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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Jewish Quarter, Auschwitz Day 3, and Salt Mines

Well, yesterday we all went to the Jewish Quarter. We took some really nice pictures, and both of the synagogues, the Progressive one and the Orthodox one were gorgeous. The Progressive one was actually quite a bit bigger, but the Orthodox one had a HUGE cemetary. I'll have pictures up tomorrow. Of course, as we were leaving the Progressive synagogue, Carlie vomited all over herself and her stroller. This is the first time she's done that in a long time. But, we had a nice lunch in the Jewish Quarter, a real "Jewish meal."

Today, PJ and I went back to Auschwitz because I really thought it was important for PJ to see the Gas Chamber and crematorium. It was a very terrifying experience again, but it was more emotional for me this time. Showing someone else this horrific building was worse than seeing it for the first time. What made matters worse was that PJ and I went and had lunch and went back to the gas chamber one more time before returning to Krakow. There were three people in the gas chamber and one of them took a picture. There is a sign that clearly states that no pictures are allowed. I was very frustrated by this person. I felt it was very disrespectful, but I was able to get that out of mind and say the Mourner's Kaddish one more time before I left.

This afternoon, we went to the salt mines in Krakow. They are 130 meters below the surface. We took some amazing pictures of undergound churches, one that is the largest underground church in the world. The pictures are pretty amazing, and we'll have those up tomorrow as well. We are getting up very early tomorrow to fly back to Israel. We will be in Vienna for 2 hours in the morning, arriving in Tel Aviv around 3 pm. I am anxious to get back to Israel for the last few days of my vacation. I am very excited to begin my schoolwork on Sunday. I'll write more next week with an explanation of the first week of classes.

Laila Tov!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz 2, Birkenau, Day 2

Today I went to Auschwitz and Birkenau with Batya. This was a very different experience. See, PJ and I were separated from our group toward the end of the tour yesterday. What we missed, Batya and I saw today. What we missed was one of the most horrifying and emotional experiences of my life. We saw a gas chamber. I don't really know if there is a proper way to react, but my reaction was terror. I almost couldn't breathe. As I stared up at the ceilings and walls and saw finger nail scratches, I could only picture in my mind how and what these innocent people went through. I was terrified. Then, when I saw the oven where the bodies were burned to ashes, I knew I had to get out. I was almost suffocating.

After we left the gas chamber, we met an Auschwitz survivor. This man was a member of the Sundercommando. The job of the sundercommandos was the most horrific of all the jobs. They were responsible for taking the bodies out of the gas chamber, separating them, taking all of the gold jewelry and earrings off of the bodies, and then taking them to the ovens to be burned. What is miraculous is that the men who were sundercommandos only lived for 3 months at a time, as they knew the secrets of the Germans, and would be killed. This man survived, and we were amazed at his story.

The last part of our trip today, which was the only wonderful part, was seeing a bunch of Israeli high school students together at Birkenau. They were conducting a service in honor of those who had died. Seeing these Israeli Jews there really gave me tremendous hope. I was honored to be there with them. I'll write more in a few days with reactions to Krakow. So far, we're pretty impressed with the beauty of the city!

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz 2, Birkenau

We arrived in Krakow, very glad to have a nice break from Israel. We love Israel, but it was nice to get a vacation. When we arrived at our hotel, we were amazed to see such great customer service, nothing really expected in most places in Israel, especially if your Hebrew isn't so great! We took a taxi to the city center of Krakow and walked around for about 2 hours. It really is a beautiful city and in such contrast to what we saw today. We went to bed kind of early, as we wanted to be rested to prepare ourselves for today.

PJ and I jumped into the bus to pick up other passengers for the English led tour. Once we boarded our coach, we headed to Auschwitz. I am not really sure what I expected. I don't really know if one can really expect anything. I am sure everyone who goes to a concentration camp, especially a Death camp, has their expectations proven wrong. First of all, Auschwitz is made up of two parts, Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz 2, or Birkenau. Auschwitz 1 was originally a type of Polish army base. When Germany took over Poland, Auschwitz 1 was turned into a prisoner camp, primarily for Poles, especially those who were loyal Poles. The Germans were afraid they might cause an uproar. It's amazing how scared of everyone else the Germans were.

