This shabbat we read the parsha of Vayiera; the chapter from the torah where Avraham, the model for all people, the person who Jews, Christians and Muslims descend from (and actually all of people of the eastern religious too if you know kabbalah) welcomes strangers into his home on day that he is having a really difficult time in his own life.
It is here we learn how important it is to participate in the mitzvah of “hachnassas orchim” or “providing hospitality to guests”.
How insane and incredible is it, that THIS week of ALL weeks we read the parsha in which we learn how important it is to welcome people into your homes and provide for them even when it’s not easy? This week all over the NY Metro area thousands of people have welcomed guests: friends and strangers into their homes and it just happens that THIS is the week we learn this mitzvah so central to Jewish life and being a good person in all religions? Some of these people who acted like Avraham are people who didn’t have much to give, but they gave; with their hearts and with their homes.
There are so many times in my life that what is happening in the parsha of the week so closely mirrors what is happening in the world around me, yet it fills me with awe each time.
I hope we all have the bracha that we should continue to have the ability to be able to give and the humbleness to be given to, all for the good and continue to see only good in all of our lives.
There is no place like home.
When did it become ok to reference 50 shades of grey in an #interview? Seriously. 4 times this week. Really not ok. #hrgirlproblems
As the fire engine wails by, you hold your small child up to wave, and the firefighters wave back. They wave back. They’re speeding to what might be injury - or worse - yet they have time for that small hand. You might be the most hardened of New Yorkers, but that always gets to you, the way they wave and smile from the darkness of the cabin or cling to a vehicle with one hand and wave with the other. When that fire engine passes, we all want to wave. It’s the noise and color and drama of men and women on a mission, the most urgent of all, saving lives.
We don’t have to go to the movies anymore for our heroes. We don’t have to turn on the television. Our heroes are down the street, chatting at the firehouse door, ready to face the old god.Frank McCourt “Brotherhood”
I’m finally home from the trip and I’m really still processing the feelings I was left with after it.
It was not at all what I expected. Well, that’s not true entirely. I expected it to be emotionally and physically draining, but I never expected it to be so spiritually uplifting. I didn’t expect to be so moved by the participants and to like them so much.
After our day at Auschwitz we drove to the Carpathian mountains. It was so beautiful there. It reminded me of the Sound of Music. We went for a hike and climbed a rock mountain to an incredible lookout point. This was a highlight of the trip for me. A year ago I wouldn’t have been able to to do this physically. I literally ran up that mountain and felt like a rockstar when I got up there. I immediately tweeted Danny at Soulcycle and told him that it was his butt kicking that got me to the top of that mountain. He was glad that “Dannycing” had some practical use off the bike. Everyone is a winner.
That night we had an evening discussion. We played a ‘game’ hosted by Rabbi Lawrence. The question was: “If you woke up tomorrow with a button that you could push and no longer be Jewish, would you push it?”
This question means different things to different people obviously. My natural thought was if I pushed the button I would no longer be require to keep mitzvot. Life would be much much easier….right? I would be able to eat lobster, I wouldn’t have to daven, I could check my email on shabbat, I would have less days off for Jewish holidays and be able to go on more vacations and I would be able to eat in any restaurant I wanted (I am after all a NYC girl)! All that said, I knew I still wouldn’t push the button because I know that all of these things are what make me a Jew. On an incredibly simplistic level it’s like Rabbi Kelemens ‘Chana loves Seaweed” class about the relationship of Jews to G-d being like the marriage between a man and a woman. Keeping mitzvot are like the things we do for our spouse to show them we love them, and we are listening to the little things they say. His wife asked him to bring seaweed home one night after work and he ran all over Jerusalem to find it for her. He didn’t know why she wanted it, but he made sure he went out of his way to get it. Knowing she wanted it was reason enough. We can look at mitzvot like not killing, not being jealous, keeping kosher or lighting shabbat candles as just the ‘right’ thing to do - but the real reason for them is because they are part of our building relationship with G-d. Nowhere in the Torah/Tanach is Judiasim described as a religion. It is described as a relationship.
Back to the ‘push the button’ game - so why did this move me so much? Because the depth to which my 35 special participants felt that they wouldn’t push the button was moving. Rebbetzin Jungreis always talks about the ‘pintelele yid’; the little light in each Jewish neshama (soul) that shines and doesn’t let us forget who we are. In every Jew it’s there, and in that moment, the moment when they were thinking about what they would do if they were given a choice, all of their lights were shining so brightly you could see it on their faces. Whether it was talking about their grandparents, their siblings, the hurt they felt as children for being made fun of for being Jewish, or past relationships, they all felt his connection to being Jewish that isn’t something easily put into words. It might have been the first time for many of us that we thought about if we had the choice, would we be who we are now. After 2 days of being in the places that 6 million people died because they were Jewish, thinking about our connection to our Jewishness was really intense. That each and everyone one of them would not push the button and the reasons why inspired me beyond words.
