learned that it took the Germans just two weeks to defeat the Poles who had the strength and equipment to defend themselves but took these same Germans two months to defeat the Jews in this ghetto. The last bunker was destroyed on Pesach with the people still in it. Children recited the Ma Nishtana wondering if it would be their last time and fathers responded with the same question.

We ended the night with a group dinner at the Galil restaurant where we all shared our thoughts on the emotional first day.
Goodnight from Lublin! ~Nicole Yankovich

Friday, March 20, 2015

Flatbush Students Visit FIT

On March 16th, 16 girls and I were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit the Fashion Institute of Technology. We were given a tour of the campus, different buildings and classes and spoke about majors and what happens in each class. It was extremely eye opening and gave us many options that we could explore for the future. Thank you to the College Guidance Department and thte Pathfinders Program for providing us with this opportunity! ~Sari Cattan

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Students Experience Irish Immigration Exhibit at The Tenement Museum


Students in Mrs. Pahuskin's Coming of Age Literature elective class visited the Tenement Museum and were immersed in a tour about the Irish immigrant population in the late 1800's and early 1920's. This tour was arranged in conjunction with the historical fictional novel, Orphan Train, that her class completed this semester. The tour was informative, insightful, and educational. The students found it thrilling to discover the hardships faced by all immigrants, and were particularly engaged with the simulation room imitating an actual tenement at the turn of the century. It was a terrific experience that enabled the students to imagine the struggles of the characters in Orphan Train, in a realistic setting.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Flatbush Students Visit Brooklyn Museum

On Wednesday, March 11, about 20 Yeshivah of Flattbush students and I went to the Brooklyn Museum. We got to experience how women's fashion and the perception of beauty has changed over time. We went to two different exhibits which showcased how women's fashion and “size” changed so much over time. We were all so privileged to experience this wonderful trip. Thank you to our chaperons: Ami Sasson, Lizette Gindi, Vicky Tawil and Sandy Hadadd. Thank you to Mrs. Hannon and the Pathfinders Program for making this trip as wonderful as it could be. ~Arlette Gindi