Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Saying Goodbye to Israel and the Sisterhood of the Traveling Jewish #HadassahFellows

I'm sitting in the Dan Lounge at Ben Gurion airport and I know that when I get home (in about 16 hours) this will all feel like a dream. The 3 days in London visiting my LEAD friends, the 24 hours in Krakow, bearing witness to the Holocaust, and 6 days in Israel learning more about the role of Hadassah in the formation and support of the country have come to an end.

Today we started the day studying Torah with scholar Renana Ravitsky Pilzer at the Shalom Hartman Institute. The topic was An Act of Love or an Act of War. "Words are nice when they come from someone who does what they say" Tosefta Yevamoth 8:5 

It was an engaging and lively discussion about the role of a wife and the role of Torah study in a scholar's life and how Torah can be as engaging as a lover but sometimes interfere with the relationship of a husband and wife (or same sex couple in today's day and age).

We then went for a special visit in the Knesset- the Israeli Government. We first met with Lt. Col. Dr. Anat Berko who was elected as a Minister in 2005. She is the Chair of the Special Subcommittee for Secret Services- the 1st female to hold this position. She has an impressive resume which includes a Phd in Criminology, she is an author, and she is an Anti-terrorism expert. Her grandfather worked for the Ministry of Defense in Iraq, and her parents left Iraq when the Jews were being expelled and brought the family of 8 to Israel to build the country. 

She had a lot to say about the conflict:

Would the United States tolerate rockets being fired at the civilian population?
Would the United States allow a politician to go all over the world and speak against their government and publicly support a terrorist organization? There are 13 Ministers in the Knesset who travel on their diplomatic passports and do just that saying that Bin Laden was a hero and that Israel is the enemy. They are in the Israeli government!
She was in NYC last week and a person stabbed someone in a grocery store and was shot dead by the NYC police with 9 bullets- where is the outcry for excessive force?
There is a disproportionate microscope on the the state of Israel.
She frequently meets with the Deputy Prime Minister of Hamas and he told her that he loved her Iraqi father because he gave her the best education. He would rather his son marry a Jewish woman over a Shia muslim woman! She said- The Arabs hate each other more than they hate us. 

After our visit, we had a quick tour of the building- saw some beautiful Chagall tapestries representing the past present and future of Israel. We were in the building on an exciting day as Avigdor Lieberman was being installed as Defense Minister. He is only the 2nd non-military person to hold this position. We got to go in to the plenum hall where the benches are in the shape of the menorah. We saw Yehuda Glick get sworn in to a position that was recently vacated. It was very moving to hear him start his speech by reciting the Schecheyanu prayer which we recite for new beginnings. Only a year and half ago, he was shot by Arab terrorists and survived 8 or so bullets.

We had a free afternoon so I met my friend, Eric Esses, for lunch at the Israel museum, and then finished up my shopping with some friends on Ben Yehuda St. We closed our time together with a circle and each went around with a takeaway. I was a little bit speechless (hard to imagine, I know) because I have so much to take away.

I thought the program was amazing- the program was well planned, our tour guide was knowledgeable and engaging, and our leaders, Debbie Minkoff, a National Board member, and Barbara Goldstein, Deputy Director of Hadassah in Israel, were inspiring every step of the way. On Sunday, I had breakfast with Aviva Schnur, Mike's aunt who lives in Jerusalem, and is a tour guide at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial museum. She explained that they teach that Israel was founded despite the Holocaust. Others will say that Israel was founded out of the ashes of the Holocaust. Either way, it's the first time that I looked at Israel through the lens of the Holocaust. Not only because we visited Poland before we left, but because of what we did in Israel that helped to close the circle on the learning. Each speaker was more inspiring then the last and I can't even put into words all that I learned.

What I did say in the closing circle was that as a someone who is only getting started in Hadassah (despite being 4th generation life member) that every time we were introduced to people as "This is the future leadership of Hadassah", my heart skipped a beat because I'm not sure of what my place is as a future leader but it sure sounds exciting! BG leaned over and said, "You absolutely are a future leader, you should be excited." The other thing I said was that even though I've been to Israel so many times, coming to Israel this way, with this special group of women, all dedicated to Hadassah, Jewish values, Jewish family, and living and learning together for the last 9 days was amazing (it might not have been that eloquent but that's what I meant).