I realized then that for many people Judaism is part of the everyday in a tangible way. For others it may be more intangible in regards to daily life - but at the end of the day we all knew that no matter what our connection to Judaism was - we all had a pintele yid. A spark in our souls that is connected to our grandparents and their parents and back though every generation.
And, that is what I got from this trip; inspiration.
I was inspired by Leibel Zisman; his story, his family, his journey and how he made it in America after surviving the Holocaust. His amazing family being a true sign of victory against what Hitler tried to do. We watched him walk out of Auschwitz holding his wifes hand, followed by his daughters and granddaughters; true victory.
I was inspired to continue to keep it real when I saw synagogue after synagogue that are now museums in towns where Jews don’t live anymore.
I was inspired by the non Jewish tour guides who made it their mission to make sure no one forgets what happened. Especially the one at Auschwitz who daily walks tour groups past the cell her uncle was starved to death in for trying to help the Jews.
I was inspired by Rabbi Lawrence who answered questions with true patience and reminded me about what I am working on.
I was inspired by the participants - who made a choice to not go to the Caribbean and instead went on their vacations to Poland to see what happened to the Jewish people first hand. They were open, smart, connected and still managed to have a good time while supporting each other even in the worst places we visited.
You never know where inspiration will come from, but when you get it you need to grab it and hold it. It may not be from the expected sources - but that’s usually when it’s the best.
I’m lying in bed in Prague after days of long bus rides, beautiful hikes, concentration camps, ghettos, empty shuls where Jews once davened, fabulous meals and eating fresh challah in the kitchen tonight and trying to make sense of it all. Myanmar, Syria….genocide is happening as I type. People deny the holocaust ever happened- heads of state included. Today I read this article below in the daily mail about a tourist friendly amusement park in Lebanon run by Hezbollah that teaches kids the glory of martyrdom. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2188770/Inside-Hezbollah-theme-park-children-taught-glory-martyrdom
I’m still reeling from this day.
Today we went with Leibel and his family to Auschwitz Birkenau. When you think of a concentration camp, everyone thinks of Auschwitz and the iron ‘arbeit macht frei’ sign. The truth is that Auschwitz 1 is where the sign is and held mostly polish prisoners. But, when you picture in your mind what a concentration camp looks like, it’s really Birkenau you are picturing. That’s also where the largest gas chambers were, and where all the Jews were sent. The entire Auschwitz complex is made up of the 3 main camps and 48 subcamps.
The sky was dark and gray and the rain was falling in sheets as we drove up. It’s August and we are freezing. The group packed for summer but it was probably in the 50s today. The rain chilled us to the bone and made it feel colder than it was. We were wet and cold and starting to complain but you feel like a jerk whining when you are standing on the tracks that carried prisoners into a camp from a cattle car and you know people were here for years in the winter with no shoes or food.
The camp is enormous. It was all green fields and wooden buildings but eli told us that the ground was mud during the holocaust and any grass was eaten by the prisoners who were starving to death on 200 calories a day of rations. It took us hours to see the whole camp and the living conditions were worse than anything I’d ever pictured.
We started our tour looking at one of the cattle cars that brought the Jews into the camp. Leibel recounted the story of while they were moving a fight broke out outside snd there was shooting. They opened the doors of the train and the boys were running out to hide underneath. A boy his age was laying across his lap and so he said ‘Isaac Isaac get up we have to get off’ and hide but Isaac didn’t get up. He had been shot. Leibel wondered if issac had saved his life. Would the bullet have hit him if issac wasn’t there? We’ ll never know. He said “There are so many things that come back too you wonder ‘how can I tell these stories?’ But this is what took place. So we tell”.
After the cattle car we went to the first set of buildings and Leibel told us about what it was like to live there. There were 3 levels of bunks and leibel was on the 3rd level.We saw the latrines they had to use; hundreds of holes cut into a board that was used by 2000 men each morning. They only had 10 minutes for everyone. There was zero privacy. You would be so close to the person next to you that you could link arms. The next person waiting was standing right infront of you. We saw the bunkers and Leibel told us what it was like sleeping in those barracks. They were boys crying out in the night “mama, tata, where are you?” but of course they were not going to get an answer. He said sometimes he slept, sometimes he didn’t. We wondered how one could sleep in a place like this but he told us that when you are hungry and worked to death you can sleep.
