JOLT (Jewish Overseas Leadership Training) is a leadership program, in partnership with the Lauder Yeshurun Outreach Organization, that begins in Poland at Majdanek, Treblinka, Lublin and Auschwitz; then goes to the Austrian Alps to allow participating teens to serve as counselors at an OU/NCSY summer camp and thereby to connect with Jewish children from across Eastern Europe. After Europe, participants travel to Israel.
The author, Shiri Wasserman, of Scarsdale, NY, is a senior at SAR High School in Riverdale, NY. In this report, Shiri looks back on the summer of her life.
Close your eyes and imagine for a moment that 30 teens from Israel, California, New York, Florida, Atlanta, and Chicago are all gathered to experience one summer together. Neither the 30 kids signing up for JOLT, nor the five staff members running JOLT, could prepare for the life-altering encounters we were about to share.
Close your eyes and imagine for a moment 30 teenagers linked arm-in-arm singing from Tehillim (Psalms), as they marched out of Majdanek, Treblinka, Auschwitz, and Birkenau. Close your eyes and imagine for a moment 30 teenagers two miles high above ground in the clouds of the Austrian Alps, who are teaching boys how to put on tefillin and giving girls Hebrew names. Close your eyes and imagine for a moment 30 teenagers inspiring unaffiliated Jewish German children in a beautiful setting secluded and isolated from the world. Close your eyes and imagine for a moment that 30 teenagers, although they had been to Israel before, are really seeing Israel for the very first time and imagine the sense of pride and ownership they have for their country, for their home.
I can close my eyes and I don’t have to imagine or pretend. It was real for me.
Memories from Poland: The Past
Connecting with our past in Poland was hard and emotionally draining for everyone. Not a single person standing in the Majdanek gas chambers didn’t clutch his stomach in horror as he ran his fingers over the scratch marks in the walls. The remnant green stains of Zyklon B left on the ceilings was proof that it was real. Learning about the Holocaust and hearing stories couldn’t compare to the connection I felt when I closed my eyes amidst the mass grave sites and heard the screams of my family digging their own graves. I couldn’t imagine the horror of running across open fields with nowhere to hide or escape… I felt vulnerable, naked, and exposed. We wanted to speak out loud with power and pride for our six million brothers and sisters who never had the chance to. Our initial reaction was to shout out, “LOOK INTO MY JEWISH EYES! WE ARE STILL HERE!!! YOU TRIED TO KILL US AND WIPE US OUT! BUT WE ARE STILL HERE AND WE AREN’T GOING ANYWHERE,” and so we did.
Linked arm-in-arm marching out of Majdanek, we sang these words from Tehillim: “Esah anai” (“I lift up my eyes to the mountains. From where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord who made heavens and earth.”) We sang “Modeh ani” (“I acknowledge before you, ever-living and everlasting king, that you have restored my soul to me in mercy”) as we danced together out of Auschwitz and Birkenau. We were ecstatic when outsiders would give us strange looks because we were proud of who we are and we wanted to show them that we are the Jewish people. We were there to represent the leaders of Am Yisrael and we did so with our energy, our hearts and souls.
After our first Shabbat in Krakow, Poland, I remember the way the 30 of us sat on the steps of Krakow Square when we were reciting Havdalah to end the Sabbath. Here the Jews of Krakow used to gather on the close of the Sabbath and the voices of Jewish life would fill the air. And here, not one Jewish echo from the past remained but the sound of our own melody as in NCSY fashion, we ebbed Shabbos away.
Around us, groups of Polish citizens would walk in and out of bars and couples walked the streets hand in hand, both of whom upon passing the 35 of us would stare or give a backward glance. They were curious why two tiny candles were being held together in front of a large group of teenagers that Saturday night in Krakow Square, and they wondered what the man speaking to all these kids was so passionate about. They had probably never seen a Jew before in Krakow Square.
This exact spot, where the radiance of our ancestors burned bright and passionately, was now a tiny wick barely lit and barely visible. But as I listened to Zac Feld (a fellow Jolter) singing Havdalah, felt my friend’s arms around me, and watched our flame kindle through the darkness of the night, I knew our Jewish flame could never burn out. We came back to Krakow Square to show ourselves, our parents, our grandparents, and everyone around us, upon igniting that Havdalah flame, that we are the Jewish people, a light unto other nations. We have a responsibility to bring back what once was. We are a fire that will not burn out.
Reflections from Austria: The Present
After Poland, we boarded a small plane to Germany, took a bus to Austria, then took a gondola up through the clouds to the Alps where for the next two weeks we would be running a small camp for unaffiliated Jewish German children. One memory from Austria that stands out in my mind from the end of our stay is that upon entering the lunchroom of the Jewish camp, Am Echad, I caught a glimpse of my favorite camper, Elisabeth, waving me over. She pointed to the seat she saved for me in between her and my other favorite camper, Polina. I put my arms around their shoulders and let them cry, internalizing the fact that this was our last Shabbos together.
