NCSY’s Euro Trip 2006: The Journey of a Lifetime

15 Aug 2006

By Jessica Burd and Becky Sharon (of Chicago)

This summer, Jessica Burd and Becky Sharon, both 16 and entering their senior year at the Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago, had the time of their lives participating along with 41 other teens from across the country in the National Conference of Synagogue Youth’s Euro Trip, a month-long journey to the Jewish sites of Spain and Italy, before proceeding on to Israel. (NCSY is the youth arm of the Orthodox Union. Euro Trip is one of the many summer programs offered by NCSY, both in North America and abroad, to Orthodox and non-Orthodox teens. )

In the following essay, Jessica, from Deerfield, and Becky, from Sokie, share their impressions of their trip – a journey through the Jewish past culminating in the Jewish present. Back in Chicago, the young women are officers on the Regional Board of Midwest NCSY.)

How do you find excitement, passionate advisors, inspiring Torah, awesome rabbis, unforgettable friends, breathtaking sights, and motivational stories, all in one place? Where can you find a trip that allows you to relive history by tracing your ancestors’ footsteps and the pasts of legendary figures of Jewish thought? We thought it wasn’t possible to find this all in one place; however, NCSY’s Eurotrip proved us wrong. It is one thing to learn history out of a textbook, but it’s completely another to experience it first hand, accompanied by knowledgeable teachers and forty-three other Jewish teenagers.

The journey began in Madrid, where we paid a visit to Ferdinand and Isabella’s palace, a major tourist attraction. However for the Jews, this palace is a symbol of hatred and anti-Semitism, as it is the site of the royal parties in celebration of the expulsion of the Jews in 1492.

Our leader, Rabbi Yisroel Lashak, the Director of the Dallas-based Southwest Region of NCSY, explained to us that although Ferdinand and Isabella tried very hard to exterminate us, we survived, while all that’s left of their world-renowned kingdom is a statue with birds sitting on them. Even though we barely had the chance yet to get to know each other, we proved our achdut (unity) as the girls and boys formed circles and sang three powerful words: Am Yisrael Chai — the Jewish people live. No matter what trials we must go through, in the end we will always come out victorious.

During our stay in Spain, we had the tremendous privilege of davening at the Rambam’s (Maimonides ) synagogue in Cordoba. This tiny shul radiated kedushah (holiness); it was hard not to tremble at the thought of standing where HaRav Moshe ben Maimon z”tl, the great Torah giant, had once stood.

Our first Shabbos in Gibraltar was like no other. The Jewish community in this tiny territory is unique. The people demonstrated tremendous hospitality and warmth. Rabbi Lashak’s famous “Shabbos ebbs away” stories, along with our zemirot (Sabbath songs), shook the heavens and completed an unearthly Shabbat.

The stunning Alhambra, the Moorish palace in Granada, contains a room most significant to our history — it was there that the expulsion was signed. We experienced a chilling sensation as we watched tourists casually stroll in and out snapping pictures, disregarding the ugly truth about the immense amount of suffering this moment in history caused our people.

A Shabbat in Italy:

Touring Italy was incredible, especially seeing the remnants of once flourishing Jewish life in the Venetian ghetto, but the highlight by far was Shabbos in Rome. The shul we davened at was one of the most impressive and breath-taking we have ever experienced. Standing in a foreign country with foreign people, yet hearing the same familiar words of tefillah (prayer) as at home in Chicago was awe-inspiring — the fact that all over the world Jews experience the same Shabbos (of course with regional and local differences) makes one appreciate what a gift it is to be part of such a people. On Shabbos day, Italian Jewish women have a tradition of blessing the children during bircat kohanim (the priestly blessing), and they blessed us as their own.

As Shabbos ebbed away, we sat in full view of the glorious Colosseum and listened to Rabbi Lashak speak about why this magnificent structure is not so glorious in our eyes. One re-occurring theme of this trip was the concept that Jews have standards that distinguish us from the rest of the world — we don’t believe in glorifying gladiators who murder just for the fun of it.

We ascended to Israel, the land of our past and future, changed and humbled after experiencing the lands of our past and our rich and sometimes painful history. The joy in the air was almost tangible as we stepped on holy ground, as made evident by the ear to ear grins on our faces. For some it was our first time seeing the kotel, while for others it was nothing new; regardless, we all ripped our shirts upon seeing the site of the churban (destruction). We davened at the kotel with a new-found fervor and devotion, burying our heads against the ancient stones permanently wet with tears, which have heard centuries of pleas and requests of HaKadosh Baruch Hu (the Holy One, Blessed Be He).

Thank God, we were able to experience so many of the natural wonders of Eretz Yisrael. Where else in the world can you float in a sea dense with salt; swim in a lush waterfall in the middle of the desert; ride camels and eat in a Bedouin tent; see the ancient city of David; visit the largest Holocaust memorial museum in the world; and swim in the deep blue of the Mediterranean, all the while surrounded by your own people and hearing Lashon HaKodesh (the Holy Language)?

A Return to the Kotel:

On our last night we came to the kotel again, but this time something was different. On our first visit we cried because we felt so distant from Hashem and we yearned to come close. During this last visit we cried because we had developed such a close connection just by being in the Holy Land and experiencing Hashem’s creations — and we didn’t want to leave it.

Our group had become a strong unit over the past month. As we sang together in a circle, we looked at each and everyone’s faces and knew that we were different for being part of this group and that we had formed friendships that will last far beyond the summer. This trip provided us with a clearer understanding of our rich heritage that has powerfully shaped a vision of our future: a vision not only of who we want to be, but of who we must be.

We are grateful that NCSY provided us with the opportunity to have this life-changing summer. I know it couldn’t have happened without our esteemed Rabbi Lashak and the incredible staff. Many people asked how we felt being in Israel during the war, but the truth is, we were unaffected and felt safe at all times. We appreciated our parents’ acquiescence in letting us support our homeland during this difficult time, and we returned home with a renewed commitment to strengthen our Torah learning and observance of mitzvot.