What our participants have to say...
I knew little about Israel before the study seminar. Thanks to the trip, I now have thousands of images and memories that begin to hint at the many Israels. Israel, like many places on earth, is many things to many people. We were exposed to present day realities from the many people we met and Avi’s thoughtful understanding of the past and present. In contrast to the historical Israel is the Israel of the present, prospering greatly economically and culturally, while suffering the pains of being on and off at war, we were able to see the everyday Israel through the eyes of the family we stayed with. We were touched by our hosts’ generosity and moved by their anguish at having their oldest son, a soldier, stationed in Gaza.
This trip goes way beyond museum maps and memorial plaques. It was a journey into diverse and thought-provoking ideas, with extended conversation over meals and on the bus – intense inquiry all day long. Now I can share ideas, projects, resources and lesson plans with a whole new network of fellow history teachers. This trip made history personal for me, and it encouraged our group – and, by extension, our students – to not just learn but to take action in the world.
Poland Personally: A Study Seminar to Poland was extremely powerful and in many ways transformational. It turned out to be one of the most moving trips of my life. I knew that visiting the sites in Poland with a Holocaust survivor, Howard Chandler, would be very difficult emotionally, but its impact was even stronger than I had foreseen. Visiting the camps and the ghettos and hearing Howard’s explanations brought the experience to life in a way that nothing else could. Coupled with our group discussions, the experience helped me move from the abstract to the concrete and feel and visualize what the Jewish community of Europe went through in an unforgettable way. This on-site visit allowed me to identify with those historical events in a way that nothing else could. I was traveling with my son, Ben as well. Being able to share this with him was very special and the shared experience, difficult as it was, fortified the bond between us.
The most intense ideas or experiences from Poland Personally: A Study Seminar to Poland are impossible to choose because traveling with a Holocaust survivor and doing the things planned was one of the most interesting experiences of my life. I’d say that, if I had to choose, the most moving experiences would be between hearing Howard Chancellor’s stories in the barracks of Birkenau, bonding with him and the others, learning all I could from Avi and the Reform Shabbat service at the Galicia Museum with a Reform congregation that was the only one in Krakow only two years old. After this experience, I can’t understand how Holocaust education can happen without going to the sites. I look back and my whole Holocaust education in school seemed black and white, two dimensional. There is something to be said about seeing that wild flowers grow in concentration camps after all that had happened. It is incredibly important to view the amount of human hair and collection of prosthetic legs and crutches that are exhibited behind glass at Auschwitz and to experience the human connection felt from the group hugs and sharing these moments together with everyone.
I thought the Germany Up Close trip was an extraordinary experience. It has helped me to understand why the Holocaust occurred and how much work we all still need to do to prevent genocide.
Poland Personally: A Study Seminar to Poland far exceeded my expectations! Classrooms Without Borders definitely put together a extremely organized trip with a very thorough itinerary and great resources. We not only studied history, we witnessed history in the making on a number of occasions. The diversity of the group was amazing. The information that Avi, our scholar and guide, taught us blew me away. Having Holocaust Survivor, Howard Chandler, and his family with us meant a lot to me.
There are so many stories to take back to my students and so much to discuss about what Poland is like today. We will discuss how groups in society interact and what we need to do to understand each other and live together, why conflicts result in societies and when conflict resolution does not work, the ethical issues-why we need to speak up, what makes a “righteous person”? How should we study the Holocaust?
When Dr. Tsipy Gur told me that I would be joining her on the Inside Israel: A Study Seminar to Israel expressly designed for educators, I could not imagine the impact that it would have on me as a teacher of literature. As a religious studies minor in college, I took several courses that explored Jewish history and thought as well as the enduring questions of the Holocaust, courses which I found fascinating, challenging, and inspiring. But for me, current day Israel was an abstraction, a land that I only knew through newspaper headlines and brief clips of footage on CNN. As a result, I had developed a myopic understanding of Israel as a country filled with arid land and ancient cities brimming with war and conflict.
