By Rabbi Avraham Plotkin – Chabad Markham
We just finished our 10-day journey to Poland and Israel – “Tour de Triumph” together with a group of 35 participants from Toronto.
To be honest, when I left on the trip, I was not sure what to expect and I had great feelings of anxiety and trepidation as to how the group would react to meeting up with the remnants of the Holocaust and the unparalleled Nazi evil face to face.
But after five days of visiting five Polish cities, four death camps, four ghettos, and four deportation stations I realized the importance of this trip. I realized that there is no way to really understand the magnitude of the Holocaust without experiencing it through the five senses. No books, movies or stories in the world can possibly give over the story of the Holocaust as much as a walk on the ground in Auschwitz or Majdanek.
It’s impact on us was ironically positive. Just being there and connecting with the last tragic steps of those who perished in the Holocaust gave us all a sense of mission and responsibility to continue their aborted lives. We felt literally compelled to commit ourselves to continue where they left off. We just knew instinctively that we had to return back home and share with our families the stories of faith and courage that we heard and to encourage our families to be more Jewish in their memory.
But we didn’t just learn about the Holocaust, we also learned about the rich heritage of Polish Jewry – a thousand years of Jewish scholarship and tradition. We visited the many old synagogues and cemeteries scattered around a country that was once ten percent Jewish. This gave us a feel for what was once the largest Jewish community in the world.
We also saw firsthand the renaissance of Judaism in Poland led by Chabad and heard from the local Shluchim and leaders about their adventures of uncovering the many hidden Jews throughout the country, whose Jewish identity was hidden since the war.
We also had the honor of meeting up with a “righteous amongst the nations” who had saved a number of Jews and was honored by the Yad Vashem museum in Israel.
From the abyss of Poland, we then made our way to the holy land of Israel. Emotions were flying high as we arrived in Israel on early Friday morning after a rollercoaster of a trip in Poland
As we gathered around on the Tayelet overlooking the spectacular view of Jerusalem and sang Jerusalem of gold, we discussed the transition of Poland to Israel, how moved we were by the beauty and grandeur of the holy land and by the resilience of the Jewish people to rebuild even after what they went through in the Holocaust.
After preparing for Shabbat with some traditional shopping and falafel at Ben Yehuda, we made our way to the Western Wall for a most memorable Kabbalat Shabbat service with joyous singing and dancing with the boys of Mayanot Yeshiva. This was an amazing highlight of the trip as the Chabad of Markham group quickly became the center of attention at the holiest place in the world
Shabbat day we davened at the famous Mayanot shul followed by a lavish lunch at the home of Rabbi Kasriel and Yaffa Shemtov. The group was then treated to a moving talk by Israeli TV celebrity Sivan Rahav Meir who told them about how she manages to successfully blend her life of interviewing Prime Ministers, raising a family and leading a Jewish observant lifestyle. Her Husband Yedidia, a writer for Yediot Achronot a leading newspaper in Israel was so impressed with the group that he wrote a full page article that appeared the following week!
Saturday night we had the honor of meeting up close 100 lone soldiers of Chayil El Chayil, Israel’s true heroes, for a BBQ sponsored by our shul replete with steaks and beer and we heard the incredible stores of courage and tenacity leaving behind their families abroad to fight for the Jewish people.
On Sunday we had a very important presentation made by Danny Tirzeh a decorated Israeli soldier and one of the architects of the security barrier protecting Israel from its enemies. He gave the group a fresh perspective at the second most important wall in the country!.
From there we went to help the poor. Unfortunately, there is much poverty across the country. Pantry Packers sponsored by Colel Chabad provides food packages for the less fortunate and gives tourists visiting Israel an incredible opportunity to join the packing assembly line to prepare simple foods to fight poverty. Then we went to Machane Yehuda, Jerusalem’s open market to smell and taste Israel’s unique foods and culinary genius.
On Monday we discovered the old city of Jerusalem from the unique perspective of a walk on its ramparts surrounding the city. The beauty of Jerusalem’s majesty is beyond. We then went to Eretz Breishit in the hills of Judea to experience biblical Israel with a camel ride and a dinner with Abraham the patriarch who spoke to us about our glorious history in a Bedouin-style tent overlooking a spectacular sunset peeking through the majestic mountains in the horizon,
We then heard from Sherry Mandell author of “The Blessings of a Broken Heart” who told us the heartbreaking story of her son Koby who was murdered in a cave by a terrorist. Sherry wrapped up our 10 day journey by explaining to us that her personal story is really the story of the Jewish people of never allowing tragedy to break us but on the contrary, we have the free choice to reframe the narrative of our lives and come out stronger even after a holocaust and rebuild this beautiful land.
Sherry summarized our ten-day journey from the ashes of Poland to the glory of Jerusalem which was echoed by all the participants at that dinner. The story of the survival of the Jewish people and our ability to reframe our experiences and turn them around is truly a miracle and a proof that AM YISROEL CHAI!
May we merit to end the journey with the arrival of the Moshiach and peace in Israel speedily in our days Amen!