Sunday, March 28, 2010

Visiting the "Old Country"

As we approach Pesach and celebrate with the Exodus story, it is worth noting that there appears to be an outright prohibition against returning to Egypt - see Devarim 17:16. We find a similar tradition following the expulsion of Jewish from Spain in 1492. How about modern history? What about Poland? Should we return to visit and to learn about the destroyed Jewish community there?

One of my avocations is guiding "heritage" tours in Eastern Europe. In recent years, I have been traveling to Poland every year with students from Yeshivat Har Etzion (occasionally we have added Hungary, the Czech Republic or the Ukraine to the itinerary) just before Pesach.

When I first began doing this about 15 years ago, my main interest was the Jewish history and the opportunity to share the "power of place" as I read from the Rema's 16th century writings while standing in his study hall in Krakow, from YL Peretz' stories next to his tombstone in Warsaw or from Primo Levy's insightful memoirs in Auschwitz.

While I still find those experiences to be powerful, my focus of these trips today is more on the students themselves and how they grapple with the myriad of messages that such a trip offers them. Listening to them I am fascinated by -

· What they learn from the Jewish communities that flourished for centuries amidst expulsions and pogroms.
· The messages they get from walking streets that until recently were teeming with Jewish life and today are empty of living Jews.
· How they reconcile the stories that they hear about those who helped the Jews in the midst of the Holocaust and those who helped perpetrate their murder.

Occasionally I hear criticisms of such trips, and I agree that students need a high level of maturity for them to be truly valuable. From my experience, however, educational experiences like these can have lasting impact well beyond what can be accomplished in traditional classrooms.

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