This past Sunday night was Simchat Torah. I spent the evening in the Pardes beit midrash, dancing and singing, along with many of you. The energy in the room was palpable, and filled me up with a feeling of pure joy. I experienced a particularly moving moment when the singing shifted to “Am Yisrael Chai: The People of Israel Live.” I stood there, and I watched people jumping up and down, dancing faster and faster in circles, shouting “Am Yisrael Chai” with all of the energy they could muster.
At first, I couldn’t dance. I couldn’t move. I was instantly reminded of the last time that I heard this song. I was standing with my peers in the Auschwitz concentration camp on the Pardes heritage trip to Poland.
When I was asked to give a “take 5” on the Poland trip, I felt both honored and nervous. I am not sure that my words can do adequate justice as to how this trip has affected me, my Jewish identity, and the way that I walk through the world. But I’ll try.
After some hesitation, I decided to sign up for the Poland trip because I saw it as an opportunity to bear witness to the events of the Shoah, connect to my heritage, and simply because I felt in my gut that this was something I needed to do.
The whole trip, from beginning to end, was a powerful educational experience. Even before the trip, the group was committed to creating an atmosphere where each of us had a role in educating one other. One of my highlights of the trip was learning about all the different Poland personalities that my peers had researched, whether they were Torah giants, contributors to Yiddish culture, or righteous gentiles who risked their lives during the war.
Also, I was appreciative of the balance of the trip. While a significant amount of time was spent visiting concentration camps and holocaust sites, we also spent a significant amount of time learning about the vibrancy of pre-War Poland, Hassidut, and visiting important sites of Torah learning. Another highlight of mine was having an evening to study Torah in a yeshiva in Lublin, one that only a few decades ago had all of their books burned on the front lawn.
While I had many impactful moments on the trip, the greatest, and most unexpected, takeaway from the trip was what happened when I returned to Pardes. On the trip, we had the privilege of seeing many graves and important sites of Torah learning, which laid foundations for Torah study as we know it today. Because of this my learning was infused with new depth, and may separate aspects of my studies were weaved together. My eyes were open in a new way, and I was reading texts differently, and with more enthusiasm than before.
More importantly than this, I now, more than ever, see my learning in the beit midrash as an incredible privilege. And perhaps, going one step further, I see my Jewish identity as a gift, one that I am so incredibly grateful for.
In hindsight, choosing to go on the Poland trip was probably THE most important decision that I made last year. If you have any inkling of interest, I encourage you to go to the meeting on Monday, or talk to students who went on the trip last year. While we all experience things differently, I think that this trip can be an important and transformative trip for anyone.
So, as I stood in the beit midrash on Simchat Torah, I was at first frozen, flashing back to Poland, Auschwitz, the Holocaust, disaster, despair. But as I watched everyone singing and dancing around me, I felt the experience with such depth and emotion that I began dancing, too, and was reminded what it truly means to sing “Am Yisrael Chai,” on Simchat Torah, in Jerusalem.
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