Eventually, because the Polish prisons were completely overcrowded, Auschwitz 1 became a prison camp for many, many people, including Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals, etc. This "camp" became a place to bring people and eventually kill them. What I saw in this place was horrifying. The complete lack of human respect was overwhelming. People were tortured, embarassed, and killed. What did these "soldiers" think? Didn't they realize it was wrong to treat other humans in such a way? Our tour guide was very descriptive, and the pictures I wasn't allowed to take will remain in my mind forever. I walked in and OUT of Auschwitz 1.

What I saw and experienced in Auschwitz 1 in no way prepared me for Auschwitz 2, Birkenau. This was where the Jews were sent. While Auschwitz was a labor camp (or that's what the Germans called it), Birkenau was a death or extermination camp. People were brought here to die. Those who were lucky enough to be chosen to work were only allowed to live because they served the German Reich a purpose. And, they would eventually be slaughtered as well. Now I have read many books about the Holocaust (called HaShoah in Hebrew). I have seen many movies about HaShoah. But to stand in a living barrack and see where these people lived and "bathed" was awful. I wanted to scream...and I was very angry that this could happen.

But, as my friend PJ pointed out, the most important thing I experienced today was the ability to walk out. I walked out with my head held high in a tribute to those millions of Jews and others who died. I left. While I am returning tomorrow with Batya, I expect to experience something incredibly different. I can't have expectations..we shall see.

May we never forget these souls, those who died just because of who they were.

Oseh shalom bim'romav hu ya'aseh shalom
He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace,

aleinu v'al kol Yis'ra'eil v'im'ru
upon us and upon all Israel.


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Ulpan is OVER!!!

Wow, what an amazing 6 weeks. I thought I would never make it through Ulpan, but somehow I survived and passed the Ulpan! This was a very intensive Hebrew program with 5 hours of Hebrew every day and it's truly amazing how much I learned. I am now able to write an essay completely in Hebrew, and I find myself speaking more and more to people on the street (especially cab drivers) in Hebrew. It's great, and I am looking forward to continuing my Hebrew classes and learning more and more!

We are now on a 10 day break or so. The beauty of this break is that we don't have any requirements except to relax! So, how are we going to relax? We are taking a trip to Krakow, Poland on Friday. We'll be gone for 5 days, and for two of the days Batya, our friend PJ and I will be going to Auschwitz. I'll go with PJ on Saturday and Batya will go with me on Sunday. It's going to be an interesting Shabbat this week, and I hope to get a lot of perspective. It will be nice to experience this with a great friend on Saturday and my best friend, Batya, on Sunday. We'll take lots of pictures (of what we're allowed to), so you'll be able to see what we see (at least in pictures).

We go back to school, to our regular class schedule on Sunday, September 2. We'll then only have a few hours of Hebrew every day, but we'll have many more classes, preparing us for our long journeys to be Rabbis, Cantors, and Jewish educators!

Lailah Tov!

Thursday, August 16, 2007


Wow! This morning, and I do mean morning, we met at 4 am. We took a bus to a Sephardic (from the word Sepharad which means Spain) synagogue on the French Hill in Jerusalem. This was a first for me. I can't remember experiencing a Sephardic synaogue. The reason why we left so early in the morning is that the Sephardic custom is to have Selichot services between midnight and dawn, when our prayers can be heard by God the best and clearest. Slichot services are all about asking God for forgiveness. These prayers are a complete admission of our guilt and request for forgiveness. Traditionally, these prayers are completed every day for 40 days before Rosh Hashanah. Of course, most Americans are of the Ashkenazic tradition, meaning Slichot are recited later in the afternoon, usually only a week before Rosh Hashanah.

Whatever your tradition, these are very solemn and serious prayers. We are truly begging God for forgiveness, realizing our sins and Mamash ("really", Israelis love this word) doing some serious introspection. This period is when we can realize our mistakes and look for ways to learn from them to not commit them again. We went to an Orthodox shul, which unfortunately meant the women and men were separated. As this was a Sephardic shul, the Bima was in the middle of the congregation, with the Chazan, Cantor, leading the service from behind the Bima, facing the Ark.

