A week in Poland and Prague was more than a summer trip for 41 Emet Outreach college students. It was an experience that left participants with gratitude for their Jewish heritage, an appreciation of their daily lives, and a determination to strengthen their connection to Hashem. The itinerary was organized to celebrate Jewish survival from the midst of destruction. Emmanuella Borukh explained, “I really think it helps you understand what being a Jew means and the connection that all Jews have to each other. It’s more than an experience; it’s really a journey.”
Embarking on the annual tour has become a highlight of the Emet Leaders Fellowship. The ten-week program provides an introduction to Judaism with inspiring classes and uplifting Shabbatons. Students who completed at least one semester were eligible for the trip. They were accompanied by a devoted Emet team of Rabbi Mordechai Kraft, Co-Founder and Educational Director; Rabbi Reuven Kigel, Campus Director; Ms. Chava Zaretsky, Assistant Campus Director, and Ms. Rivka Amrami, a mentor in the Women’s Division. They were also joined by Rabbi Tzvi Shiloni of J-Roots, who served as a dynamic and sensitive tour guide.
Designed to offer an in-depth perspective of Jewish life in the pre- and post-Holocaust era, the trip began in Warsaw and continued to other former Jewish epicenters in Poland like Lublin, Lezajsk, and Krakow. There were thought-provoking visits to cemeteries, synagogues, yeshivos, and the k’varim of tzadikim to understand the richness of the Jewish communities before the war. Tours of ghettos and concentration camps like Majdanek, Belzec, and Auschwitz rounded out the students’ understanding of the attempted annihilation of European Jewry.
One of the meaningful moments was hearing from Holocaust survivor Yosef Lefkowitz at the Krakow-Plaszow concentration camp where he was imprisoned during the war. “It was interesting to listen to his experiences, because he seemed so full of life and had such a positive energy despite what he went through,” said Matthew Babayev. “He shared his near-death experiences, but he survived and is here to tell his powerful story. He told us that his wish for us is to start building Jewish lives and begin raising Jewish families as quickly as possible.” Another touching moment was seeing Zbylitowska Gora, a site where there is a children’s mass grave from the town of Tarnow. “Visiting the children’s grave was the most emotional part for a lot of us,” Hannah Borukhova said. “It really taught us to appreciate family and not take anyone for granted.”
Seeing the remnants of Jewish life in unexpected places really made an impression. “The most impactful experience was a visit on Shabbos to what is now a bar. I didn’t know at first why Rabbi Tzvi would take us there. As we went upstairs, I was shocked to see the remnants of what used to be a synagogue. The faded walls still showed the green Hebrew letters that once surrounded a place of worship. The property is now a social venue, and the patrons don’t realize that the decor is actually a synagogue,” Matthew shared. “Seeing this inspired me to learn more about Judaism and actively fight the ignorance and indifference that comes with time.”
The final day of the trip was spent in Prague in the Czech Republic, where the group could relax and enjoy the scenery after the intensity of the Poland journey. At the closing banquet, to commemorate the experience, each student made a commitment to expand his or her Jewish observance. These mitzvos included things like saying morning brachos, giving tz’dakah, davening, baking challah, putting on tzitzis, going to shul on Shabbos and putting away phones on Shabbos.
Students shared their perspectives on the magnitude of this trip. “The Poland experience was one like no other. It forced you to grapple with hard moral spiritual questions about what humans are capable of and G-d’s ultimate plan,” Emannuella relayed. “I think going with Emet took it to another level, because we could comfortably have those deep conversations.”
Eric Kalantarov commented, “This trip was by far one of my favorites. Not only did I get closer to friends, but I also strengthened my relationship with G-d, and I have become more appreciative of the life that I have.”
Matthew had final thoughts, “People often forget the terrors of history, but I’ve seen now that Jewish history actually shapes the Jewish future. I would recommend this trip to anyone, because it will show you why Jews were persecuted, what’s left of our people in Poland, and why we need to preserve our values through community in order to ensure a bright future for the Jewish people.”