This past summer I served as a chaperone for the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY)'s Dor L'Dor ("generation to generation") program, which in 2011 brought 378 high school students to Europe for a week followed by a five-week adventure in Israel.
My assignment: to shepherd 43 teens-Group 10-from New York's JFK Airport to Prague via Vienna, making sure they still had their passports and cameras upon arrival, and delivering them safely into the expert arms of the NFTY staff awaiting them in Prague.
I also wrote a daily blog to keep their parents and stateside staff in the loop.
Day 1: En route to Prague
So there we were-43 kids from all over the U.S., transferring in Vienna to a connecting flight to Prague. I successfully got everyone off the plane with passports in hand, found the connecting gate, and…oh my! The connecting flight was canceled. What was I to do with these kids who were exhausted from a sleepless night and camped out at a gate with no agent?
Within minutes of my phoning for help, our NFTY staff in Prague, New York, and Israel set to work finding a way to get us to our destination, while keeping parents informed of every step. Within a few hours we were on a bus, loaded with box lunches, en route to the Czech Republic.
A heroic effort went into getting Dor L'Dor Group 10 from Vienna to Prague…but the real heroes are the young adults of Group 10 themselves. They stayed together. They helped count heads. They accepted special tasks whenever asked. And they never whined…not once. They never panicked. These young adults who had met only a few hours earlier had bonded into a tight-knit functioning group that helped and looked out for each other. They stepped up in a really big way.
Day 2: Prague, Czech Republic
After a night's rest, our group was ready for a "normal" day. Little did we know that this would entail visiting five synagogues, an ancient cemetery, two museums, a memorial hall, a castle, a famous bridge…and an encounter with the Golem (a.k.a. one of the counselors wearing a hooded robe). We walked in the footsteps of Rabbi Judah Loew (the Golem's creator), Spanish Jews who came to Prague to escape the Inquisition, Bohemian and Moravian kings, Franz Kafka, Holocaust victims, and, in some cases, our own relatives.
The day was like a rollercoaster through history, driving from modern Prague back to the medieval period and forward in time to the Inquisition; fast-forwarding to the Holocaust, and then back again to the reign of King Charles.
At each step the madrichim (counselors) encouraged the teens to imagine themselves living through the stories of their ancestors. Surprisingly, the group was not overwhelmed by this infusion of history. They soaked it all in and considered their place in the Jewish world. In between visits to historical sites, the counselors led team-building exercises to strengthen group identity, create community, and have some light-hearted fun. At the end of the second day, given the opportunity to share reflections, one young woman publicly thanked her parents for the opportunity to enjoy such a "powerful, meaningful, and deeply personal experience." Another said that she could not imagine having this experience with anyone other than her closest and dearest friends…whom she met two days earlier!
Day 4: Krakow, Poland
On the bus from Prague to Krakow we watched Schindler's List. Once in Krakow, we could not help but focus on the scenes and stories from the film. As we crossed the border into Poland, there was a palpable undercurrent of foreboding among the group.
Eventually we made our way to Plaszow-the labor camp made famous in the movie and site of so much unspeakable cruelty. It is now a city park-passers-by walked their dogs and strolled with their children as they passed a towering stone sculpture memorializing the victims….There was no other visible sign that this place was once a muddy quarry stained by blood-though we were informed that ashes and bones can still be found just below the surface.
Afterwards, the madrichim invited everyone to sit together in a circle and share feelings and impressions. Listening to the teens speak about what moved them most, I was struck by the fact that these young people will be among the first generation of Jews to interpret the meaning of the Shoah in the absence of living survivors and other eyewitnesses. I sensed that this realization was already beginning to seep into their consciousness.
Before departing Plaszow, we gathered around a small Jewish memorial to light a candle. For a few moments we stood there in silence, arms around each other. Though we knew it was time to leave, none of us was quite ready. The moment was incomplete....
And then from amidst the group, someone spoke…Yitgadal....Spontaneously, the words spilled out, one after another. V'yitkadash. No one was leading, yet each person, without prompting, joined in the Kaddish prayer, affirming life…Sh'mei rabah….
In that powerful moment, a group of individual teens became a community of faith, and their shared prayer had made them into a kehilah kedoshah-a holy community.
Day 5: Auschwitz-Birkenau
When we arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau, it was cold, rainy, and miserable. I was taken aback by the size and scope of the camp, with every building devoted to one subject-the business, science, and engineering of murder. Our youth managed the difficult day with maturity and sensitivity; they were silent when appropriate and supportive of one another as needed.
Before departing, our group gathered for a service at a raised platform that serves as a memorial beside the ruins of the gas chambers, where more than a million Jews were murdered. The prayer leader invited everyone to name aloud people who had died in the Shoah as a prelude to reciting Kaddish. One of the other chaperones, Reform Judaism magazine editor Aron Hirt-Manheimer, called out the names of his father's and mother's families who had died in that very place. Afterwards, a NFTYite approached him and gently asked, "Are you all right?" After he assured her that he was fine, she gave him a warm, caring hug. "We came to take care of them," he later told me, "but here they are, taking care of us."
Before our eyes, these young people were becoming the caretakers and stewards of our history.
The transition from mourning to celebration came a few hours later as the group gathered at the hotel for Kabbalat Shabbat. And what a celebration! Maybe it was a release of tension, but the boisterous and rousing song session shook the roof.
The teens jumped to their feet and sang the closing song, Danny Nichols' anthem, "Kehilah Kedoshah": "…Each one of us must heed the call; each one of us must play a part…each one of us must remember the pain…each one of us must right the wrong; each one of us must do the work; each one of us must hold the hope...."
Day 6: Departing Poland
Our last day in Poland, the rain clouds vanished. It was as if Mother Nature understood that we were leaving a land of sorrow for a land of joy.
My time with Group 10 came to a close when we arrived at Ben Gurion Airport before dawn. It had been an exhausting day of travel-again through Vienna-but the group's spirit had not waned. As we had done so many times in Europe, everyone gathered in a circle, arms around each other. But this time the young people sang and rejoiced, unable to contain their excitement in anticipation of the journey that still lay ahead in the Land of Israel.
Months later, I still think, with pride, of the week I spent with these 43 young people. As fundraiser-in-chief for the Union for Reform Judaism, I had long touted our superior camp and NFTY programs, assuring donors that their contributions could not be better spent than in building Jewish identity among our youth-thereby securing the Jewish future for us all. Finally, I had the chance to experience one of the URJ's signature youth programs firsthand, and found it even more exceptional than I had imagined.
So long as we continue to create-and support-such meaningful and life-altering Jewish experiences for our young people, I am convinced that Reform Judaism will thrive.
Rabbi Marla J. Feldman is the executive director of Women of Reform Judaism. A Reform rabbi, lawyer, and certified fundraiser, she was previously director of development of the Union for Reform Judaism and director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism.
To see the full list of Reform Jewish youth offerings, including year-round high school programs, summer high school programs, and post-high school programs, visit urj.org/youth.