Next we walked across the camp to the remains of the gas chamber and the crematoria. The nazis bombed both of these huge structures at the end of the war in hopes of hiding the evidence of their crimes. They had perfected their killing formulas compared to majdanek. They could kill 2000 people at a time. The Jews still didn’t know they were going to die, they were told they were getting a disinfecting shower. They were stripped naked and sometimes made to wait hours in any weather waiting for these “showers”. If people knew they were about to die they might have fought back so the nazis had them hang their clothing on a hook and told them to remember their numbers so they could get their belongings after the shower. Obviously this was a lie. After they were dead they were taken by other jews “sondercomandos” to the crematoria. I cannot even imagine having to drag the bodies of friends, family and strangers up out of the underground gas chambers and put them into a furnace. We said Kaddish here for the dead. We said Kaddish in the rain. What an incredible Kiddush Hshem we were; 35 young americans saying kaddish in the pouring rain for strangers, grandparents, family members. It was a major moment.
Next we saw an area called “Canada”. It was called this because according to German rhetoric Canada was the ‘land of plenty’. When the Jews got off the train they had to leave their bags on the platform. They thought they were just being resettled so they brought their valuables and family photos $ heirlooms. These bags were collected and brought to Canada to be sorted. All of their valuables were sent to germany to be used by the reich. There was still pieces of flatware in the field. It certainly was a land of plenty for the nazis. I can’t imagine all the jewels, cash, and silver they took. We were told by our guide at Auschwitz 1 that the solders would take the baby clothes, children’s clothes and toys home for their families. Shoes were torn open to make sure nothing was hidden inside and the leather was sold for scrap. This was a choice job for the prisoners and sometimes food was hidden in the bags and it helped them stay alive. Next we went to what was called “the sauna” this is where the people who were chosen to live went next. They were given scalding hot showers, tattoos, shaved and made ready to join the actual work camp. Leibel talked to us about his experience here. He showed us his numbers, blurred with time and age since he grew quite a bit from when he got them as a small boy.
After Birkenau we went to Auschwitz 1. Walking through that gate was chilling. The camp itself was actually much nicer than Birkenau. Auschwitz 1 was made up of old polish barracks that the nazis took over. The buildings we brick and well insulated compared to the hastily built uninsulated wooden cabins at birkenau. One of our girls commented that it looked like a private school not a concentration camp. They had indoor plumbing and toilets. This is where the polish prisoners were kept as well as the nazi administrative offices, a hospital and a jail. There weren’t medical services at the hospital. If you were sent there it was really to be quarantined until you could be killed later the gas chambers or shot at the wall of death’. This was also where Mengele and Clauberg carried out their awful experiments’. The prison was another story. In the basement of the prison they showed us the standing cells, the suffocation cells and the starvation cells. The ceilings were low and it was very claustrophobic. The standing cells were small squares about 1 meter across with a tiny door 1 foot high. The nazis would cram 4 prisoners in it and there was barely enough room for them to stand. They were forced to spend their nights there and do hard labor all day until they died. The suffocation cells were small airless rooms they would put prisoners in until all the air was gone. Sometimes the nazis would put a candle in the room to use up the air faster. The starvation room speaks for itself. Our guide, a polish woman, had an uncle who died in starvation cell 19. He was caught helping the Jews and was punished with death for it.
Auschwitz was more of a museum to the holocaust and was full of people while birkenau was relatively empty. Because it was a museum we saw a room 30 meters long full of hair shaved off dead bodies that was sold by the nazis for stuffing or insulation. The piles were at least 20 feet high. There were piles of thousands of eyeglasses, shoes, toothbrushes, shaving utensils, cookware, and clothing. This was a thousandth of 1% of what was actually taken. These was the things sorted out in “Canada” and the Jews never used them again once they got off the train. There was one moment that stood out to me. There was a display of what prisoners were fed in the camp. A small cup of ‘coffee’ in the morning (it was really dark contaminated water but they called it coffee), a small bowl of soup with minimal meat or fat for lunch and a small piece of bread with ‘coffee’ for dinner. Leibel was leaning over the case looking down into it when our guide was talking. Here in front of me stood this man who at 81 seemed stronger to me then men 1/2 his age, and when he was a boy he was in this place living on these meager rations. It was like cognitive dissonance. It didn’t seem real to me. I could make no sense of it.
