Masa Israel Journey Blog

Published : April 29, 2014
By Benjamin Zander
I have seen the past, and it is ugly. Standing at the foot of a mass grave in Glugow Forest in Poland, emotions are swirling. Below the ground we stand on lay the remains of 6,000 Jewish children. I feel invaded, angry, indignant. But when I look at the faces of those who stand with me here, I also feel a sense of strength.
The forest is all but silent except for the chirping of the birds. The sounds they make are a testament to the living, to us. Next to me stands Avner Netanyahu, the son of Israel’s Prime Minister, who is part of our Young Judaea group visiting Poland for a week-long trip to unearth our painful, collective past. Avner is a living embodiment that Jewish history has not been forgotten. The simple fact that he and I stand here today, breathing, feeling, living, fills me with hope.
Standing on the ashes and bones of my people, I arrive at the epiphany that so many others have realized before me: History sleeps unless you wake it. This is the lesson I took from my trip. It is the lesson that has burned through the Jewish people for the past seven decades. To “Never Forget.”
On that day in Poland I also aroused my own family’s history from its slumber. 
I took leave of the group and took a taxi to the town of Tarnow. All I had was an address that was 70 years old: Jasna 33. No one from my family had been to Poland since the war so Grandpa Lester chose me to be his eyes and ears. His aunt, Zofia, hid from the Nazis with her husband and two children in the town of Tarnow. She wore a cross around her neck so as not be detected by the Nazis. One day she went out to buy some bread but when she came back, her husband and children were gone, taken by the Nazis.
Zofia never saw her husband or children again.
While in Auschwitz, I learned that what my family knew to be true for seven decades was wrong. Zofia’s husband and children had not died in the concentration camp, rather the Nazis had murdered them in Tarnow. I cannot answer whether this news is supposed to provide my family with solace or whether it just brings more sorrow. All I can say is at least now there is an answer. History has been awakened.
Cold anticipation and goose-bumps swept through my body as I walked the streets of Tarnow, trying to locate Jasna 33. But the address was nothing but a memory, buried deep under an empty patch of grass that now made up a nondescript town square. The voices of children who were playing in a nearby park reached my ears. I stood there in bewilderment, trying to picture the house, the place my great-great aunt had pegged as a haven from the Nazis. I did not cry. I learned that the building next to me was built on the original foundation of Jasna 47. The stones of the foundation were still visible today.
Suddenly, I smiled. I realized I was staring at something that Aunt Zofia had no doubt looked at seventy years earlier. This trifling fact filled me with exhilaration. For one fleeting moment, Jasna 33 existed once again. I was the first in my family to trespass history and it was empowering. The Zanders, Zauders, Schreiers, Tiegers, Sztuckis, and Leibels - I suddenly felt connected to all of Zofia’s family, to my family.
There were two rocks lying on the grass. I picked them up and put them in my pocket.  One was for my Grandpa Lester for whom I’d become the eyes and ears of the past and the other for his sister Sylvia.
In the taxi ride back to join the rest of the group, I felt the weight of the dead rocks in my pocket. On that day in Tarnow, I never felt more alive.
The writer is currently on his gap year in Israel as part of Young Judaea’s Year Course. From March 23 – 31, Young Judaea took a group of 21 Year Course participants on a trip to Poland. Zander is from Great Neck, NY. Next year he will begin his undergraduate studies at TCMJ college in New Jersey.

