Men's Mission to Poland & Israel

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On the "Men's Mission to Poland and Israel: From Darkness to Light," 14 Jewish Cleveland men are learning about the pre-War centers of Jewish life in Poland, the Holocaust, and the contemporary scene, experiencing meaningful tours of Poland sites, and discovering Israel like they've never seen it before.

Check out some highlights and photos below from Rabbi Hal Rudin-Luria, a mission participant:

Day 1

Day 1 of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland's Mission to Poland & Israel begins in Krakow – an eye opening day to the nearly 1,000 year history of Jews in Poland originally invited to come by Polish royalty. Walking Krakow's Old Market and Jewish Quarter – we were amazed at the history, beauty and grandeur of the city. Once home to more than 65,000 Jews (1/4 of the city population) but devastated by the Holocaust. The ancient synagogues were not destroyed by the Nazis only looted – and we marveled at the renovated holy spaces especially – the Reman synagogue (also called the New Synagogue which is 500 years old) built for the great Rabbi Moses Isserles – the legal decisor of Ashkenazic Jewry still today as recorded in the Shulchan Arukh – we stopped to pray at his grave (a place where prayers can be helped to come true).

We were shaken at the sight of "Krakow's Wailing Wall" – one wall of the old Remah cemetery covered with shattered Jewish tombstones that were desecrated by the Nazis. We were amazed to hear stories of the revival of Jewish culture in this city which is the cultural heart of Poland. The Jewish Quarter hosts the annual Jewish festival started by interested non-Jews, opened Jewish-style restaurants frequented by the non-Jewish population who are curious about Judaism- like the Hummus and Happiness restaurant.

Day 1 of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland Poland & Israel mission continues with an inspiring visit to JCC Krakow and a meeting with its director Jonathan Ornstein. First hand we see the rebirth of the Jewish community here from bustling college students coming in and out of the building, news of the construction of Krakow's Jewish preschool, senior programs, survivor groups and so much more.

Jonathan shared two amazing stories of young people who recently "discovered" that they were Jewish (their parents or grandparents had kept it secret never revealing after the war and during Communist times). Now, these young people are connecting with their Jewish heritage at the JCC. We had the opportunity to eat with JCC staff and active members. From a decimated community, elderly survivors gather together in the same building as the new Jewish pre-school. Jewish Krakow is growing.

Day 2

Day 2 of Jewish Federation of Cleveland's Poland & Israel Mission at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camps – an incredibly difficult and moving experience which words cannot fully describe – the eerie feeling of death pervades the camps, the incomprehension that such systematic evil could go on in this world, the gratitude that several visiting Israeli teen trips encircled our group reminding us that the next generation will never forget.

A new exhibit sponsored by Yad Vashem was the Book of Names – an unfathomably large book with pages nearly three feet high and the book extended the length of a large room that contains the names of all four million identified Jews murdered in the Holocaust as our group found relatives and family friends listed – walking into the gas chamber and crematoria where they killed 700 or even 2,000 human beings at once – seeing the piles and piles of human hair, suitcases, hairbrushes, and shoes – little children's shoes – in piles – carefully organized and stored for sale, proof of the extermination of the Jewish race or other uses.

Walking the rail line that led to the selection area where Dr. Mengele would say left or right – either straight to death or to hard labor but survival for the moment, and reciting the memorial prayer for the 6 million Jews misdeeds in the Shoah simply for being Jewish beside the destroyed crematoria and the pond filled with human ashes and remains. Never forget, never again – and ending with a trip to the town of Oswiecim and the return of Jewish life, survival and hope to Auschwitz by dancing with the Torah that our synagogue donated here 15 years ago. As Elie Wiesel wrote in the introduction to the newest version of his classic "Night," the response to Auschwitz is responsibility. We are all responsible for the future of our world and humanity.

Visiting the Krakow ghetto where 16,000 Jews were kept in the poorest area until its liquidation and deportations, today the memorial of empty chairs remains in the main plaza – empty and spread out like those lost, the ghetto walls that looked like tombstones and bricked up windows on the corner of the ghetto that still remain today.

Then, a visit to the factory of Oskar Schindler, which is now a museum – including his desk – where his list was created that saved more than 1,200 Jews – not just his factory workers but their relatives and others that would have been sent to death camps. Grateful to Schindler and all of the Righteous Gentiles that risked their lives to save lives. Schindler said, "Life makes sense as long as you save people."

Day 3

Day 3 of Jewish Federation of Cleveland's Poland & Israel mission began with an express train to Warsaw – home to 600,000 Jews before 1939 – considered the Paris of the East – most of the city was destroyed during the war as punishment for the uprising. So we started our tour in the Jewish cemetery – to see the flourishing of Jewish life beginning in the late 18th century both religious and secular – graves of great rabbis and leading poets, Yiddish theater actresses and playwrights, doctors and philosopher – all changed in 1939 – the cemetery on the edge of the ghetto had hiding spots and some tombstones were riddled with bullet holes, mass graves without any marking was the only burial option for the years of the ghetto and will today are just open cordoned off areas, we walked on the path of the walls of the ghetto which once held nearly 500,000 Jews in a small area cut off from any supplies, food, medicine and humanity, standing at the Umschlaplatz- the loading plaza – where more than 300,000 were deported directly to extermination at the death camps, we visited the memorial at Mila 18- the bunker where the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising stood up with strength against the Nazis, driving them out of the ghetto when they were intent on liquidating it, when the Nazis returned with reinforcements.