We also saw another gas chamber and crematoria. Standing in a room where you know thousands of people were murdered is a chilling experience. I took a moment in this room to just absorb the feeling. I said a silent prayer that each and every person on the trip should merit to build the future of klal yisroel so that we could replace some of what what taken. The entire Jewish population of the world is currently just over 15 million. Can you imagine how many there would be had the 6 million who perished been allowed to live?
When we were in birkenau, standing near the ruins of the gas chamber, Rabbi Lawrence spoke to us about the anti semitisim in the world today. We saw some it ourselves during our trip and we read about it in the news daily. He said the way to fight antisemitism is with semitism; to live our lives as proud Jews. To know enough about what it means to be a Jews and to be able to pass it on to your children is something the last generation took for granted but is questionable in ours. This message obviously resonated with me, and in the gas chamber I thought about it and hoped it resonated with my group as well.
We left the camp and drove to a small synagogue that was again empty and now a museum. We had dinner under an art exhibit made by polish people called ‘the people who used to be our neighbors’ depicting how Jewish and Polish life had once been intertwined. Leibel spoke to the group about carrying on the legacy of those who were killed. He told them that the mission was in their hands. He also said that life is a journey. There are none of us today that are in the same position as yesterday. No one knows that more that me. Had you told me 10 years ago that I would be staffing a trip, in Poland, with a holocaust survivor I would have thought you were insane. Now all I can think about is how obviously I was meant to do this and there is no other place I should have been in this moment then here. So many people view Judiasm as death: Kaddish, yiskor, the holocaust, can I be buried in a Jewish cemetery. I hope that these participants through the trip, through us, and through the zismans see a bit of what Judaism means in the context of Judaism as life.
Today we toured the Jewish quarter of krakow. Another town decimated by the holocaust. It was a very cute little place full of Jewish named and styled restaurants - none of which were actually kosher and empty synagogues, where Jews once prayed.
One highlight was seeing the shul of the Rema - a rabbi who lived in the 1500’s known for his commentary on the shulchan aruch called ha mahpeh. Pretty cool and historical though it was under renovation.
Then we went to hear leibel tell us his story. Incredibly powerful.
He told us about his life growing up in Kovno Lithuania (incidentally where my mothers side is from) and how he was living in the ghetto until he was deported to Aushwitz. He was separated from his father who was taken away first. He told him to run and so leibel ran. He father was murdered on a mountaintop the next day. The Germans sent their 2 big dogs chasing after him. He ran and ran but eventually the dogs caught up with him. He looked in front of him and saw a stick. He picked it up, hit the dogs in the snout and they let go. He couldn’t have known that the snout is the only place you can hit an attack dog and they’ll let go. He ran back to his family’s apartment. Soon after there was another selection in which he was separated from his mother. He tried to stay with her but she forced him away, knowing he would be safer with his brother in the work camps. She was right.
He told us about how when he got to Aushwitz he was selected for the gas chambers but organized the boys to line up and sing ‘Ani ma’im (I believe). This confounded the guards; surely these healthy organized boys weren’t meant to die. Their papers were also missing - strange for the meticulous germans. Afraid to make a mistake and be punished, they let the boys live.
The miracles that saved Mr Zisman went on, but it’s late and I have an early bus ride in the morning.
Leibel took he daughters, his wife and the staff out to the only kosher restaurant in krakow and told us stories about the alter Lubavitcher rebbe, the ponovich rebbe, and the klausenberger rebbe. Not stories he heard, but stories he lived! I feel incredibly lucky to have heard them first hand.
Tomorrow leibel is going with us to Aushwitz/Birkenau to show us where he was during the war. He said if the bunker is open we’ll go in. If its locked he will rip the lock off and go in anyway. I believe him. He is incredibly strong and at 81 I’m pretty sure no one will stop him. Not because he is old but because he lives up to his name; Liebel means lion.
Learn more about leibel here:
It’s was exactly what I pictured only much much worse.
The rolling green fields dotted with purple, yellow, and white wildflowers surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers was right off the main road adjacent to homes. Though the homes were likely not there during the time the camps were active, you could literally see the road from the windows of the antechamber leading to the gas chambers where the prisoners would be shaved with blunt razors before they were killed. The shaving was probably painful due to the instruments being used and it happened from time to time that the jews tasked with shaving the other prisoners would come across family members or people they knew. At that point it was too late to warn them. They were steps from their death. This was next to the main gate.