We had a quick meeting with Rabbi Adam Frank, the grandson of Rae Frank, whose parents sponsored our trip and he said, If anyone ever thanks you for coming to Israel, tell them to get lost, no one should welcome a Jew home. So welcome home!

Goodbye to Israel, every time I leave, it's with some new Hebrew words (I learned the word for flashlight) and I leave a little bit of my heart behind.

Sunday, May 22, 2016


This morning we visited a youth aliyah village, Meir Shfeya. It started as an agricultural settlement bought in 1888 by Baron Rothschild. In 1923, he gave the land to Henrietta Szold to save kids from Europe and bring them to Palestine. She and the organization she founded, Hadassah, rescued refugees and orphans after the Holocaust. In the 1970s it served problematic at risk Israeli kids. 

"Ethiopia Small"

wine barrels

In the 1980s it served Ethiopian and Russian new immigrants to Israel and today there are 300 kids who live in the dorms 10-12 months of the year. It is the most inclusive school in the country serving children from the Jewish, Druze, Muslim, Christian, and Bedouin communities. There is also a day school with another 300 kids. All the kids spend 2 weeks working in various parts of the school. They have a winery there practically run by teens!

We learned that 1/3 of Israeli kids live in poverty. Some are court ordered to Meir Shfeya because their home might be abusive, some are at risk kids, some are Russians who emigrate without their parents. Their message is, "Every child's dream is to feel at home" and they strive to make Meir Shfeya their home. 

We have the privilege of Barbara Goldstein, aka BG, joining us on our tours. Barbara has been involved in Hadassah pretty much since birth and is a major force in the movement. Wherever we go, people know her and come over to chat with her. At Meir Shfeya, there is a street named after her and a monument in her honor. She told us that Hadassah women are dressed in strength and dignity as our clothing - which comes from a passage in Eshet Chayil, which husbands traditionally sing to their wives on Shabbat- it translates to Women of Valor.
The important flags
Lynda & Michelle chatting with some of the youth

BG at her street
Our next stop was to visit Atlit, a detention camp run by the British after WW2. We had the privilege of meeting Murray Greenfield, who was  a volunteer captain of a ship that brought Holocaust survivors from Italy to Palestine. When they approached Palestine, their ship was taken over by the British and they were brought to a detention camp in Cyprus (an island off the coast of Greece). They spent a few months there where the rations were meager, there was a shortage of water, and the outhouses over flowed. When they were finally brought to Israel, they were brought to Atlit and held again. It was haunting to hear him describe their arrival in Atlit and to be separated in lines by gender, asked to take off their clothes, and take a shower. I can only imagine the horror that they felt after surviving work camps, and rumors of gas chambers at Auschwitz, and then the British asked them to do the same at this camp.
They lived behind barbed wire

The place to wash clothes - reminiscent of the concentration camp selections.

The bunks at Atlit

The Galina- one of the ships that rescued survivors 

Murray Greenfield

Over a fabulous dinner at Derech Hagefen, in Jerusalem, we met Miriam Peretz. Miriam has a book called Miriam's Song, and it's the story of losing 2 sons 12 years apart, while they served in the IDF (Israel Defense Force). She is an amazing women, full of hope, who spoke with a smile in her voice while we all wept around the table while listening to her story. She was blessed to have 6 children and when asked how many children she has, she falters before answering 6.

She said, "When you support Hadassah (Hospital) you support life. You give birth there, so you give life. We fight and fight and fight because we believe in peace."

She asks, "God, Why?" And says, There is no answer but every morning she chooses which life she wants to continue. 
She can stay in bed and cry but she chooses to live her life. 

