North Shore Hebrew Academy twelfth-graders learn about history and themselves across Germany, Poland and Israel
The passports belonging to North Shore Hebrew Academy High School’s (NSHA) twelfth-graders show the physical journey that the students recently undertook, with stamps from Germany to Poland to Israel. But the really important journey doesn’t have stamps to mark the destinations, or entry and exit dates. The real journey happened internally, inside each of the 42 participants, who stood witness to the darkest chapters of human history and found hope for the future.
“This isn’t a trip for tourism, it’s a trip where we’re really able to break kids out of their shells and open them up to reclaiming themselves,” explained Rabbi Dr. Noam Weinberg, who led his 13th Poland/Israel trip for NSHA. “We do months and months of work beforehand, and we make sure the trip is tailored to fit the students who are coming.”
The group recently returned from a trip that saw them spending a day in Germany, a week in Poland, and a week in Israel, each day packed with activities, prayer, and nightly reflections.
One of the most meaningful experiences was cleaning and praying at the grave of the mother of Mrs. Cywiak, who shared her experiences in the Lodz ghetto with the class before their trip. While the group was in Lodz, they visited Mrs. Cywiak’s mother’s grave. Her mother perished from typhus while they were imprisoned in the ghetto.
Weinberg likes leading the trip in the winter, when there are fewer visitors in Poland, to give the students time and space to reflect on the difficult things they are seeing at ghettos, sites of mass graves, and concentration camps.
“You have to be able to give the kids their own time and their own moment, so they can cry freely if they want to cry,” said Rabbi Dr. Weinberg. “We are very clear with the students that there’s no right or wrong way to emote. I want to give the kids the opportunity to express their emotion and do so without feeling any inhibition.”
A large part of that emotional growth happens during the nightly reflection sessions, which are completely confidential. Weinberg said that it’s so essential to ensure the participants have a safe space to verbalize their feelings. As the trip progresses and the relationships deepen, participants start sharing difficult challenges that may not be directly related to the Holocaust but are very much on their minds.
“During these sessions, the students get emotionally vulnerable and learn how to express that emotional vulnerability, allowing them to break the plaque off themselves and their identity,” said Rabbi Dr. Weinberg, who is a therapist and has a doctorate in adolescent religious development.
Throughout the trip, the group prayed in dozens of inspiring locations, including an abandoned shul in the town of Prushischa, breathing Jewish life into places where Judaism had almost been extinguished.
The Israel part of the trip concentrates on the land itself, with opportunities for biking, hiking, bird watching and simply being outside in the Mediterranean sunshine. “When we prayed in the Hula Valley, with the sun setting over the mountains, hundreds of migrating birds around us, surrounded by the peace and quiet, it felt just like it must have for our forefather Abraham” Weinberg recounted to the parents of participants.
In Israel, the students used the same candle for Havdalah – the prayer that distinguishes the end of the Shabbat from the beginning of the week- that they used in Poland. For the students, it was a stark reminder of how much they had seen in the past week, and how much had changed since the Holocaust.
“When we said the Havdalah prayer at the end of Shabbat in Israel, it took on a very different meaning,” Rabbi Dr. Weinberg said. “We weren’t just separating from the holiness of Shabbat to the rest of the week, but it was a separation between the holiness of Israel, and the bloodstained land of Poland.”
It’s Rabbi Dr. Weinberg’s hope that students will start to see themselves as part of the larger story of the Jewish people. He hopes they see that each participant is a link in the chain that stretches back past the horrors of the Holocaust, beyond a thriving Jewish life in Europe, towards the earliest days of Judaism in Israel when Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob walked the land themselves.
“This is not a trip, it is a journey,” Weinberg told the parents, just before the group returned to New York. “It’s 42 individuals who are soul-searching and learning how to connect with themselves, how to connect with others, and how to connect with God.”
Rabbi Dr. Weinberg is already working on next year’s itinerary with details being shared in the spring for the senior class of 2024.
—Written by Rachel Sales, NSHA