Walking through Birkenau for the First and Thirteenth Time



I have just returned from eight days touring the sites of Judaism in Central Europe with six teenagers and one soon-to-be HUC student.

When I first interviewed at my current congregation, I was asked, “Rabbi, what do you think about our Confirmation trip to Europe?” As I had looked at the synagogue website before the interview and noticed that it highlighted two things – the Confirmation trip and the Adult Education program – I knew that this was an important question. I started with, “I’m not sure why the trip doesn’t go to Israel…” When a murmur ran around the room and someone said, “You’re not the first candidate to say that,” I took a breath, re-trenched, and finished, “… but I am looking forward to giving the trip a try and learning what makes it so special.”

Students in Rabbi Joel N. Abrahams' class stand in the tower overlooking the entrance to Birkenau on their recent Confirmation trip. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Abrahams.

Thirteen years and 12 trips later, I know a lot more now than I did then. Thanks to my congregation (Temple Sholom) and my predecessor (Rabbi Gerald Goldman), who initiated the trip decades before, I have now accompanied almost 100 students to Budapest, Krakow, and Warsaw, Prague or Berlin; Auschwitz and Majdanek, Treblinka, Terezin, or Sachsenhausen. I cannot, even now, imagine that I have walked through Birkenau so many times – and I struggle each trip between the raw and inconceivable and the sadly familiar.

I travel with 16-year-olds – young adults just learning that their own actions have consequences on others. I have heard a student respond, when a guide explained Hitler’s euthanasia of those with special needs, “That would have been me.” I have watched teenagers who share no common language but Hebrew prayer sing and laugh together in a Hungarian Progressive synagogue that meets in an apartment. I have seen those same students stand up before their congregation on Shavuot, receiving the Torah passed to them by previous generations of confirmands, accepting their place in the chain of our tradition. I have seen those same students, years later, enter the words of Avraham Shlonsky’s poem “An Oath,” which they read before they left on the trip, as their Facebook status on Yom haShoah.

I am convinced, over and over again, of the impact of memory, of human interaction, of intentional experiential learning, and of our role, as Jews, to work and work at making the world a better place for us all.

Joel N. Abraham has been the rabbi at Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains, NJ, since 1999. He is a 2012-2013 Brickner Fellow and co-chair of Reform Jewish Voice of New Jersey. He blogs at sholomrav.blogspot.edu, and you can find him on Twitter @sholomrav.

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2 Responses to “Walking through Birkenau for the First and Thirteenth Time”

  1. Dear Larry,

    The answer is that congregations that have an Israel trip are lucky to get 50% participation (even before BirthRight); we get just about all of our students to go on this trip. They feel that this trip is unique and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Many of them do go to Israel, either on BirthRight, a college study year, or EIE.

  2. Larry Kaufman

    Have you found an answer yet to the question you asked at your interview — why not Israel?

    While I believe every Jew is subject to the obligation to visit Auschwitz and Jerusalem, if only one is possible, shouldn’t it be Jerusalem, the place of hope, rather than the places of death?

    What do your teens say about this seemingly partial experience?

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