JCPA Leadership Mission to Poland and Israel

by | Feb 6, 2015 | Other News

In Hero’s Square In Krakow.

In Hero’s Square In Krakow.

Journal entry Dec. 6, 2014
And so it begins…. On an adventure to Poland and Israel courtesy of Lois and Larry Frank of Atlanta and the JCPA, based on a recommendation from United Jewish Federation of Tidewater’s Robin Mancoll.

The itinerary looks amazing and exhausting: Three days in Krakow, Poland, followed by six days in Israel with the JCPA Leadership Mission. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs is the umbrella agency for 125 Federation Community Relations Councils, along with 16 other organizations.

This is going to be an interesting trip on so many levels! Definitely a bit out of my “comfort zone”—it is never easy for me to leave my family, and never for 10 days across the world. Also, I will not be in any of the “roles” that dominate my daily life: mother, wife, daughter, volunteer.

In Newark, I meet our group leader, Andi Milens, JCPA vice president, along with the seven other Frank Family Fellows who ranged in age from 27 to 50 (me!) from Dayton, Pittsburgh, Nashville, St Louis, Atlanta, Denver, and San Jose.

Our first flight is to Munich, then another to Krakow. We arrive in Krakow, already behind schedule, because of an uncooperative passenger on the Newark flight who literally had to be “escorted” off the plane by several police officers.

The first two days’ itinerary is combined so as not to miss anything. We check into our hotel and get our roommate assignments, mine is Leslie Kirby, a psychology professor at Vanderbilt from Nashville. We have an hour or so to unpack, decompress, shower and then off to dinner. Though dark, we walk a short way to a restaurant on the square filled with lights, music, people and beautiful old city buildings that apparently escaped destruction and bombing from war. Our guide for the Poland portion of our trip, Barbara, joins us for dinner and enlightens us with the history and current day affairs of Krakow, along with highlights of our itinerary. Following a delightful dinner, part of the group sets off in search of a Polish vodka tasting experience. Exhausted, I opt for hotel and a warm bath before bed, as the next day’s wake up call is early.

Day Two in Poland
Making up for lost time, we have a full schedule. We board our bus with Barbara and head across the bridge leaving 13th/14th century Krakow and enter the area known as “Ghetto Square” to visit the Jewish neighborhood, Karzimerz. Now referred to as “Hero’s Square,” this is where the Jews were brought before deportation to the concentration camps. Donated by Roman Polanski, who lost his family in the Holocaust, a memorial in the plaza has steel chairs of varying sizes, creating a very somber, austere atmosphere. We then toured the historic Remuh Synagogue and cemetery where Rabbi Moses is buried. Orthodox Jews make pilgrimage to this site to visit his grave, leaving notes and stones, which adorn his headstone. We continue on to the Schindler Factory, now a museum, and then head towards Osweicin, the town where, just outside its limits, lies Auschwitz and Birkenau.

The experience of actually “being” at the death camps was beyond what I had imagined. It was as if a dark cloud engulfed our small group, connecting us, while at the same time separating us, so that we experienced it together and individually. I felt it was inappropriate and disrespectful to photograph the experience. I knew I would never forget what I was seeing. I kept waiting to hear a clock chime every hour on the hour with people gathering to recite the Mourners Kaddish, but there was only silence, deafening quiet. We barely even spoke. Barbara led us through, saying only what was necessary; the rest spoke for itself. As I walked, I kept shaking my head at the unfathomableness, fighting back tears from deep within, a heaviness hanging on me that I couldn’t shake off. The question, “How do people get to the place where they ever think it is okay to treat other human beings like this?” intermingled with prayers on a constant loop in my heart and mind. And yet, through all of this, somewhere there came a sense of hope. Sprinkled in with the facts and details of the atrocities, were stories of moments of grace and miracles. Though it was December and bitter cold, vibrant green grass sprung from the ground, reminiscent of spring and new beginnings. I had a sense of hope. The Jewish people had endured hell on earth, yet were not lost nor defined by it. That is the truth and testament to the strength and hope of our people. It was a long, dark, silent ride back to the town of Osweicin.

The feeling of hope and life was furthered by our visit to the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace Center, adjacent to the oldest surviving synagogue in Osweicin. Thanks to outside resources, the synagogue, center and small museum have been restored and built. The synagogue had been kept alive by the one remaining Jew in the town who passed away in 2008. Now, the museum and center serve as an outreach and educational facility for the community and area.

