This past Sunday, three Emet Outreach senior staff members and about 40 students embarked on what will hopefully be a life-changing trip to Poland and Prague. They will explore their heritage, discover rich Jewish historical sites spanning hundreds of years, and witness first-hand the tragedies and travails experienced by millions of Jews during the Holocaust.
This exclusive weeklong trip is led by Co-Founder and Director Rabbi Mordechai Kraft, Emet’s Stony Brook Fellowship Director Rabbi Dovid Delman, along with Emet Campus Director Rabbi Ruven Kigel. Staff and students will visit many historic and significant sites, including death camps, mass graves, shuls, yeshivos, graves of tzadikim, and other historic locations. Students on the trip are primarily part of Emet programs in Stony Brook University and Baruch College.
Their goal is to go beyond mere history and information, and create an intense and emotionally compelling atmosphere, pushing students to confront philosophical struggles and envision the horrific experience of being relocated by Nazis into death camps, separated from parents and siblings, and seeing loved ones die on a daily basis. Staff members recognize the depth of emotion students feel as they relive such an unspeakable tragedy, and they work hard to give students the right perspective and make sure they process it all in a healthy way.
Growth and Inspiration
Students are brought to extremely impactful destinations, such as death camps and mass child graves. They met a Polish lady who remembers that as a child, the Nazis would drive past her house with a truck full of Jewish children, playing loud music to drown out the screams and gunshots. They are also shown the richness of Jewish history, including yeshivos, shuls, and k’varim of tzadikim. Staff and students spend an uplifting Shabbos in Krakow, a city whose Jewish imprint was left mostly intact. Throughout the trip, they are given a genuine taste of the life led by Jews for nearly a thousand years, almost like entering a time capsule.
Rabbi Delman recalls that last year’s trip was a rare opportunity for massive growth. “This was by far the most impactful experience we could ever offer,” he explains. “It had the power to change one’s life in a few days. The trip does not focus on the fact that people died, but rather on what they lived for and believed in, and the meaning of their lives. That’s why it inspired students to do great things.”
Destinations are not randomly chosen, but rather strategically designed to evoke deep feelings and give students an emotionally charged experience. They alternate between somber experiences and positive ones, and between locations they engage in group discussions to decompress and internalize what they’ve seen. Rabbi Delman, a talented musician, plays songs on his guitar throughout the trip.
Emet launched this amazing program last year, offering an exclusive Europe trip to reward graduates of its Stony Brook University Fellowship program, designed to help them understand their heritage and history in a vivid way. They were blown away by the student response and how inspired they became to be more committed. Most of these students have had little or no Jewish education, and the organization’s leaders weren’t sure whether the trip would be a success.
Yet virtually every student was inspired and stirred, and some took on major changes and new commitments of Torah observance. Some davened for the first time. One boy now wears a kippah, and another was inspired to start putting on t’filin, and has done so every day since the trip. A number of students who attended last year’s trip decided to attend yeshivah this summer, the first time they’ll ever experience yeshivah study. Not only have Emet’s directors made this trip a yearly staple, they’ve even added a second trip, which will take place in August with over 40 students.
Beyond the Past
Emet’s directors see this trip as more than students discovering their heritage. It’s a life-changing opportunity to discover the deeper meaning of life and their purpose as Jews. Rabbi Kraft said, “We don’t just view this as historical. Students are discovering what it means to be a Jew. We’re always trying to inspire students. We give them a full-year learning experience to engage academically, and it culminates with this trip, showing the history of Jewish life, and the great rabbis and thinkers who still influence our lives today.”
To prepare students emotionally and intellectually, Rabbi Kraft gives classes for an entire semester designed to maximize growth. His lessons are crafted to enable students to recognize how special they are in the backdrop of Poland and the glory of what Jewish history was and the tragedy of the last century. Rabbi Kraft emphasizes that all Jews are brothers and sisters, and only when we unite and act in harmony can we fulfill a noble and glorious purpose.
Ester Chikvashvili says she could never have imagined how powerful it would be. “The experiences I had were really life-changing. I experienced things I could never have thought of, totally different in real life from hearing about it or seeing it from a distance.”
Another student called it an emotional roller coaster. She added, “We went from being at a children’s memorial with everyone in tears to singing and dancing in Poland.”
Rabbi Delman says that while he expected to have an uplifting experience, he was not prepared to be impacted on such a personal level. “This was not just for students,” he says. “This was a life-changing experience for staff as well. I never anticipated this impact, I feel so much more motivated, closer to Hashem and my family.”
Early on in the trip, Rabbi Delman made an astonishing discovery. When visiting a mass grave at Chelmno, he noticed five memorial plaques memorializing the five local shtetlach that were murdered in Chelmno and buried here. One of them memorialized a town named “Belchatow.” He stood in disbelief, remembering that his grandmother a”h had told him that his great-grandparents were from that town. The family knew they had perished in the Holocaust but had no idea what had happened to them. Written on the plaque in Hebrew alphabetical order was a list of the Jews gassed in Chelmno and buried in that forest. Rabbi Delman read the names, and when he reached the letter lamed for Lieberman (his grandparents’ name), he discovered the names of his grandparents and their children, as well as his grandfather’s brothers and his entire family who were buried there.
Stony Brook Fellowship: Another Successful Division of Emet
Launched two years ago, Emet Stony Brook, led by Rabbi Delman, has become one of its most successful fellowship programs. Students attend several weekly classes, and are enthusiastic and driven to learn. Virtually all of them have little or no yeshivah background, and they are excited to discover the beauty of Torah and their heritage. The program has increased Emet’s diversity, making it an exciting new stage for the organization. In the future, they plan to boost programming dedicated to teaching students about their history, and trips like this that show students a first-hand taste of the struggles and triumphs Jews have experienced for thousands of years.
To learn more about this and other Emet programs, visit EmetOutreach.org.