This was one of the most special moments for me in my life. The Kavanah (true focus or directedness) of the service was unbelievable. While I wasn't really awake when we first arrived, by the 2nd or 3rd verse of the opening prayer, I was wide awake. The people in this shul had tremendous spirit and kavanah. During the recitation of the confessional part of the service, the man who recited was a very pious man who you could hear sobbing as he confessed for the entire congregation and mamash for the entire congregation of Jews throughout the world. I found myself lost in his words and trying to focus immensely on my own sins and confession.

As a people, Jews are very good at realizing our mistakes and begging for forgiveness. Often times, we joke about our guilt and how good we are at making others feel guilty. But this service points you to your own guilt and causes you to do some serious introspection. This was truly an eye opening service, and I am truly grateful for the opportunity to share this service with my classmates and the congregation at the shul.

Now, I am off to go back to sleep!

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Ein Gedi Spa/Dead Sea and Hiking Israel

Friday, August 10 was an outstanding day! Except for the fact that we started about an hour and a half late and also except for some small squabbling in the car by some wandering Jews, our trek to the Ein Gedi Spa was very successful. Each of us had amazing spa treatment including massages, mud baths, swimming in the Dead Sea, or swimming in the chlorine pool. Now, here's a big difference. In America, when you go swimming, the bottom of the pool is very rough and you can easily cut yourself on the bottom. In Israel, the bottom of the pool is very smooth, and padded. Therefore you are able to walk or whatever on the bottom of the pool without worrying about stubbing your toe or cutting yourself. On the flip side, however, the walls of the pool are the same color as the water, so if you happen to not be paying attention, you can run into the side of the pool. You'll have to ask my wife about that one.

When we came back to Jerusalem, we had Shabbat Dinner at our place. As usual, the woman who I live with who doesn't believe she can cook at all, cooked an amazing dinner, enjoyed by all. Unfortunately, the night ended with a classmate getting sick, but she's better now, and Batya wants to explain that our classmate did NOT get sick from her cooking.

Today, on Shabbat, several of us went on an outstanding 5 mile hike. It was a moderate level hike, with great sites to see, and plenty to enjoy. It was nice getting out there on Shabbat and just enjoying Israel away from the city. I am terribly sunburned, and am learning that I need to wear sunblock if I don't want to have problems with my skin later on in life.

Just for an update, Ulpan is still very time consuming and it's only getting harder. However, our teacher is amazing and she is really working us hard. I am looking forward to the last 2 weeks of Ulpan as we prepare for our first vacation from HUC.

Shavua Tov!

Friday, August 3, 2007

Jerusalem Day #3 and My pinky, AGAIN!

Wow. For the third Jerusalem Day, we went to the Israel Museum on Tuesday night to see the Dead Sea Scrolls, and to the Southern Wall Excavations and Kotel Tunnels on Thursday. The Israel Museum was nice, but I would have liked to have spent more time in the museum. We spent some time studying some text, which was enjoyable, but there is so much to the museum, and we didn't really have enough time to examine everything. We had our second Hebrew test on Wednesday. It was tough, but I think I did ok. We'll just have to wait until Sunday to find out.

On Thursday, we had a great day. We spent some time examining the Southern Wall, even climbing the steps to where pilgrims would have entered into the Second Temple complex. It was a very awe inspiring experience. I just imagined myself 2000 years ago going to the Temple on one of the harvest festivals. After examining the Southern wall, we checked out some pretty interesting things including Robinson's Arch, another entrance to the Second Temple area that is also over 2000 years old, as well as some ancient store sites for purchasing animals for sacrifices. We even saw 2000 year old Mikvahs, or purity bath areas.

The most exciting part of the day, though, was the Kotel tunnels. We walked through tunnels that are under the Arab quarter of the Old City. It was truly amazing seeing the extension of the Western retaining wall. However, when we came upon the area which "leads to the Holy of Holies," I was very excited. It truly was an awesome place, and I would love to go there again. I am now getting ready for Shabbat, to spend some nice relaxing time with my family.

Oh, and one more thing. I went to the doctor today because the swelling hasn't gone down. The doctor told me that he thinks there might be some internal bleeding, which has caused the swelling. I have to go see an orthopedist next week to begin physical therapy. I am not allowed to play any sports for at least 4 weeks.