Upon returning to Krakow, we enjoyed a lovely tour and dinner compliments of the JCC there and the director Jonathan Orenstein. The Center was vibrant and bustling with activity, a project that came into being largely because of the philanthropic efforts of Prince Charles. Orenstein, an American, shared with us his story of aliyah to Israel where he lived for eight years before meeting a Polish woman who led him to find Krakow, or Krakow find him. He also shared his “off the record” thoughts about the current state of affairs in Israel, the Holocaust, Jewish education and American Jewry. It was a wonderful way to end an emotionally, spiritually and physically challenging day… with hope for the future.

Journal entry Dec. 9, 2014
After a 5 am departure from Krakow, we arrive in Tel Aviv mid-afternoon, and bus to Jerusalem where we check into the beautiful Inbal Hotel. We actually have a few hours to relax before meeting for an opening reception and dinner session with the JCPA Mission delegation. Leslie and I unpack, take a brief walk to the Mamilla Mall for some exercise, fresh air and caffeine. A beautiful outdoor mall, it meets the step leading up to the Jaffa Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem—modern meeting the ancient, in a seamless way.

To better acquaint the delegates with the joining Frank Fellows, just before dinner, we each introduce ourselves to the group and tell them our “story.” When it is my turn, I speak of my sincere gratitude to the Franks and the JCPA for being able to take part in this amazing experience. And though I feel somewhat “unworthy” of it, I also feel there is a “bigger” reason why I am there, as if the universe is guiding me along a path and I am a willing participant. I also share that I am a Jew by choice, not by birth, and that having “officially” converted only eight years ago, it is something that called to me, it chose me. I am there to learn, grow and open my mind and heart to all this experience has to offer, not just for me, but for the community I represent.

We then hear briefings from representatives of organizations such as AIPAC, JFNA, ADL, NCJW and AJL. If my head wasn’t swimming already, it definitely is by the end of the evening! It feels like a crash course in history, politics, religion and sociology all at once. Fascinating and overwhelming, the speakers, all women, share their personal stories of this past summer and what it was like during that tumultuous time. It is clear how the events of this summer had really “shaken” them unlike anything else in recent years. We conclude the evening with the hope of Lois and Larry, “that we would open our Jewish hearts.”

Day Two in Israel
The day begins with a briefing by the senior advisor to Prime Minister Netanyahu, Dr. Jonathan Schachter. The day or so before we arrived, the Knesset dissolved and called for new elections. Different than the American democratic system, perhaps Israel’s Parliamentary democracy is more effective in that when they get stuck, they start over. We, on the other hand, might stay stuck for four years! Following this briefing, we head to the Knesset to meet with leaders of the Labor and Yesh Atid political parties, currently in the Opposition (the Likud party currently leads the Coalition) at least until the March election.

From here we split from the JCPA delegation and visit Yad Vashem, Israel’s National Holocaust Museum. The structure itself, designed by world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie is dramatic—the building cuts through the mountain in the form of a spike. It is an unforgettable place, inside and out, and tribute and remembrance of the Shoah (Hebrew for “the catastrophe”). The fact that we had just visited Auschwitz and Birkenau makes it especially poignant. Here, towards the end of our tour, I am finally overwhelmed by emotion, listening to a taped story of a woman survivor who not long after her liberation from one of the camps discovered she was pregnant. What normally would be a joyous time in a woman’s life, instead was the worst nightmare. She had been so traumatized by her experience that upon learning of her pregnancy she immediately tried to abort her unborn fetus. She couldn’t imagine bringing the horror of her experience to another human being, even her own child. I don’t try to hide or hold back the tears, and instead let them flow.

That evening we dine at Tmol Shilshom with author and owner David Ehrlich. The restaurant/bookstore has been a hotspot for years for many of Israel’s finest intellectuals. David shares his beloved poet Yehuda Amichai’s words. It is a magical evening.

Day Three in Israel
We enter the Old City of Jerusalem, meeting at the Latin Patriarchate with head Christian clergymen and moderator Rabbi David Rosen, International director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee. The Christian clergy share their perspectives and thoughts on the current state of Israel and the holy city of Jerusalem. They liken the walls around the city to “walls of hatred” and “walls of the heart.” They share their belief and hope that “the darkness will end when the Israeli people see the image of God in each other, and in themselves. When fear, ignorance and misunderstandings can be reconciled.” Concluding this most memorable meeting, (another one of those, “how did I get here?” moments), we join as one in prayer and song, reciting the words of “Oseh Shalom Le’Olam.” My strong belief and practice in the power of prayer make this a profoundly moving experience.