In the literature and writing courses that I teach, I constantly urge my students to move beyond simple explanations and categorizations of characters and plotlines. I aim to communicate the idea that great literature calls upon us to delve into the gray areas of life, to explore and analyze characters and situations from various vantage points in order to develop a fuller understanding of a person's motivations, desires, and actions. However, before leaving for Israel, I fell short of my own ideals. No matter what words of reassurance were offered to me by Dr. Gur and others at our informational meetings before the trip, I could not shake some of the biases that I held due my blind acceptance of the media's limited and simplistic portrayal of the nation.
Much to my surprise, Israel was nothing like I expected. Upon leaving Ben Gurion airport, I was shocked to see the rolling hills of green and the vibrant life of the holy city of Jerusalem and the modern city of Tel Aviv. As we boarded our tour bus for the first time, I resolved myself to explore the city with the depth of analysis that I expect from my students in their study of literature. I would try every food, visit to every site, and endure every challenge posed to me over the next few weeks. By the end of my tour of Israel, I accomplished everything that one could hope to on a first trip to the region. I explored Hezekiah's tunnels in the City of David and the labyrinthine streets of Jerusalem's Old City, prayed at the Western Wall, hiked the rocky fortress of Masada, floated on the Dead Sea, visited Independence Hall and studied the art of various museums. As a Christian I found it quite powerful to travel the footsteps of the historical Jesus from the Mount of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane and then to the Sea of Galilee.
Under the guidance of Avi Ben Hur, a learned scholar and a captivating educator, whose love and respect for the country radiated throughout his detailed lectures on the historical sites that we visited, I became captivated by the richness of the country's history and the diversity of its geography. In particular, Avi intrigued me with his explanation of stratigraphy, a type of archaeology that focuses on the layering of rocks and sediment as a means for understanding historical progress and evolution. I ultimately saw this field of study as a key to understanding the history of Israel.
I began to see storytelling in a different light, as I witnessed how Israel's history was written in the layers of its architecture. In "Ecology of Jerusalem," a poem by Yehuda Amichai, who is perhaps the most renowned and beloved poet of Israel, the poet describes this phenomena in stating that "from time to time a new shipment of history arrives / and the houses and towers are its packing materials." Especially within the Old City, one can find various instances in which the architecture of Jerusalem's former Muslim rulers rests upon that of the medieval era which is piled onto that of the Herodian era. Viewing the interplay between these various styles of design, I wrestled with the question as to how literature could accomplish a similar effect. The knowledge imparted to me by Avi sent my mind into an intellectual frenzy, and after several days of the trip, my head was swimming with names, dates, graphs, maps, and ideas for integrating my experiences into my academic discipline. However, by the second week of the tour, I quickly realized that I had been predominantly viewing the country from a purely intellectual lens and that I had neglected the importance of the individuals who populated the city streets that I traversed. For that I would need to return to literature.
One of the few books that I took along with me to Israel was a collection of poems by Yehuda Amichai, which I had planned to read each day of the trip. However, as a result of the tour's rigorous schedule, I did not find time to return to Amichai's work until I spend the final weekend with a young family in Misgav where I celebrated Shabbat. On the final day of my stay, I came across the poem below, which spoke to me far more profoundly than any others that I had read.
Visits of condolence is all we get from them.
They squat at the Holocaust Memorial,
They put on grave faces at the Wailing Wall
And they laugh behind heavy curtains
In their hotels.
They have their pictures taken
Together with our famous dead
At Rachel's Tomb and Herzl's Tomb
And on Ammunition Hill.
They weep over our sweet boys
And lust after our tough girls
And hang up their underwear
To dry quickly
In cool, blue bathrooms.
Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David's Tower,
I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists
was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. "You see
that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there's an arch
from the Roman period. Just right of his head." "But he's moving, he's moving!"
I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them,
"You see that arch from the Roman period? It's not important: but next to it,
left and down a bit, there sits a man who's bought fruit and vegetables for his family."
