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In Poland, Young Leaders Explore What It Means to Be Jewish
A spiritual journey to the past helps participants shape their present
Young Jewish leaders from across North America walked in the footsteps of the Jews of Poland last month and explored what it means to be Jewish.
Chabad Young Professionals from Raleigh, N.C., the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Montreal and Dallas visited the bustling cities of Warsaw and Krakow, imagining the many storefronts and homes that had once been adorned with mezuzahs on the doorposts. Participants danced in the empty synagogues of small Polish villages, once vibrant Jewish shtetls, sang Jewish songs in town squares now long forgotten and learned in famous yeshivahs remembered for their Torah wisdom.
“We realized the breadth of Jewish life that existed in Poland and could begin to visualize what life was like before the war,” Ben Lichtbroun, a member of CYP of the Upper East Side tells Chabad.org about the experience. “I envisioned men discussing Torah while walking the streets and synagogues filled with people. It suddenly felt incredibly real. It was not only 6 million lives lost; a huge part of Jewish life lost way before its time.”
Ben and his brother Michael, who attended the trip together, felt this loss on a personal level as grandchildren of a survivor whose first wife and children perished in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Yet in the very place of such tragic loss, the brothers returned with a spark of hope and put on tefillin alongside their peers.
“CYP’s trip wasn’t just a historical account of our past,” shares Lichtbroun, “but a spiritual journey that we experienced together.”
Unity in Shared History
In a country infused with both the darkness and light of a rich Jewish past, CYP’s Encounter trip brought new life to wherever it went, with organizers encouraging each participant to be an ambassador of light.
“Most Poland trips focus on the atrocities of the past,” says Rabbi Beryl Frankel, director of Chabad Young Professionals International. “But if we stop there, we risk losing the immense lessons of resilience and determination that our past inspires in our future.”
With a pair of tefillin in hand, the group traveled through Poland ready to shine that light on others. Participants had the opportunity of wrapping tefillin for multiple groups of Jewish teenagers on trips of their own while visiting the concentration and death camp, and found unity while standing in the barracks of a shared history.
“The purpose of these trips is to infuse a strong sense of purpose and direction in these young leaders,” said Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, chairman of Chabad Young Professionals and vice chairman of Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch, “giving them a sense of responsibility, focus and inspiration to be advocates for their beliefs, and play an active role in their communities back home.”
“This was my third time coming back to Poland, and somehow it felt like my first. Coming with the Chabad community was unique,” says Michael Lesniak. Lesniak visited Poland 13 years ago with his grandfather, who survived the war working in Oskar Schindler’s factory in Krakow. Together they attended the factory’s anniversary ceremony and honored the man who gave their family a chance at life. Years later, Michael himself was able to show his peers this very place.
“As we visited Schindler’s factory, we saw firsthand one of the many stories of kindness and bravery that occurred during the war,” he describes. “Even in the darkness, there was so much light to be found. The best thing we can do now is to keep spreading this kindness. It is to simply keep living and thriving as Jews.”
‘A Deeper Layer of Identity’
Through building an intimate understanding of Jewish history in Poland, the trip helped participants begin to define their own Jewish identities in the present.
Nick Reich of Montreal shared the moving moments of saying Kaddish for the first time for his father, whom he lost at the young age of 2. Sanctifying the memory of millions of precious lives in the Majdanek concentration camp alongside his own father’s, Reich experienced the support and encouragement of the entire group by his side.
“The five-day trip didn’t end in pain,” Frankel continues, “but in empowerment, as the group discovered a deeper layer of its Jewish identity—one that we must preserve and foster.”
And with this, the trip ended: The group of 40, including Rabbi Zalmy Dubinsky, CYP Raleigh; Rabbi Getzy Markowitz, Montreal; Rabbi Baruch Hecht, CYP Dallas; Rabbi Yaya and Devorah Wilhelm CYP UES, and Rabbi Hershy Weinstein of CYP International, gathered on their last night for a final banquet in which each participant took upon themselves one bit of light to bring back home to their own lives, as well as to their communities. For some, it was a daily act of kindness or morning Torah learning; for others, it was lighting Shabbat candles.
One participant committed to begin wrapping tefillin twice a week, to which a rabbi on the trip quickly responded: “Let me buy you a pair!”