It was all so out in the open. This was not a hidden death camp.
We walked though the camp one bunker housing thousands upon thousands of pairs of shoes from baby shoes to adult shoes another locks of hair, baby dolls, teffillin, talisim, and even torah scrolls and a Megillah all taken from Jews who were sent to their death at majdanek.
This wasn’t a movie in Hebrew school. It wasn’t even yad vashem. We were literally standing in the gas chambers where thousands upon thousands of Jews, poles, gypsies and russians all were killed.
We saw pits in the earth where in one day 18 thousand Jews were killed - the largest single day killing of the war. The jews were forced to strip naked run out to the pit, lay on top of the dead bodies already there and then shot. We saw the crematoria with ash bone fragments still in the ash catchers and shards of bone still in the dirt outside the doorways that lead out into the sunshine. We tried to walk only on the path to avoid stepping on the bones of our ancestors. What kind of reality is that?
We walked up the steps to a giant domed memorial holding one of the most horrifying things I had ever seen and something I didn’t even know existed. It was mountain - literally a mountain of ashes. The ashes of tens of thousands of people murdered by the nazis.
We left the camp quiet. We had a 7 hour drive where we watched inglorious basterds; really cathartic for the moment and slept off the mornings events. It poured the entire drive. Sheets of rain making the rolling green hills feel as dark as we all imagined Poland to be. We stopped briefly in Lansut to see another shul once full of life that stood now empty and continued out trek to Krackow. It was incredibly intricate and beautiful…but empty.
We were finally joined by Leo Zisman a survivor of Auschwitz and his wife Mirna. They are spending the rest of the trip with us and brought along their 3 daughters and 2 granddaughters. Leo told me his kids have never been to Poland and never really heard him tell his full story in this way.
It’s just the beginning.
Shavua tov from Poland!
I still can’t believe I’m in Poland.
So far the trip has been easier than expected. The hotels have been lovely (free wifi!) and the food has been great - traveling with a personal kosher chef is pretty much the way to go. The participants on the trip are awesome; they are super smart, really inquisitive and just basically a nice group. I’m excited about getting to know them.
We spent one day and night in Warsaw. It wasn’t a beautiful city but we had a fantastic BBQ and I got to go to the mall. I haven’t been in a mall in years so that was an experience. The town square picturesque, it was completely rebuilt after the was and had lots of European charm. We had lunch and some beer at a cafe and that was nice. All that said it wasn’t as hard as expected. We all know what happened in Warsaw: the ghetto, the uprising - tragic. And while seeing the cemetery with the mass grave marker, and knowing we were walking through what was once the Warsaw ghetto was thought provoking there wasn’t much left. Just a small piece of the ghetto wall and a marker. There was a monument to the uprising, but I’ve never been one to connect to monuments. I’ll chalk it up to being our first day and jet lag and maybe incredibly high expectations but I felt like I wanted more. Warsaw is building a huge and beautiful museum to the history of Jewish Warsaw which is not finished so I’m obviously not alone in my sentiments.
The most distressing moment happened in an antique shop off the square. Eli had been there before and wanted to show us. Among the lamps and trinkets were shelves of silver judiaca. Menorahs, kiddush cups, yads from Torah scrolls, Shabbos candle sticks…heirlooms belonging to long gone jewish families now being sold as antiques. It doesn’t take much thought to ascertain where these antiques came from. Perhaps the shop keeper would tell us? But, no…when rabbi Eli’s wife said hello to him he refused to look at her. He wouldn’t acknowledge we were in the store. This man has thrown Eli out of the store in the past for asking where all of this judiaca had come from, so it wasn’t unexpected. All I could think of was how each kiddush cup represented a father who was no longer with his family to make kiddush, each candlestick represented a mother no longer lighting candles for her husband and kinderluch, each yad separated the torah it was used for, probably long ago destroyed.
I connected to that feeling of loss over a stone monument.
We spent shabbat in a fabulous brand new hotel on the banks of the wisla river. The town was literally wiped of Jews and now the synagogue functions as a museum of the Jews. We were the only Jews in the town. How crazy is that? A whole town where 9 of 10 people prewar were Jewish and now there were none. 1 Jew from kasmierz survived the war by living in a ditch dug out of the ground.
We did have nice Shabbat though, went on a walking tour and hiked up to an amazing outlook point which was an old castle. It was restful and lovely: a shabbas in the country.
Tomorrow we begin to go to the camps.
The first is majdanek. It’s fully intact. I’m dreading it.