Her son Aliraz died in Gaza 6 years ago while fighting Hamas  during his "Milu-eem", which is reserve duty. Aliraz was the father of 4 children between the ages of 6 and 2 months. He was 32 years old. She had already lost another son, Uriel, 12 years before that in Lebanon to Hizbollah

Miriam has strong faith in God and says, "Life is a big gift that God gave you. It's very hard to love God and sometimes I dance with God because he's the only one who can give me comfort".

Mirian's parents were from Morocco and they couldn't read and write but knew the word Jerusalem which to them meant eternity - hope. Her message was one of hope despite her unimaginable losses. She said, I can stay home and watch tv, but instead, I speak with 1000 soldiers every week including Mossad (special forces) and bereaved families. 

"It's very easy to die for this land, it's not easy to love after you bury your children." 

I promised to read her book
 It was an emotional day and we broke up the visits with loud singing on the back of the bus. I was sad to miss Mike's birthday and the USY elections at home but stayed in touch by texting. Once again, I feel the sisterhood of these amazing women as we laughed and cried and ate our way through the day. Thank you to Hadassah for an amazing day! #Thepowerofwomenwhodo #HadassahFellowship

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Friday & Shabbat

Being in Israel with a group feels like I’m on a teen tour- I have no responsibilities to anyone, they feed us 2-3 meals a day, and the programming is amazing. 

Yesterday morning we started the day with a visit to Rena Quint’s home in Jerusalem. Rena is a survivor of Bergen Belsen, a concentration camp in Germany.

She is a sweet woman who was happy to share with us that she has 4 children, 22 grandchildren and 19 great grandchildren. Survivors are always happy to share how big a family they created. She was separated by her mother and 2 little brothers around the age of 5 or 6, and then reconnected with her father in a work camp where she had to pose as a 10 year old boy so she wouldn’t be sent to the gas chamber. Over the course of her life she shared that she had 6 mothers. When the war ended she had typhoid and was brought to Sweden  to the hospital. She then went to New York and became Franny from Germany. She said,“My life began when Franny's ended. I assumed her identity.” Her mother was named Anna but when she died a few years later in New York, no one told her what was happening. She was then adopted by a new family and became Rena at age 10. She said this is when her life really began and she became a "Jewish American Princess". She and her husband made aliyah in 1984. Despite her difficult, unimaginable first 10 years, she felt that she was lucky and lived a happy life. It was such a privilege and an honor to meet Rena. She was so warm and friendly and it was clear that she felt blessed.

Next we went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum, to visit some of the outside memorials including a children's memorial. 


As we walked through a dimly lit space, there were millions of small lights that looked like stars reflecting off the walls from one lit candle in the center.  We heard names of children who died, where they were from, and how old they were when they died. It's hard to describe what it felt like to be there. We each tried to remember one name to carry with us. As we learned earlier this week in Poland, it's not about the numbers, every number was a person who died. At the end of our time in the museum, we were in a beautiful memorial made of Jerusalem stone and we did a short service.

Etched in to the stone were names of the hundreds of towns, villages and areas that Holocaust victims came from. I looked up and happened to see Dnepropetrovsk - which is Boston’s sister city in the former Soviet Union. 

One can come to Israel and visit all the sites, but being part of this program enhances everything that we do. Not only do we have a fantastic tour guide (Tzvi who happened to be the head of USD/AZYF 10 years before I worked for them), but the program is purposeful and powerful, helping us to connect to ourselves, each other, our collective memory, and our shared future.

I’ve been a life member of Hadassah since I was born and it’s always held some importance. When we were kids, my sister Jami and would get excited when the Hadassah calendar arrived in the mail and flip to the months of our birthdays to find our names and dates listed. I’ve gone to a few events through the years but never got involved in the leadership structure. This Fellowship is my opportunity to learn more about Hadassah and what happens on the local, national, and international level and I’m so blessed to be part of this group with the other 15 strong women from around the country. Our experiences over the past few days have bonded us together. In any moment one of us may tear up over a memory or situation, and someone is quickly there with a hug, a tissue, or to hold her hand.

