Last month, 40 RAJE students from around the country, including a large portion from the local RAJE Maryland branch, spent 7 days visiting Jewish heritage and Holocaust sites throughout Poland and the Czech Republic. The trip began in Warsaw, journeyed throughout Poland and Galicia to Lublin, Lizensk, Lancut, and Krakow and concluded with a lively Shabbos in Prague, where they visited the famed The trip was led by RAJE Maryland Rabbi Gavriel Horan along with an expert tour guide.
The group engaged in Torah discussions or chavrusa learning in the famed Yeshivas Chochmei Lublin, the Ramah shul in Krakow, and the Alt-Neu (Old-New) shul of the Maharal in Prague – the oldest continuously used Synagogue in the world. The group also engaged in a lively tisch at the grave of the esteemed Reb Elimelech of Lizensk. In the town of Lancut, the RAJE group met a non-Jewish man who became the keeper of the ornate synagogue, build in 1761. He taught himself Hebrew, became familiar with Jewish traditions and took it upon himself to restore and take care of the town Synagogue. When asked why he devoted his life to taking care of the shul, he replied with a play on words from the Mishna in Pirkei Avos, “b’mokom shein ish, hishtadel liyos ish – in a place where there aren’t leaders (literally, people), strive to be a leader.” “Even though no Jews live in Lancut anymore, this man became a leader when others wouldn’t, taught himself Hebrew and works to restore the legacy of Jews in this town,” Jacob Sidelnikov of Owings Mills, said. “Meeting this person really opened my eyes onto the actions and abilities of one individual.”
One of the trip highlights was visits to the Auschwitz and Majdonek concentration camps. There, students lay tefillin in the barracks while singing Ani Maamin and said a heartfelt recitation of the Shema in the gas chambers where over one million Jews said their final prayers before being murdered al Kiddush Hashem.
Nick Karakulko of Baltimore recounted the experience of wrapping tefillin for the very first time in Auschwitz: “As I looked past the matchbox beds and the worn down walls, I imagined all the history that occurred in this very room. I imagined how the inmates would have reacted knowing that in 80 years Jews would be back in the same room practicing the very customs that got them persecuted and dehumanized. I felt proud to be a part of this community and it is truly something I will never forget.”
Although all that remains of over 1000 years of Jewish heritage in Eastern Europe is ash, bones, graves, and empty shuls, the Jewish people remain and are continuing our great legacy.
“Rabbi Horan was an important spiritual guide for us through the darkness of the concentration camps. He brought light and clarity in the darkest moments of the trip,” Sharon Rus of Queens, said. “He taught me that to walk away from Poland depressed is to have let the darkness and Nazi’s win. Instead I was able to walk away from Poland with hope and a stronger connection to my Judaism!”
“I have never been more proud to be Jewish,” Liz Yakobashvili of Staten Island, said. “I feel more connected to Judaism and my people, and I will forever be different. I can’t imagine a single Jew who walked away unchanged.”
Thanks to RAJE, the 40 students returned home with a renewed connection to their Jewish heritage and a desire to continue learning more.
“The journey across Poland was life changing,” Hailey Katz of Long Island, said. “I am so grateful to RAJE for giving me this opportunity. I have been on many Jewish history trips but it was this one that gave me the motivation to start growing in my Judaism and learning every week with the Rabbi. I have never felt so proud to be a Jew and inspired to learn more about what that means!”