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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