These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

My Poland Experiences, by Elyssa Hurwitz

Posted on January 16, 2020 by Elyssa Hurwitz

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This blog post was written by Elyssa Hurwitz, 2019 PEEP student.

Today I am 25 and a half. I know that that may seem insignificant, but it’s important to me. I was born on July 14, 1994, and I can’t remember being the kind of person who has liked being spoiled or the center of attention on their birthday. I normally bake something sweet (because I love to cook and bake), and I eat some food that is somehow special. Usually, my family and I go out together for Korean, Chinese, or Japanese food, but after college I started taking myself out to dinner the book, and spending some time reflecting. For some reason, even though I’m not crazy about celebrating on my birthday, I like doing something on my half-birthday that is reflective and intentional. Maybe it’s a cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul) of sorts, and maybe it’s me trying to search for the meaning of my life.

Every six months, I get the chance to check in with myself and my life, and I get to choose if I’m living a life I really want to live.This year, I’ve been thinking a lot about who I want to be, what I want to accomplish, and how I want to be remembered. In the last six months, I have made some decisions that really benefit me, and I don’t know how/if they benefit others. I chose to invest seven weeks learning Hebrew in an intensive and immersive environment this past summer, and that practically removed me from being in relationship with my friends and family. After that, I started at a Yeshiva in Jerusalem, and I have never been so out of touch with the people I love back in the US. I spend around 10 hours on weekdays in a classroom studying, and I’m mostly just taking in information instead of giving or creating something. I am actively choosing to do something that currently only benefits me, and am spending a lot of time processing what that means and I want to move forward with my life after this program.

For the past few days, I have been in Poland on a trip with other Pardes students and community members. We have spent time learning about the history of Jewish communities in Poland until the 1930s, the prewar and interwar periods of World War II, and the revival of Jewry in modern Poland. When we visited the Jewish cemetery of Warsaw, I was really struck by what people‘s headstones read. A lot of them said that the person was well-read, a scholar, generous, loved, and important to the community. I often think about what people will say about me when I die, and I work to make my life something that has meaning and purpose. When reading the names of those murdered in the Lupachowa Forrest and at the Treblinka extermination camp, I thought about who those people might have been and how their lives impact our present. I hope that the pictures they took, how they struggled, their stories, and what they suffered through will always matter to people worldwide.

As I sit here on my half-birthday in Majdanek, I reflect on my choices and the choices of the people who lived and died in the 1930s and 40s. The people who came here by force and were literally worked to the bone. The people who were brought here and killed almost immediately. The people who were prisoners, offered a way to leave, but stayed to take care of others in the camp at their own risk. The people who supervised and tortured the prisoners. The townspeople who lived nearby in Lublin. The policemen who were brought to the Majdanek with the sole job of shooting each prisoner in the head for the whole day, and didn’t take the opportunity they were given to bow out. The people who actively chose to murder other humans, and the people who actively chose to do something to help others.

So here I sit, on my half-birthday, asking myself a few questions. What impact do I want to make those around me? How do I want to change the world? Who are my partners in those missions? What is my purpose, and how am I living it? What do I want my legacy to be? What would I live and die for? Who am I striving to become?