Faint chimes of the cowbells rang as the cool air of the Austrian Alps whooshed into the room. I noticed how the dimly lit lights overhead reflected on the amber carpet to create a radiant glow of warmth. The chestnut walls still draped with blue and red posters from color war seemed as if they had captured all the smiles and embraces they witnessed us sharing with our campers those past two weeks. My eyes welled up with tears at how complete I felt at that moment, and looking around, I realized my feelings were mutually shared with every single person sitting in that room. I tried to capture the affectionate way each camper would place her tear-streaked cheeks on a “Jolter,” just the way my campers were resting on me. Shadows swayed back and forth dancing across the ceiling, and everyone began to sing in synch with Zac’s Havdalah.
Although my voice, raspy from cheering those past two weeks, was barely audible, I strained it in order to sing in harmony at our last ebbing with my campers and friends. Our Havdalah candle was once again two small wicks of fire igniting into one flame but this Shabbos, in contrast to the Shabbos in Krakow two weeks prior, was about the present and looking towards the future. Instead of our light in the darkness of Krakow where we tried to remember, to connect, and to bring back what once was, our light now, in a radiating glow, was there to remind us all that we had accomplished far greater things than we had reached out for.
We had kindled a spark of Jewish inspiration in each of our campers, so much so that Lisa, a 12-year-old at Am Echad, had gone home and persuaded her mother to light Shabbat candles in Germany the following week. I had initially thought that I had an obligation to inspire these children; however, I did not expect my campers to inspire me. These children, who would seize any opportunity to learn about their heritage and who willfully opened their hearts to become inspired, became my role models.
Experiencing Israel: The Future
Upon leaving Austria to make our journey to Israel, I couldn’t help but think about how I was mirroring my own grandfather’s passage in the late 1930’s, yet under very different circumstances. As a teenager not much older than myself, my Sabba, Mordecai Hacohen zt”l, led an exodus ship from his hometown in Austria through Italy and Greece to the shores of British-controlled Palestine. I, on the other hand, was sitting on a comfortable plane with a passport, legally about to enter the State of Israel. The two phrases, “Israel is my home” and “Israel is my country” are two proclamations instilled in me since I was born. Although I had believed those statements to be true, Israel was more like a spiritual retreat in my mind. Never had I experienced a genuine connection with any piece of land before and honestly, to me the idea was quite obscure. Never had I considered the dirt beneath my feet sacred or holy. And especially, never in my mind had I thought for one second I would have the urge to collapse on my knees upon the earth and kiss it, out of pure contentment.
Those impossible feelings had vanished the moment I stepped off the plane and strolled outside the airport at four in the morning into the hot, humid Israeli air. Although I was exhausted from lack of sleep, nothing could prevent the way my body swelled with relief the moment our plane landed in Israel. Finally, I thought. Finally, we were home. Never again will I feel as though I am a visitor hated so strongly and thoroughly as I did in Poland. Never again will I feel like an outsider because I am able to walk down the streets of Eretz Yisrael like I own the place. Why? Because I do.
A Night in Tzfat:
One night in Tzfat (Safed), the mystical city in the Galilee, I recall a particular midnight sky that seemed like a black canvas backdrop. Evergreen trees spiked high into the darkness, casting shadows of spears on our holy land. Hazy beams of light peered from the windows of homes and from the street lamps that lit up the way for unfamiliar visitors. Both lights blended together in an inviting glow creating a water-colored masterpiece before my very eyes. The tips of my fingers itched to spread wet paint across a velvety, crisp, white piece of paper and my artistic eyes eagerly darted from side to side, desperately wishing to capture the beauty in each and every detail. Could it truly be that these golden glowing lights shimmering amidst this rich ebony sky was my home? Could it be that this small hill overlooking a city blossoming with spiritual magic was my land? This was the ineffable image I discovered standing atop a small hill that night in Tzfat.
I can close my eyes and return to the past; the cemeteries, the camps, and the death in Poland. I can close my eyes and return to the panoramic view at the top of the Austrian Alps where I was able to see 300 miles in each direction. I can smell the leftover dewy rain lingering on the grass early in the morning and wake-up to the cowbells ringing in my ear. I can close my eyes and hear the laughing and singing of my Jewish German campers and see their intrigued smiles as they would learn a new Jewish song. Thirty different teens from 30 different families, together for one summer. We all had one dream, one goal: to connect with our past in Poland; to understand where we are now, the present, in Austria; and finally, to see where we are going and our roles as leaders for the future of the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.