Scheduled to travel to Ramallah, events that transpired a few days before, change our plans for security purposes. So, we go to the American Colony Hotel in east Jerusalem, a historic place known for its foreign intrigue, as this is where many journalists and diplomats have met with Palestinians. We, too, meet with several young Palestinian social and civil representatives to hear their perspective and views of the issues between Israel and Palestinians. Visiting east Jerusalem almost feels like visiting another country. Living conditions in this part of Jerusalem are recognizably poorer than its counterpart. Palestinians are not citizens of Israel, even though they may have lived there their entire lives. They are not entitled to the same privileges—they hold no passports, so claim no country as their own. There is very little interaction between Israelis and Palestinians. Stereotypes and myths perpetuated by generations continue. The young leaders hope their work with the nonprofits Bridging the Gap Initiative and Kids 4 Peace, will help break barriers and force face-to-face interactions with Israelis and Palestinians, “who really want the same thing, peace.” When asked how we can help, their plea is for us to carry the Palestinian voice to our Jewish communities, that “we are human beings just like you, who strongly believe in peace and security and deserve this as do all Israeli citizens.” Their message seems to echo the Christian clergy’s message. Jerusalem is the problem, but also the solution.

We then travel to Tel Aviv and the Peres Center for Peace, meeting with Nadav Tamir, policy advisor to Shimon Peres and Dan Shapiro, our American Ambassador to Israel. The building’s unique design exemplifies the vision of Shimon Peres: 200 different shapes are arranged in different ways on each level—symbolic of our complexity, but also of the possibilities of working together to create harmony. His vision includes the idea that global companies can do a lot, which in the past, have been done by governments. Peace, he believes, cannot be accomplished from the top down or the bottom up, but by both. His world-view is that by helping Israel and the Jewish people, we will help humanity, tikkun olam.

Ambassador Shapiro’s first words were “thank you.” He expresses deep gratitude for the efforts of organizations such as JCPA for their work and support for Israel. A very humble, intelligent and dedicated man, he speaks of the solidarity of the U.S./Israel relationship, not just in words, but especially actions as evidenced this summer with Operation Protective Edge. Though peace talks with the Palestinians had stopped, he assures us not all is lost. The delay, now in part caused by new elections, can hopefully be used efficiently to prepare for resumed negotiations.

The evening ends with a briefing from the editor of HaAretz, Aluf Benn. He speaks about the elections and all the speculation and implications. He also speaks of the country experiencing a demographic decline in the left wing population with the right wing growing at much higher rates. The result will be that in the future, the right wing will have more representation in the government and in policy.

Day Four in Israel
We travel to the town of Sderot, a small working class city less than a mile from the Gaza Strip. This town has experienced the unrelenting drum of Kassam rockets for more than eight years. Laura Bialis, an American-born documentary filmmaker has been there since 2007 and has heard the unique way this town copes with the trauma of constantly being under attack. Surprisingly, a music scene has emerged, a “little Liverpool” of sorts. She became enamored with the town and its people (one in particular, a musician named Avi Vaknin, whom she married and now they have a child), but also its story. Her film, Rock in the Red Zone filmed from 2007 to 2014 is a depiction of life on the front lines—a metaphor for Israel. We are privileged to view the film in Sderot’s charming cinema with the filmmaker, only a day before its premier. The voice of the film and the experience of the town profoundly resonate with us all. It so realistically exposes the daily life and despair of people caught in the crossfire, and the effects of the long-term stress of constant bombings. Look for this movie in the future, for it is a must see. Following this, we take a short ride to a bluff where we can see neighboring Gaza and even hear voices in the distance. That’s how close they live to the constant threat. It is an eye opening experience. We return to Jerusalem and our hotel in time for Shabbat candle lighting in the lobby. We also have a short drash and discussion with Rabbi Steve. Leslie and I treat ourselves to massages at the hotel spa and a quiet night. Shabbat Shalom.