The ghetto uprising again held the Nazis for a few weeks until just before being captured they all took their lives – learning about the smuggling that they did through the sewers – and standing at the two sided memorial one is dark and unpolished showing traditional Jews who did not resist but were led to their slaughter by the Nazis, and the other side brightly polished shows strong Jews bearing weapons standing tall – choosing how to die – a reminder yet again that we must be vigilant against hate as we remember all those who perished but also recall the heroism of those did resist and stand up against prejudice, violence and genocide.

Day 3 continues in Warsaw exploring the rebirth of Judaism in this once thriving Jewish metropolis – holding the Torah donated by Cleveland's Young Israel that is read regularly in Poland – Chief Rabbi Of Poland Michael Schudrich described that Jews who stayed in Poland after the war under communism couldn't stay Jewish and hid the truth with the fall of Communism in 1989. Now it was a question do we reveal the truth and share with our children/grandchildren that we are in fact Jewish – slowly more and more are finding out and seeking a connection to Judaism – learning and even practicing – "it's still a work in progress."

We also had inspiring meeting with young adult leaders in the community – graduates of the Minyan leadership program, each with their story of how they found out in their late teens that they were Jewish – reclaiming their heritage – through religious observance, or arts and film (leaving a law practice to make documentaries on Polish Judaism), or Maccabi Jewish sports teams.The future of Jewish Warsaw is bright with these young leaders rebuilding a vibrant community in the ruins of destruction and loss

Day 4

Day 4 of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland's Poland & Israel mission at Polin – the Jewish museum – tracing back the history of Jews in Poland for the entire 1,000 years of Polish history. The first ever recorded mention of Poland was by a Jew. Jewish merchants originally invited by the king, there were Jewish coins minted in Poland in the 1200's (one is on display at the museum), the complicated history of Jews in Poland given rights and privileges but also persecuted and despised, rising in society to even sit on councils of government but also the blood libels and pogroms, the great rabbis like Moshe Isserles, Vilna Gaon, Baal Shem Tov responsible for some of our classic traditions – the great yeshivot and chasidism

Highlights for me – the photo of a fortress synagogue built to defend the Jews and house of prayer, the recreated wooden synagogue of Gwodziec with its incredible colorful painting with mystical symbolism, actual Molotov cocktail and fuses from the Warsaw Ghetto – huge museum that successfully portrays the grandeur of Jewish Poland and the complications – including an edict from the Pope in the 1600's that in one line praises the Jews and then venerates them.

Such is Poland for the Jews – a paradox of danger and loss and opportunity and creativity – and with this we leave Poland to travel to the Holy Land – Israel.

Day 4 of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland's From Darkness to Light Mission – in Jerusalem meeting with Holocaust educator Shalmi Balmore and our fantastic tour guide Abraham Silver who share the same idea that post-Shoah Israel does not seek to continue Polish Judaism, but to break from continuity and create new based on deeper roots – the ancient Bible – while remembering the past.

Holocaust Survivor Hannah Pick in her late 80's shared her story with us including that she was close friends and a neighbor of Anne Frank – sharing childhood memories of Anne – Hannah's mother had said, "G-d knows everything but Anne knows everything better." Hannah had thought (like everyone else) that the entire Frank family "had left for Switzerland eating chocolates with their grandma" especially since they left a note asking to take care of their family cat. Later she would find out the truth when they were reunited at Bergen-Belsen and where she tried to send care packages to Anne – and where she knew she was no more.

Hannah shared her story from Germany to the UK to Holland – her father had prominence and was an official and helped refugees. They had a passport approved to go to South America and were on the list for the Palestinian exchange – it provided better living conditions – but still life was difficult. Without proper medical care, her brother was stillborn and two days later her mother died from childbirth complications. The rest of the family was sent to a labor camp and then onto Bergen-Belsen. As the liberating forces were approaching with her sister the SS put her and her sister on the trains but they were liberated 10 days later. Without food or drink she exchanged her last possession, her grandmother's diamond ring, for a rabbit to eat. Soon they were liberated and she went to Palestine in 1947 as a nurse. Amazing to hear her story and how it was interwoven with Anne Frank z"l.

On to Yad VaShem – the holocaust Memorial – a powerful museum built slicing into the hillside of Jerusalem – in the massive hall of names – a cave down to the bedrock of Jerusalem, a circular room holding the names and pictures of each of the identified over 4 million murdered and empty spaces for the other 2 million – raising more 30 feet above – artifacts and history, testimony and facts –bombarded with the reality and the loss –never again will children have to make up monopoly boards of ghettos to teach them how to be safe-. Never again. We recited the memorial prayer at the eternal flame that is by the area containing ash remains from each of the concentration and death camps – never again will we stand idly by in the face of injustice and genocide – yizkor.

