JNF Wire: Young Diaspora Jews Learn About the Holocaust
May 5, 2016
Adam H. Brill, Director of Communications
JNF WIRE SPECIAL REPORT
WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A JEW—YOUNG DIASPORA JEWS LEARN
ABOUT THE HOLOCAUST THROUGH A UNIQUE ISRAELI POINT OF VIEW
By: Megan Turner
AMHSI-JNF students at Auschwitz as part of the school's Holocaust study program.
Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom HaShoah in Hebrew, has arrived in Israel. In the Jewish State, it is an extraordinarily somber day that challenges Israelis to acknowledge, remember, and respect the impact of such a dark time in Jewish and global history. Foreigners who find themselves on holiday in Israel during this day of observance are often times taken aback at how an entire country is able to come to a standstill and complete silence, while sirens wail marking the date.
The observance of Yom HaShoah doesn't stop with the sirens. Educational programs, ceremonies, and intimate conversations with survivors and their families are just some of the ways in which Israel and Israelis recall the horrific days of the Holocaust. For Jewish American students at the Jewish National Fund (JNF)-sponsored Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI-JNF), their experience is even more unique — the students learn about the Holocaust as Israeli students do.
AMHSI-JNF provides a semester abroad in Israel for American high school students grades 10-12. While students’ course load includes core classes, like math and science, they also learn much more. "We try very hard to get the students to strengthen their Jewish identity and their connection to Judaism through Israel, the land, and its history," said Danny Stein, 31, a history teacher at AMHSI-JNF.
Currently, 61 high schoolers from public schools across the U.S. are taking part in a four-month program at the school’s Hod HaSharon campus, located just outside cosmopolitan Tel Aviv. Students study Jewish history daily and spend half of their learning time on-site, experiencing history first hand. "We start with the Torah, also referred to as the first five books of Moses in the Old Testament, and end with present-day Israel," Stein added.
While the program is very unique, the section on Holocaust studies can best be described as powerful and thought-provoking.
The students' journey begins with two intense days in Israel, one studying the history of World War II and the beginnings of the Holocaust, and the second spent at Israel’s national Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem. While at Yad Vashem, students explore the somber exhibition halls with a guide and also attend a talk given by a survivor of the Holocaust.
Students wrestle with many difficult questions about Jewish identity, history, and the Holocaust during this trip. "They process how to interpret and find meaning in their experience at Yad Vashem and how to turn it into something they can build on,” explained Reuven Spero, an AMHSI-JNF faculty member.
But this is where a typical Holocaust education program has a twist: as soon as the students finish their visit to Yad Vashem, they get on a plane and spend a week in Poland. "We try to help the students connect to the Holocaust intellectually and emotionally," Stein said. Students visit concentration camps, synagogues, and cemeteries all over Poland, but they also get an immersion in what life was like pre-WWII in the rich and vibrant Jewish communities that were once a large part of Poland’s national fabric. Clearly, they walk away with a very personal and deeper understanding of what was lost in the Holocaust.
Upon their return to Israel, students continue with their lessons in Jewish history and visit Independence Hall, and continue to learn about the creation and the current modern State of Israel. "Where students were singing the HaTikva [Israel’s national anthem] in a concentration camp just a few days ago, now they're singing it in Independence Hall where the State of Israel was officially proclaimed," Stein explained of the moment’s powerful experience.
Ellen Sussman, a 17 year old student from Hopkins High School in Golden Valley, Minnesota, said of her trip to Yad Vashem and Poland: "It moves me just knowing what the Jewish people went through and how they stuck with their beliefs and values through it all. It’s really amazing that people made it through the Holocaust, and it makes me proud to be a Jew.” Sussman explained that it was hard to imagine the full impact of the Holocaust before she visited the sites in person and that it's still hard to fully comprehend.
Sussman emphasized, "The Holocaust doesn't define my Judaism," and that the entire program at AMHSI-JNF has helped her learn much more about the Jewish faith and history." It opened my eyes to how much more there is in the world," she said. Thanks to this life-changing experience, Sussman feels encouraged to travel the world and learn more.
Havi Carrillo-Klein, a 16-year-old student at Mclean High School in Falls Church, Virginia, said of the trip to Yad Vashem and Poland: "It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do—the number six million got really real. It was like I lost six million family members." She added, “Seeing people who look like me or who have the same last name as I do and knowing that maybe my great grandmother knew one of them, this is what really connects me to my Judaism.”
Carillo-Klein is considering returning to Israel for university studies and to possibly make aliyah. "This journey, both the education and the traveling, made me proud to be able to be in Israel and to practice Judaism openly." She said that she is much closer to her Judaism now and hopes to continue this new understanding once she returns home to Virginia.
Bryce Ennis is a 16-year-old student from Ashland High School in Ashland, Oregon, who is in Israel for the semester at Alexander Muss High School and just completed the emotional and inspiring Holocaust education course. When looking back on her experience from Yad Vashem to Poland, she said, "Knowing how so many people fought for Judaism and cared so much that they wanted to protect it for generations to come makes me feel that I need to pass that [sentiment] on to my children." Students like Ennis have been deeply touched and moved by their semester in Israel, many choosing to come back for university or to make Aliyah.
Channa Goldman, a 17-year-old student from Saratoga Springs High School in Saratoga Springs, New York, was “overwhelmed with sadness,” at what she saw and experienced at Yad Vashem and Poland, “but also felt so proud to be a descendent of the people who survived.” As she explains, through her emotional, experience, she gained a new perspective and sense of pride: “After seeing what they went through, it makes me even more passionate about being Jewish, and I feel an obligation to carry on what our ancestors couldn’t.”
When asked about returning to Israel after this program, Goldman answered with an emphatic, "Yes!" She continued, "I think that overall being in Israel has made me really, really proud to be who I am – it puts so much more meaning behind everything, and it makes life so much more special because of that meaning. Every morning when I wake up and realize that I'm in the Holy Land, studying about my people and our culture that is so precious to me, I am filled with the utmost gratitude that my life is exactly where it is. Israel and every experience I have here fills me with inspiration and love for who I am and the people I come from. Never have I been so fully myself, and never have I so deeply felt a connection to everything around me."
Satchel Schwartz, a 16-year-old student from Roosevelt High School in Seattle, Washington, was moved and inspired by his experience. "It's really important for everyone to go to Poland in their life – even though it is terrible and hard – everyone, including non-Jews, needs to understand what happened there." He continued, "I sat down next to this grave after I sketched it and thought the respectful thing to do was say the Mourner’s Kaddish. This was really important to me because it made me feel like I was paying respect to my family. Not just the Jewish people as a family, it truly felt like I was visiting the grave of a lost relative."
Schwartz explained that this experience "has changed me for the best. I'm going to start wearing a kippah at home, and I feel that I will keep this spiritual connection even when I'm in America. There is an aspect of learning about yourself as a Jew while being in Israel that is very powerful." He also said that he now feels better equipped to deal with anti-Semitism: "I'm going to be more educated and know how to counter anti-Semitism by helping people to fully understand the history and what is really happening in Israel."
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