This morning we had a speaker, Khaled Abu Tomaeh, a Palestinian journalist who is an Israeli Arab which means he has Israeli citizenship. It was a bit disheartening to hear his take on the situation. 
He said there are 2 main problems with the Palestinians that will keep them from making a peace agreement:

1)  The absence of education for children about peace in Israel (the opposite actually happens, they are incited to hate the Jews)
2)  The absence of leadership on the Palestinan side that have the authority to make a peace agreement.

He is frightened by what’s happening on campuses in America today. He says it’s clear that the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) message is more about hating Israel and their time would be better spent helping women in Gaza have equal rights or for kids in the West bank to learn how to speak English. He said he’d rather be here in Israel with the PLO and Hamas then speak on campus, which is hi-jacked by the professionals.  He got to a campus in Canada and found out that they were having “Israel Apartheid week”, he asked the people what that meant and then refuted everything they accused Israel of doing to keep the Arabs separate. That being said, there is discrimination and Israel needs to work better to integrate Israeli Arabs into the community through employment, infrastructure, and allocation of public funds.

He had a lot to say and I tried to capture the main points. The most important takeaway is that he said, “As a Muslim living in the middle east, Israel is the only place that I feel safe and have freedom of speech.” And he made sure to tell us that that wasn’t “Jewish Propaganda".  He thinks that the only solution is to work with Palestinians who are willing to talk and there is currently good security coordination in the West Bank between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. He likened it to a divorce between a couple that can't agree on the terms of the divorce. 92% of the Arabs are living under the Palestinian Authority in the West bank and 100% of Arabs are under Hamas in Gaza so there is already a physical separation between the 2 populations. 

This afternoon we toured the old city. It’s amazing to see the walled city from outside and then tour within. There are 4 quarters within the walls: Christian, Muslim, Armenian, and Jewish. It’s Shabbat today and so it was pretty quiet, there were lots of interesting people to see and watch. We ended the day with havdalah (closing of Shabbat) and a sound and light show in the old city. 
Me and PJ from N. Carolina


Protestant Church in the Old City
Arab Shuk (market)

Dome of the Rock

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Looking for ghosts

From the moment I got off the plane in Poland, I've been looking for ghosts. The bus that drove us from the tarmac was crowded but how can I compare that to a cattle car full of Jews with only one bucket of water and one bucket to use for the bathroom?

I was greeted by a man named Gregory holding a sign that said Comins. He didn't speak English so I'm wasn't sure where I was headed. Every book I ever read about the Holocaust, fiction or not, is coming alive. The beautiful mansion I see must have been owned by Jews and then taken over by the gestapo. The ravines on the side of the road are full of emaciated skeletons.

I learned that the Nazis chose Kraków as seat of German government after they invaded. Jews were 40% of the population after WW1 and the community was full of their food, community, and cultural events.

I met up with my group at Schindler's museum and the guide was really good. He explained to us about the history of Poland, the role of the Jews, the role of the Nazis and the role of the local Poles who were also victims of the Third Reich. If you haven't seen the Steven Spielberg movie, Schindler's List, I suggest you do.

We visited a pharmacy that sat on the edge of the ghetto and was a place that Jews came into to visit and "feel whole" for a few minutes escaping the tension of life in the ghetto. Outside is a plaza where Jews were lined up and deported or shot. There are 65 chairs there representing the 65,000 Jews that died from that community. The chairs represent all of the furniture and belongings that they left behind.

After that we visited a Jewish museum and cemetery. While there we saw a group of Israeli police officers in uniform, including the chief of police of Israel. Then we went to a Memorial on the former site of the Plaszow concentration camp. I wasn't as upset as I thought I would be. It's all grassy, with a memorial, and we did some readings and said a special Mourners Kaddish (prayer) naming all the concentration camps.

We went to dinner in a building that was a school for girls, called Beit Yaacov, before the war. When the Rabbis heard that the Nazis were going to come and take the girls and rape them, the 93 girls committed suicide, which was considered a mitzvah (good deed) instead of capitulating to the Nazis. While there, we met the man who is the famous child from the Warsaw Ghetto, Tavi Nussbaum.

Today, we visited Auschwitz and Auschiwtz/Birkenau.