Amichai's poem played an essential role in helping me to process all that I experienced during my two weeks in Israel. By the time I had arrived at the home of my host family for the final three days of my trip, my peers and I had visited nearly all of the locations that Amichai mentions in his poem. With our overstuffed backpacks, our embarrassingly large hats, our multiple layers of sunscreen, and our cameras constantly emitting flashes, we had "tourist" written all over our bodies, and we were dangerously close to being the subjects of Amichai's critique. However, as Amichai insinuates within his poem, among the myriad styles of architecture, the bustling streets, and those impressive rolling hills of Israel are stories of men and women just waiting to be told, and had we not taken the time to interact with those who have made this country their home—Arab and Israeli, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim— we would have returned to our own country as tourists with nothing more than pictures, souvenirs, and pockets full of unspent shekels. Instead, the conversations that we initiated with passersby as well as the final days that we spent with our host families and others gave us far more knowledge about daily life in Israel than any of the historic sites that we visited.
Take for example the story of Uri Shekalim, who currently runs a clothing store in the New City of Jerusalem. On one of our first night in the city, Dr. Gur took me to and a group of my peers to Ben Yehuda Street, the site of Uri's shop, which his family has owned for over fifty-four years. It was here that I heard of the region's trying history during the Second Intifada, a Palestinian uprising lasting from 2000-2006. During this violent period, Palestinian suicide bombers had attacked the store six times, yielding little to moderate damage. However, the seventh attack would have lasting effects on Shekalim and his family.
The seventh attack occurred at a time when suicide bombers had adopted the tactic of working in pairs. One would ignite him or herself in a store or a crowded section of the street, while a second would wait for emergency crews to arrive before detonating another bomb. On the night of the seventh attack, two terrorists had ignited bombs close to Shekalim's store. At the time, the only people in the store were Uri's father and brother and an American patron. When the first bomb exploded, Uri's father beckoned for his son and his customer to join him in a safe room located in the back of the store behind its three dressing rooms. While his son willingly obeyed, his patron panicked and ran toward the door. Uri's father, knowing far too well the methods of the suicide bombers, successfully wrestled the woman back to the safety of the room. There the three remained, nervously awaiting an end to the madness outside.
Unfortunately, no one had anticipated the third bomber, a man who had concealed himself in the crowded city street by dressing as a woman and grabbing the hand of a three year old Jewish girl who had been separated from her family in the confusion of the attacks. Luckily, the girl was able to break free from the man's grasp before he detonated himself in doorway of the Shekalim's store. The force of the blast had decimated the store's interior, burning all of the clothing on which the family made their livelihood. Surprisingly, however, Uri's family and the American woman's lives were saved by the protection of the middle dressing room wall, which bowed outward toward the storefront rather than blasting inward and killing those in the concealed room.
Uri told me and those who had gathered to listen to his story that he doesn't know if the way in which the wall collapsed was a miracle or simply an act of physics. However, no matter what happened, the damaged wall, which he and his family resolved to leave as the only part of the store unrepaired from the blast, serves to remind him that no matter how many bad days he might have, there is nothing that could come close to horror of that day.
I relate this story not because I wish to add to the stereotypes of the region as dangerous or unstable. Rather, I tell this story because I feel that it embodies the spirit of the nation. A strange dichotomy exists among the country's inhabitants. On one hand, the metal blinds and safe rooms that some families have in their homes symbolize the feelings of caution and reservation that many Israelis understandably experience. Yet, on the other hand, the people that I encountered in Israel reflected a zest for life and an openness that I found truly beautiful. While watching people laugh, sing, and dance in the streets of Jerusalem, I recall feeling a strong desire to return home a less reserved and inhibited young man. I felt the desire to speak with greater candor to my loved ones and friends, to teach my students with greater compassion and sincerity. Uri's story is at once a tale of tragedy and of the willingness to persevere and live life to the fullest. His story helps to me to understand why even after facing such destruction, people continue to frequent the swarming streets of Ben Yehuda street, which today pulsates with an nightlife that I can assure you cannot be found anywhere in Pittsburgh.
More than anything else, my trip reinforced my belief in the power of the story. Whether carved into the city walls or written within those who live within its borders, Israel is brimming with stories waiting to be told. It is our jobs as educators not only to present these stories to our students, but to explore, consider, and debate the questions that these stories pose. As with any great work of literature, the messages these stories proclaim are problematic, and it is only through embracing their challenges and peeling away their layers of complexity that we can begin to understand those messages and lessons embodied within.