Originally published by Arutz Sheva
Published : April 11, 2014
A group of young professionals in Tel Aviv are taking Shabbat to the next level. White City Shabbat, in conjunction with the Am Yisrael Foundation, is planning the World’s Largest Shabbat Dinner to attempt gain recognition in the Guinness Book of World Records. The dinner will be held in Spring 2014 at the Tel Aviv Port and will be 100% Kosher and uphold the highest levels of shomer Shabbos. We recently spoke with Washington, D.C.-native Victoria Kimmerling of the Am Yisrael Foundation via e-mail about the event, interning in Israel, and singular nature of Shabbat. 
Why did you want to intern in Israel through Masa Israel Journey? What led you to get involved with the Am Yisrael Foundation?
I had come to Israel a few times since I graduated high school, once on a family mission trip in 2005 and once with my mom on a women’s mission in 2011, and both experiences were great but very centered on sightseeing and learning about the history of Israel. When I came to Israel on Taglit in 2012 on a DC community Shorashim bus, the trip had an element of self-reflection that I had never experienced on a previous trip to Israel. I was forced to confront questions like “What does Israel mean to you?” and “What do you want your relationship with Israel to be?” and when I thought about those and other topics I realized that 10 days was not enough for me to answer those questions satisfactorily. On the last day of Birthright we were given a presentation about coming back to Israel on Masa and I filled out a card saying that I was interested in possibly returning for a longer Israel experience.
A few months passed and as I was entering my last semester of my master’s degree and trying to decide what I was going to do when I graduated I received a phone call from a Masa Israel representative asking if I was still interested in coming back to Israel. The call couldn’t have come at a better time and I made the decision that if I was ever going to explore my relationship with Judaism and Israel by living in the Jewish homeland, now was the time. 
While I was doing research on different Masa Israel programs I reached out to a friend of mine, Natalie Solomon, who had made Aliyah recently and her nonprofit organization, the Am Yisrael Foundation, actually had an intern at the time from one of the programs I was looking into. After talking with Natalie and learning more about her nonprofit and the work they do to build community for the young-professional international community in Tel Aviv, I knew that going on Career Israel and interning with AYF was the right fit for me. 
I feel so lucky that I was recruited for this position because it’s given me a chance to see Tel Aviv through the lens of passionate, highly motivated young pioneers who are working tirelessly to improve the city and the community that we’ve chosen to call home.
Was this event your idea? What is your role in setting up the event?
It’s actually a funny story, no one really knows who exactly came up with the idea. People within our organization had been playing around for a while with different ideas to inspire Jewish unity with some type of global Jewish communal effort and that is where the idea to attempt a Guinness World Record came from. White City Shabbat and Am Yisrael Foundation are led by passionate young professionals who devote their free time to run these programs & we wanted a way to involve Jews from around the world in the incredible work that we’re doing. 
My role in the event is currently centered on fundraising. In order to make this dinner happen and be free of charge for over 1,000 people, we need to raise $25,000. We decided to do this fundraising in the form of an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign because this way it will be not only 1,000 Jews sitting down for a Shabbat dinner, it will be thousands or even hundreds of thousands of Jews worldwide coming together to create a piece of Tel Aviv, Israeli, and Jewish history.
What did Shabbat mean to you before, and what does it mean to you now that you’ve lived in Israel for five months?
For me Shabbat is not about how religious you are or aren’t. To me it doesn’t matter if you ride the elevator or take the stairs, whether you use your phone after dinner or not. Shabbat is about putting the rest of your busy life on hold and taking the time to appreciate the world around you. 
My fondest memories of Shabbat growing up were the times celebrated at my summer camp in northern Georgia, Camp Barney Medintz. I never celebrated Shabbat regularly at home, but every summer from the time I was 8 until I was 20 years old I spent at least 4 weeks at camp celebrating Shabbat every weekend. During Shabbat at camp we were able to sit wherever we wanted at dinner, a privilege reserved for this special day each week. A group of my friends & family of different ages from Birmingham, AL and Nashville, TN would sit together every Friday night and it was always a unique dinner that we looked forward to with anticipation and excitement. Shabbat at camp meant friends and family, lots of singing, and quality relaxation time, which is actually very similar to what Shabbat in Israel means to me now.
Since I’ve been living in Israel for the last 6 months, I feel so fortunate that I’m able to celebrate Shabbat with my friends every week. In the Olim (new immigrant) community here in Tel Aviv we have a saying that your friends are your family, since many of us do not have family living in Israel or if we do they’re far away, and I’ve definitely been living by that statement since I got here. Every week I either go to a friend’s apartment or to a White City Shabbat event for dinner, and, wherever I am, I know that Shabbat dinner will be filled with people that I love expressing their gratitude and happiness that we are together in Tel Aviv, in the homeland of the Jewish people, being able to share in the beauty of Shabbat. 
Want to get involved? Check out the World’s Largest Shabbat Dinner Indiegogo page.

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