The sun rises over the ancient fort of Masada. (Eli Winter/YJI)
ISRAEL – Israel is a country at once captivating and challenging, truly devastating in its beauty. Everywhere you look, there’s a view that looks like it was made to be put on the front side of a postcard. There’s the sunrise at the ancient fort of Masada, the sun’s reflection off of the Sea of Galilee, the gorgeous Baha’i Gardens in Haifa.
But there also exists a tension in Israel, an unfortunate byproduct of confusion, chaos and conflict regarding which group of people deserves to live there more: Israelis or Arabs.
Forty-three Jewish high school students from Congregation Emanu El’s Helfman Religious School journeyed from Houston, Texas, to Israel this month, arriving at the center of this tension, which is currently the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip.
The day of their arrival, students learned the names of the three Israeli teens – Naftali Frankel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach – who were murdered in June. Israelis,
already distraught and distressed by their deaths and the ongoing search for their bodies, were made only more so by the death of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir, who was murdered a day after the three Israeli teens’ funeral.
Friction between Gaza and Israel grew to the point that Hamas began firing rockets into Israel. Israel responded with airstrikes and a ground invasion. The conflict continues.
But the Texas students, like many other religious groups touring Israel at the time, stayed in the country. They stayed out of harm’s way their entire time in Israel, experiencing a different side of Israel than the one tourists always talk about, seeing the parts of Israel they would otherwise never see.
Before arriving in Israel, 17 of the students went to Poland to visit mass graves, Holocaust memorial sites, synagogues, and concentration camps to more fully grasp the significance of the Holocaust and the existence of the state of Israel.
In Poland, students toured the New Synagogue in Tarnow. Only its bimah, or altar, survived a Nazi bombing assault years ago.
In Lublin, Poland, they saw the concentration camp Majdanek, where tour guide Mark Lazar told the visiting Texans the horrifying story of a German soldier who raped a Jewish boy.
After that trauma, the boy turned into a sort of special assistant to German officials, who forced him to hang his own parents, the guide said, adding that the boy often spat on Jewish prisoners.
The entrance to the concentration camp Majdanek. (Eli Winter/YJI)
The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim, Poland – site of the notorious concentration camp where more than 1.1 million people lost their lives to the Nazi extermination program – resembles a tin of sardines upon entry. It’s stuffed to the gills with tour groups representing students of a variety of religions, races and creeds. Its historical significance lends a certain authority that other historical sites lack – from the infamous sign telling workers that work would free them and the world leaders who visit it, to its presence in popular culture.
And yet, perhaps because of this significance, the museum at times appeared to be more of a tourist trap than a memorial. Hot dogs, hamburgers and snack foods are available for purchase on the grounds. Group tours, so large that visitors need headsets just to hear their guide, envelop the exhibits, which are often behind imposing glass windows. Thus these very real artifacts are forbidden from receiving the warmth of human touch that they deserve.
Thousands of prisoners’ shoes are shoved into an exhibit that is at once direct but distant.
Another exhibit that contains the artificial limbs of disabled prisoners, feels nothing but artificial in its presentation. The museum attempts to welcome visitors onto the grounds to remember the most difficult time in Jewish history, and then keeps them an arm’s length away.
Despite this, the museum left a lasting impression on many of the Texas youth.
Aaron Feldstein, a junior at the Emery/Weiner School in Houston, described his visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau as the most meaningful experience of his trip.
“Seeing where so many people were murdered,” said Feldstein, brought on “very raw emotions… So many people’s lives were cut short at that location, and it just struck me that we were standing where [that] happened.”
Feldstein said the museum’s ‘Yad Vashem’ exhibit stood out. The exhibit, officially referred to as the Book of Names, consists of an enormous book – compiled in conjunction with Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial – which filled a whole room and spilled out into another. Its 8,120 pages hold the names and birth and death dates of Holocaust victims, and more names are added as they are found.
Holocaust Memorial and the Wailing Wall
Yad Vashem itself resonated with students. Matthew Baker, a junior at Bellaire High School in Bellaire, Texas, said his visit to the Holocaust memorial was his most significant experience in Israel. He described its Children’s Memorial as being especially meaningful.
The Children’s Memorial, hollowed out from an underground cavern, pays tribute to children who died in the Holocaust by reflecting Yahrtzeit candles against many mirrors, creating the impression that there are millions of stars shining in its space. The flames of the candles, which in the Jewish tradition are lit on the anniversary of someone’s death, are the only thing preventing the room from becoming pitch black.
Throughout the Children’s Memorial, visitors can hear a muted recording of someone reading a long list of the names of murdered children.
At the Wailing Wall, one of Judaism’s most sacred sites, Jews from across the world flock to pray. They slip little prayers of their own inside the worn Wall’s many cracks, in the hopes that their prayers will be heard. There’s a stark separation along gender lines at the Wall. Women are afforded a fraction of the space given to men.
For some Texas travelers, the Wailing Wall lived up to its name, moving them to tears.
Ely Eastman, a senior at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, described his experience at the Wall as an “ordeal.”
A Haredi, or Orthodox Jew supervising the area told Eastman that he wasn’t allowed to wrap tefillin (a special ritual with parchment scrolls from the Torah wrapped on the arms and head) as part of praying at the Wall. The man, who told Eastman that he wasn’t allowed the ritual because his mother isn’t Jewish, proceeded to remove the tefillin from Eastman’s body. At the same time, another Haredi Jew unsuccessfully tried to put it back on the teen.
The exchange shocked Eastman, who walked away upset, unable to make his prayers the way he had hoped.