I came home feeling more connected to my history. Listening to Avi’s words as I was standing at Masada, the Southern Wall, and at the City of David – looking over the land, feeling the heat, thinking about how innovative my ancestors were, imagining how passionate they must have been; the stories and history that I learned since my religious school days became part of my identity instead of merely facts in my head. Seeing the rocks, at the museum in Masada, with the Hebrew names etched into them that were used to decide who dies first- made this piece of history so personal.
Being in a place of such overwhelming sadness was the hardest part of my participation in Poland Personally: A Study Seminar to Poland. For as challenging as it was to walk in the footsteps of those who had been slaughtered – to see what had become of once proud Polish Jewish communities and imagine what it was for innocents to be forced to step out of a cattle car and be marched straight into a gas chamber – the most difficult thing was to be hopeful in the face of such heartache.
Traveling under the auspices of Dr. Tsipy Gur's Classrooms Without Borders, ours was an intergenerational, interfaith group of forty educators and students, who only one week ago returned from Poland, sight of the worst example of human depravity in historical memory. Just over seventy years ago, the German Army marched across this ancient, beautiful land, systematically tearing asunder the fabric of a nation, killing some 6,000,000 Poles, 3,000,000 of whom were Jews.
There is still a great deal more to be unearthed and revealed, to be sure, but the prevailing discovery the participants of Classrooms Without Borders made is that if one is unwilling to give in to despair, and will expend the effort, there are indeed divine sparks to be found where once an all-but-consuming darkness reigned.
"Where can God be found? Jewish sources ask. Wherever one lets God in, comes the timeless reply. Even in Warsaw, Lublin and Krakow. Even in the presence of the ghettos, gas chambers and crematoria. Even in the face of the memory of the terror that was Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Even here. This was the healing, holy takeaway from an otherwise heart-rending journey. Po-lan-ya. Even here, our best hope for the next generation lives.
I was told that this Study Seminar in Israel would be life-changing. I now realize the true meaning of that descriptor, as it includes changing my knowledge of history, geography, and archaeology; my attitudes toward culture, personal narrative, and resilience; my ways of thinking about conflict, continuity, and trust; my ways of feeling about who I am as an educator, a Catholic, and an American – in short, changing the very foundation of my ground truths. I truly experienced the mission of Classrooms Without Borders first hand.
After viewing the piece about your inspiring work on WQED the other evening, I wanted to let you know how much you have changed my life. I met you at the Holocaust Center in 2004, and you helped me to get funding for my trip to Poland in 2005 with you. Since then, I've attended both the Belfer and Next Step Conferences at the USHMM in addition to any other workshop or conference available in the area. In addition to teaching about the Holocaust in my classroom, I've presented to various community groups. Last week I conducted a workshop at the National Catholic Education Convention held here in Pittsburgh. Many people approached me from all over the country who are also interested in spreading the stories and lessons of the Holocaust.
Holocaust Education has become my passion. I've continued to grow a small library of books and videos to share with kids and adults alike. I spend hours watching video and researching online to enhance lessons and find new material.
Thank you so much for changing my life. Please continue to inspire others as you did me.
I approached this visit as one of artistic inquiry, specifically pertaining to Berlin's approach to memorializing a vast, overwhelming epoch. How does one turn something intangible into concrete and meaningful art without undermining the significance of the subject? I took away an unforgettable lesson in German humanity: culture, hospitality, struggle and triumph. I also know myself better as a Jew.
Participation in the 2014 CWB Israel Study Seminar was a a tremendous privilege. It was fascinating to walk the Bible stories of my youth, to experience the cultural and political climate, and to meet with people from the various ethnic and religious groups of the region. The experience broadened my global perspective on the issues surrounding the Middle East and around the world.
Administrators benefit from the experience by gaining a broader understanding of cultural differences among students and their families. They gain greater insight and support for the importance of including multi-cultural curriculum in their schools. Travel abroad also provides opportunities for personal growth, leadership development, and cultural sensitivity which are vital skills for administrators.