Day 5

Friday afternoon in Jerusalem means going to the Shuk Machaneh Yehudah (the outdoor market), cafe aroma, the best falafel, stocking up on rugelach from Marzipan (and Borekas Haifa), sampling all the different hamantashen like halva flavored, picking up our favorite pomegranate tea and running into old friends. Shabbat Shalom m'yerushalayim l'kulam – sending peace and tranquility from the holy city to you.

Day 6

Shabbat in Jerusalem (I should just stop right there)- walking to the Kotel (Western Wall), dancing and singing with our friends, Israeli soldiers, Yeshiva students, visitors and all stripes and flavors of Jews together- welcoming in Shabbat in the most holy place.

Shabbat morning exploring a new synagogue- Zion- Jerusalem's version of the independent minyan movement of America- led by an amazing MASORTI (Conservative) Rabbi Tamar Elad-Applebaum- called "an Eretz Yisrael community"- no labels, combination of Sephardic and Ashkenazic, traditional praying and uncovered ancient prayers, egalitarian, and the cutest bat mitzvah you have ever seen- filled with Ruach (spirit) and chanting.

Ending Shabbat with havdalah at the Jaffa Gate on the walls of Jerusalem together.

Saturday night walking Ben Yehudah street shopping at Kippah Man and the pop-up Purim stores returning to the Shuk Machaneh Yehudah market which exchanges fish, fruit and spice stalls for DJ booths, bars, clubs and some of the best Israeli restaurants. We went to Crave as recommended by The New York Times and it was delicious- pulled brisket bowl, with lamb "bacon," Pablo fried onion rings and an Israeli craft beer- this is today's Jerusalem

Day 7

We continue to explore the renewal of Jewish life, the triumphs and challenges of Israel today, the uncovering of ancient artifacts and walk the path of our ancestors

The day begins meeting Nikita- a former soldier and current law student- who was raised the streets of Beersheva part of the Russian gangs- arrested first at the age of 12 and on and off until 18- trying to "make" money for his ill father battling cancer who then deserted him. Nikita always wanted to be a lawyer- he was only able to join the Israeli army thanks to Havat HaShomer the special basic training designed as life coaching and social work for teens from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Nikita excelled in the army- taking the heaviest artillery, becoming a commander and warrior. After the army he could not find a job because of his prior criminal record- not even as a security guard at a small market. With the help of a new organization Amit Laderech- helping vets establish themselves- was able to clean his record and begin law school and worked to create a systematic governmental change to ease the process (and make it free) to clean juvenile criminal records for soldiers that complete their full service in good standing. He lectures and mentors for students in similar situations as he was in and hopes to open a boxing gym in troubled neighborhoods as a safe neighborhood center.

"The old becomes new and the new becomes old" - Rav Kook

Walking the trail of our ancestors, unearthing our memories and renewing our lives.

Today we visited Ir David- the ancient city of David, the original Jerusalem- and the excavations of King David's palace, ancient Canaanite walls (4,000 years old), King Hezekiah's water tunnel and the stairs that led straight up to the Holy Temple- we traveled the 2,000 tunnel which was once the stairway that the Israelite priests and people climbed to worship and pray, and the sewers underneath where the Romans fought the Jews before destroying the second Temple. Incredible views, narrow passages, digging through history and climbing all the way to Robinson's Arch and the new plaza of the Wall.

Now home reflecting on our closing meetings on the current political, religious and social situations in Israel- first with Knesset member Nachman Shai- addressing the current status quo with Bibi and the religious right wing coalition-and the need to find a solution with the Palestinians because the status quo can only be temporary. He spoke of Israel's great strength today and that decisions shouldn't be made out of fear- also addressed the Bibi and Trump relationship- very interesting.

Natan Sharansky- modern-day Jewish hero- Refusenik- imprisoned in the Soviet gulag- leader of the Soviet Jewry movement- now the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel- met with our group in the office that once belonged to David Ben-Gurion and shared his views with us. When looking at Israel one must always remember how hard it is to be a democracy in the Middle East- that to be successful we need both a strong Israel and strong Jewish communities around the world, they do not contradict or weaken each other. He is fearful that the US Jewish population is decreasing- he offered his thoughts on how to turn this around- programs focused on increasing connection to Israel and connection to Jewish tradition.

Natan Sharansky shared that the most important item on his personal agenda is the growth and acceptance of liberal Judaism in Israel- and that he has agreed to stay on one final year in his post to see to completion and implementation the kotel agreement to create a formal egalitarian space at the Western Wall accepted by all.

Missions and Travel experiences with the Jewish Federation of Cleveland take Jewish Clevelanders behind the scenes of our global Jewish community. See the country. Live the culture. Meet the people. And, get premiere access like no one else can. For more information, contact Shelley Milin Marcus at smarcus@jcfcleve.org or 216-593-2847.

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