I just experienced an educational do-over. In my younger years, I was lucky enough to receive a first-rate college education in Ann Arbor, Michigan and travel to Israel on a Federation-sponsored tour in my late 20s. Thus, I had studied Jewish and Israeli history, and read the appropriate Holocaust canon. However, as a young student and a budding lawyer, I squandered most of those educational opportunities being distracted with my social life and other life events. So as an adult living in Virginia Beach, I am so grateful that I just experienced a fantastic opportunity to learn about the Holocaust first-hand, along with pressing issues facing Israel today.
What type of “mission” was this and how did I get involved? I have recently become more active in our local Community Relations Council headed by the awesome director, Robin Mancoll, who recommended that I apply for the trip. Lois and Larry Frank, two philanthropists from Atlanta, envisioned funding a program where young U.S. Jewish leaders could visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, contemplate the enormity of the Holocaust, and then travel to Israel to join the Jewish Council for Public Affairs yearly trip and discuss Israel today. The goal was to weave history and legacy.
The Franks gift was transformative. I cannot thank them enough for this amazing experience. I was able to make life-long friendships in an instant with my fellow Frank grantees (a diverse group of eight from Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Louisville, San Francisco and Atlanta). We were bonded quickly by the intensity of the trip’s schedule and heavy subject-matter. As part of the Frank grant, our group will meet again at the Plenum, which is the highest decision making body of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), the umbrella organization for local CRCs. The Plenum provides a prominent national forum to enable our community to shape the policies and strategies that best advance our priority objectives.
Our first stop was to Krakow, Poland, where we visited the town square memorial and the Schindler factory, which is now a museum of the war, as well as some synagogues. The Jewish population is Krakow steadily growing. Many residents are rediscovering their Jewish roots. We spent some time at the JCC of Krakow, which interestingly was partially funded and dedicated by Prince Charles.
The most intense day of the trip was our visit Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (commonly known as Birkenau).
I was struck by the sheer size of Birkenau. It was a small city and felt enormous. Being immersed in the darkest side of human nature during the Auschwitz tour leaves you with unanswerable questions. “We are all survivors” our guide told us. The images that have been seared in my brain were all of the pictures of children. Being a father takes those pictures to another level.
Our group then travelled to Jerusalem and joined the Jewish Council for Public Affairs leadership mission. Our first stop was at the Israeli Foreign Ministry. We met with former Counsel Generals to the United States. We discussed the Iranian nuclear bomb issue and the need for stricter sanctions. We discussed the Boycott and Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. The government officials we met with at the Foreign Ministry believe stronger sanctions are needed against Iran. After leaving the Foreign Ministry, we met with a member of the Knesset who is the head of his party, known as the religious party.
After leaving the Knesset we walked through the old city before meeting with Anat Hoffman, the leader of the Women of the Wall. She has advocated for 25 years that women get equal room to read Torah at the Western Wall. She was a great presenter and made a strong case for her point of view. Most impressive, she expressed her willingness to compromise and understand the opposing views.
We also attended an interfaith discussion with Rabbi David Rosen, Archbishop Aris Shirvanian of the Armenian Patriacrchate, William Shomali, the Catholic Bishop of Jerusalem and Bishop Suheil Dawani, the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem. The discussion was centered on how the faiths all work together, how all extremists are not good for anyone, and how everyone wants peace in the Middle East. We then proceeded to Hebrew University where we heard from Professor Reuven Hazan, who provided a crash course on the Israeli political system. He explained the parliamentarian system in Israel. He provided insight into the major political parties in Israel and the strategy behind creating a governing coalition. This was a fantastic presentation that engaged the group and delivered valuable information that enabled us to better understand the Israeli election process and the overall political system. We invited Professor Hazan to come to the States this winter. Hopefully, others will have the opportunity to hear him speak.
We also spent some time Ramallah, which is in the area typically referred to as the occupied West Bank. We went to lunch at the Orjuwan Lounge, a restaurant owned by two brothers and a sister from a prominent West Bank family that has been featured in numerous travel guides and articles, including the New York Times. At the restaurant we had an “off-the-record” meeting with Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator for the Palestinian Authority in the peace negotiations with Israel and a frequent spokesperson for the Palestinians in the Western media.
We also met with several young Palestinian civic leaders, including Kamel Husseini, managing director of the Ramallah office of The Portland Trust, a British non-profit ‘action tank’ whose mission is to promote peace and stability between Israelis and Palestinians through economic development.
We got to spend some time at the Holocaust Museum in Israel, Yad Vashem. Visiting any Holocaust Museum is an emotional experience. I kept seeing my children’s faces in the pictures and it impossible not to feel lucky that my family was spared.
It was a whirlwind of a trip. We all learned so much and so much from each other. The speakers were inspiring. I feel so lucky to have had this opportunity to explore the Holocaust and Israel today, especially in light of the journey my wife Stacey and I are on – guiding and teaching our two young children into the importance of history and support for a Jewish state.
by Brad Lerner