"The scars on this land will never fade"- DR #Hadassah Fellowship

As we drove through the countryside, the forest was full of people hiding, waiting for night so they could move. Farmhouses held children hiding under piles of straw not moving for hours. Our guide reminded us that the victims were real people not just numbers with an incredible potential that was never filled. What's our takeaway?
There's no correct response for us as visitors - people are touched in different ways. Be open. I had no idea what to expect.

Auschwitz started as work camp for Russian POWs, then became a death camp.  Auschwitz is 450 acres, with 40 sub camps including Birkenau. 90 percent were sent to death immediately. 1,000,000 of 6,000,000 Jews died here.That number is unfathomable.  55,000 people survived, including Eli Wiesel, so we hear about Auschwitz a lot.

Prisoners arrived and were tried and convicted of one crime- being Jewish. Jews were considered a disease that needed to be wiped off the face of the earth. We were thought to be Sub-human by Germans.

Walking in past the line of other tourists- I felt like we were prisoners walking in past the bystanders from town. When I saw the sign Albeit Macht Frei- WORK MAKES FREE, I caught my breath. That's when it hit me where I was and all the exhibits were surreal.

 The pure numbers of things left behind, collected by the Nazis, shows only one small part of the number of our family who died there. We saw a pile of 4000 pounds of hair representing 4000 women. There were mounds of eyeglasses, shoes, combs, and hairbrushes. Victims slept on straw on the floor at first then mattresses on floor. The SS realized if they put in triple bunk beds with 2 to a bed, then they could fit more people.

There was a warehouse of victims belongings which
was called 'Canada' because it was a symbol of wealth. Victims were encouraged to bring anything necessary when they were coming to Aushwitz to "start new lives". They brought valuables, clothing, etc which was sent to Germany. Jewish workers in 'Canada' were more likely to survive because they had access to food and warm clothes. It was emotionally difficult work to go through the items of things that they recognized as belongings of their friends.

There were only 24 toilets for 1000 people and they were only allowed to use them in the morning before work and at the end of the day after work. 

We learned about the gas chambers and how Zyclon B is actually cyanide which turns into gas activated by the victims' body temperature. It took 20 minutes to die a painful death from affixation. That makes my heart hurt to think about it.

Birkenau had 6 gas chambers.
Auschwitz/ Birkenau were killing factories.
The Nazis could kill 2000 people in each gas chamber at once.

At the end of the Auschwitz tour, we happened to walk though the  gas chamber with a group of young Israeli soldiers. That was the most powerful moment of the day for me. The State of Israel rose out of the ashes of the Holocaust and to see the young men and women there in uniform was comforting. It was a reminder that there are no more Jewish refugees in the world as they always have Israel as a home.

I actually thought if we didn't go to Israel, that being in Auschwitz with the Israelis, it would have been enough (dayenu).

We walked out to the smell of freshly cut grass. The sun was shining, the trees were in bloom, and it looked like a lovely park, but there were ghosts all around us.

Survivors wanted to live so they could survive to tell the story.

We then went to Birkenau which is less of a museum and more of a sanctuary. The Israeli police were there too.  Birkenau is beautiful and peaceful and the birds sang a melody of songs as we walked silently down the tracks that brought thousands to their death.

Ours was a March of the living not a death march, accompanied by Israeli soldiers and police including the police chief of Israel. We closed with a reading and 3 gazelles actually ran by us chasing each other through the beautiful field among the desecrated barracks.

In Israel, the Shoah is commemorated as Holocaust and Heroism day which coincides with the Warsaw ghetto uprising.
It's a Kiddish hachayim (Sanctification of life). People think that victims didn't protest enough but they protested by just trying to stay alive. People ask "Where was God?" Some victims came out more religious after survival, some left the faith.

When we got back to the entrance we each put a small amount of dirt from Israel to mix with the dirt and ashes that are in that hallowed ground.

From land to land and people to people, ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

We ended with mourners Kaddish and lighting yarzheit (commemorative) candles and then came to Israel. At 1:30 am this morning, we went to the Kotel (Western Wall) to celebrate that we are a free people with our own homeland. Am Israel Chai!