Day Five in Israel
Shabbat morning I take a long walk on a beautiful path around the outside of the Old City’s walls, allowing me to clear my mind and thoughts, which are on overload! A welcome slow morning is followed by lunch with the Fellows to discuss the next steps on our journey. We decide it is important to “keep the conversations going,” to not just go home and end our dialogue. Many ideas and suggestions are made, culminating in the creation of a Frank Fellows Facebook group. This will allow us to share our stories and experiences upon returning home, and keep the conversations going. The annual plenum in October will be another opportunity to continue dialogue, reconvening in person to share with each other all that has come from this experience. After lunch, we take a walking tour of the Old City with David, our guide. The tour begins at the Zion gate and includes the Jewish quarter and Western Wall. Though my second visit to this sacred place, it is as impactful as the first. I pray at the Wall where women are allowed with Andi and Leslie. For Leslie, her first visit, it is an emotional experience, bringing tears to her eyes, and mine too. The tour continues through the Muslim quarter, where we climb rooftops for spectacular views. David highlights the tour with words of the beloved Israeli poet Amichai along the way, finishing at the Jaffa gate.

The group meets for Havdallah in the hotel courtyard. The rosemary and olive sprigs I had gathered from my walk earlier are used as a substitute for a spice box. It is beautiful way to end Shabbat, together as one. The stores reopen an hour after Shabbat, so I hit the Mamilla Mall for a quick shopping trip, as Chanukah begins the day after arriving home.

Day Six in Israel
Our final day begins with a session with Professor Reuven Hazan, who gives a lesson on the Israeli political system versus our own, and insight into the upcoming elections. It is interesting to note that though he favors policies and parties whose focus is on the economy over security, the fact that his young son has just entered the IDF, he eludes he will vote for the party favoring security policies. Sometimes our words don’t match up with our actions.

Next we visit the Hand in Hand Bilingual School, a center for Jewish-Arab education that is a model proving to be a success. With more than 600 students, which represent a microcosm of Jerusalem’s urban diversity, the school is in an area where Jews and Arabs live near one another but rarely interact. The school has become the place where relationships between people blossom, no matter their backgrounds. It is a model that creates a partnership between Arabs and Jews in an environment that fosters inclusiveness, equality and mutual respect. We hear from the director, as well as from parents and students. It is a refreshing and positive experience.

We conclude the mission with a trip to the Foreign Ministry. Positive and uplifting soon turns to gloom and sadness as discussions focus on the rise of anti-Semitism, BDS, false reporting by media sources and the weakening of a Jewish identity in America. It is a very sobering few hours, and a feeling of hopelessness and powerlessness seem to overcome me. So many questions emerge for me at this point. From “what am I doing here?” to “what can I do about any of this?” Needless to say, I feel as overwhelmed as I have been the entire trip. I am glad it is winding down and to be going home to the good old USA. We have our problems for sure, and some not so far from those in Israel and Europe, but nonetheless, we live in a different world. I want at that moment to return to my illusionary bubble.

We end the evening with a lovely dinner at Lois and Larry’s home. First, just with the Fellows having an hour or so, before the rest of the delegation arrives. We all express our gratitude to the Franks for this most amazing opportunity and vow in our own ways, silently, that it will not be in vain. Before boarding the bus for the trip to the airport, we are each asked to share one word that describes how we feel about the mission or sums up our thoughts. Mine is Shalom.

And so it ends…and begins. Having been home for just over a month, the experience is still settling into me. I knew from the moment I said yes to this opportunity it would be transformational. I learned a lot, especially that I know so little. In fact, I returned home more confused than when I left! My eyes were opened to so many things, but mostly to the struggles and challenges that face a very complicated and difficult part of our world. There are no clear-cut answers, no simple solutions.

The question we asked at each of our meetings with leaders, regardless of their background, was “What can we do to help?“ The answer for me is simple, yet it requires me to show up and take responsibility for myself. Be the change you want to see in the world. I can try to be a better person, a better Jew, a better mom, wife, daughter, friend, volunteer, a better human being.

The dedication of the JCPA delegation, their commitment to making the world a better place, their welcoming spirit is inspirational. Actions speak louder than words, and being part of the solution requires work and going out of my comfort zone. “Being“ better means educating myself, asking questions, looking for answers, looking in the mirror, choosing to be kind, loving, tolerant and forgiving, rather than judging, blaming and self-centered. The world needs this now more than ever, individually and collectively. I can do these things if I set my intentions on them. We have more power to affect change than we realize. Like pebbles dropped into a pond, the ripples get bigger and spread outward, so too do our intentions and actions. Lois and Larry Frank had the hope that we would open our Jewish hearts. By opening theirs, they opened mine, and I would venture to guess that their “pebble” rippled outward to many, many more.

by Karen Fine