Eastman said he wondered “why I had come so far, why I had experienced all the horrors of the Holocaust,” in the visit to Poland, and why he had “assumed all that collective guilt and mourning. If I was good enough to go to a concentration camp, then how come I wasn’t good enough to perform mitzvot as a Jew?”
On reflection, Eastman said he felt that his difficult time at the Wall gave him a “theme for my trip, one about discovering my religious identity and how I could impact my community.”
Other students, however, felt reassured by visiting the Wall.
Feldstein admitted that before leaving Texas, he wasn’t sure he would get very much out of his time in Poland and Israel.
“I just thought that Israel was just … the home of the Jewish people, you know, ‘Whatever, I’m gonna see a wall, I’m gonna see lots of old buildings, whoop dee doo…’” But he described feeling a “strong connection to my faith” when praying at the Wall.
“When I prayed at the Western Wall,” said Feldstein, “I was praying for the health, well-being of my family, and that felt a connection to it, like it was gonna matter, it was gonna happen, it was gonna come true.”
Can Two Cultures Coexist?
Hope for a better future has remained constant in Israel since the state’s inception in 1948, in large part because of the consistent conflicts it has faced from air, land, and sea, and, some say, from the media. This time was no different. Students expressed empathy for Israelis and a desire to experience the things they did during such conflicts.
While he was “frustrated” by the group’s itinerary changing frequently because of the conflict, Eastman said he “[didn’t] think I would mind hearing sirens, seeing as many Israeli citizens go through that experience hourly.” Baker described the conflict as “very disappointing.”
Feldstein said that the conflict created “a very difficult situation” for Israelis and Arabs alike.
Students saw positive interactions between Jews and Arabs firsthand when they visited the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Jerusalem School, which educates Jews and Arabs together. Most Israeli schools only educate one ethnicity or religious group, and there are only a few other schools like the Max Rayne School in Israel. Affiliated with the Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel, Hand in Hand’s mission is “to create a strong and inclusive shared society in Israel” through a network of integrated, bilingual schools.
Despite the school’s efforts, Baker said he saw more intolerance of different ideas in Israeli society than acceptance.
The Israeli flag flies over Masada. (Eli Winter/YJI)
“Israel, being a mostly Jewish state, brings to rise … problems … when trying to assimilate two completely different cultures” like Jews and Arabs, Baker said. “You can’t make them get along.”
Indeed, the conflict between those two cultures escalated while the students were in Israel. Cities where the two cultures coexist are rare: Acre, in the north of Israel, Haifa, on the Mediterranean Sea, and Jerusalem, in the center. But it is often possible to determine whether a village or town is predominantly Jewish or Arab by looking at the rooftops of buildings. Arab houses will have black cylinders on their roofs.
To Baker, the conflict is extremely one-sided. “Israel cannot do anything to protect itself without hurting Palestinian civilians,” he said. “You can see that Israel is trying to help the Palestinian civilians by trying to instigate cease-fires. They’ve been sending in humanitarian aid.”
Although he chose not to visit Poland before going to Israel, Baker offered its Jewish history as “living proof that the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust did not die in vain. Their deaths opened the door to the creation of the state of Israel, and [for] that I am forever grateful.”
Students who had witnessed evidence of the horrors of the Holocaust in Poland before arriving in Israel felt an especially strong desire to help Israel in the future. Both Eastman and Feldstein said visiting Poland put their time in Israel into a different light. Poland “put the entire Israel trip into context for me,” said Eastman. “By experiencing the sadness in Poland, I was able to see why Israel’s existence is so important.”
Feldstein said Poland gave him a different perspective on what he saw in Israel and a different view of the history of the Jewish people. Poland offers a chance to remember the lowest point in Jewish history, he said, while Israel celebrates the Jewish people.
“It’s a different kind of remembrance,” Feldstein said, adding that Israel’s existence says, “We made it, we have arrived, we are the Jewish people.”
The Texas students described themselves as feeling more sure in their support for Israel after their visit. Baker said he felt “extremely informed and ready to teach the truth about what’s going on.” Eastman and Feldstein both expressed support for Israel’s army, the Israel Defense Forces
(IDF), and Eastman said the trip “made me interested in joining the IDF.”
Students felt a personal connection to the IDF after their security guard, Ben Balmas, was recalled to join his army unit as a medic.
Introspection in the Desert
The Negev Desert in southern Israel. (Eli Winter/YJI)
Although Israel has felt the need to defend itself since its inception, there is still a place where one can be at peace within the country, the Negev, Israel’s largest desert. The student travelers stayed in the Negev for a large part of their time in Israel because of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Gaza.
One night, they went to the sand dunes, first sliding down them as if they were on a hill, then scurrying back up the dunes in a frenzy to slide back down again. Then they were asked to sit down in a quiet space, alone, to take time for introspection and reflect on the demands the desert made. They remembered how they could only go through the sand so fast, or else their fatigue would make them move even slower. They let their eyes set on the darkness of the sand dune’s shadows in contrast to the bright yellow bomb of the sun against their faces, and they stepped their way like tin soldiers over red rusty rocks and tried not to tumble. They found how quickly the sand slipped through their fingers with the wind.
Here, the students were not alone, and yet they felt completely alone. But it was not like the loneliness that everyone has experienced. It was instead a state of solitude, of being at peace with the world and oneself. And here, the students were at peace, and they knew that peace would come, peace would most definitely come.
If only the world would know where to look.
Eli Winter is a Senior Reporter for Youth Journalism International.