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Processing the embers left by the fire
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Processing the embers left by the fire

Local educator steps ‘into the past,’ discovers joy in a Polish town

Educators Melissa Weiner, left, and Judy Rosen in a spot overlooking Old Town in Warsaw. 
Educators Melissa Weiner, left, and Judy Rosen in a spot overlooking Old Town in Warsaw. 

Four local educators participated in a trip to Poland July 17-25, “stepping into the past” to search for “voices, names, and stories within the rubble of a troubled time.”

Melissa Weiner, director of lifelong learning at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, said that the trip — sponsored by two organizations, Facing History and Ourselves and the Polish Forum for Dialogue — transformed her view of Poland as “a place of death” into a land where Jews had a “wondrous life” for 1,000 years before the Nazi onslaught, and where there is now “a resurgence of interest” in Judaism. 

The program provided her, as a Jewish educator, with what she called a “counter-narrative” to the tragic chronicle of Jewish persecution and annihilation in Poland during the Holocaust. 

Both sponsoring organizations teach tolerance through education. Facing History does so through promoting study of the Holocaust and other genocides; Forum for Dialogue aims in part to foster Polish-Jewish dialogue and eradicate anti-Semitism. 

Although participants visited the concentration camp Majdanek and the sites of several ghettos and memorials, they also spent time exploring current Jewish communities and examining evidence of the long history of the Jews in Poland, both by visiting shtetls and small towns as well as through touring museums like the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.

Other local participants included Madge Saide from Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, Felicia Kazin Penchina from Golda Och Academy in West Orange, and Judy Rosen, also from B’nai Abraham. 

Participants shared responsibility for contributing to a blog they kept as they traveled. The following is an excerpt from an entry Weiner wrote about spending Shabbat in the small Polish town of Szczebrzeszyn that captures her broadening perspective.

Voices: from the earth to heaven

There is something uneasy about stepping into the past. Searching for voices, names, and stories within the rubble of a troubled time can never be easy. It brings trepidation and worry. What will we find? How will we process the embers left behind by the fire? 

And then we arrive, in a little southern Polish town, whose name no one can say without laughter and much tripping over the tongue. Here, we meet Polish teachers dedicated to the task of preserving a history that is richly ours, but uniquely theirs. They are kind, they are inspirational, they are unexpected. Here, over the light of Shabbat, two diverse worlds collide in friendship and understanding. 

With a prayer service on the lawn, our new friends experience Shabbat through our lens. Watching Oren in his tallit, praying with fervor and passion, allows us to experience the sounds of Shabbat as they may have been before the war. We hear our ancestors’ voices, rising from their earthly resting places, traveling through us toward heaven. Imagine the sounds of olden Szczebrzeszyn. Warm summer nights, with windows open and the sounds of prayers and Shabbat joy. Through our unique traveling family we found a joyful place and returned to our roots. 

Dinner and laughter remind us how families once gathered to bask in the joy of the rest. We make modern with our own tunes, but the laughter is most probably the same. Our voices carry outside, blended with the voices of our new Polish friends and their songs. We are one people tonight. 

We rise in the morning and walk much like the Jews of Szczebrzeszyn once might have — to synagogue. There, we are reunited with Gocia, who alone inspires us with the stories of her search to uncover meaning from the past. From the Streicher family, to the house of fallen stairs, to the Grandpa who hugged a tree, her images remind us of the simple and special world that was once here. We are inspired by her fight to preserve its memory. We experience these lives through her stories and passionate connection to this place and the Jewish people.

We hear the stories of simple lives once lived through the book Tales of the Shtetl, and a few of us walk in the footsteps to spend Shabbat as it once was…. Shabbat in Szczebrzeszyn is a holy and happy time for each of us. 

Before the stars arrive to usher in the new week, we gather in a circle to face one another, and face the reality that our trepidation and worry have turned to joy and wonder. Who would believe us? How do we share? How can we translate the gift of Shabbat in Szczebrzeszyn, the gift of these righteous people doing unimaginable work, to Americans living under the burden of a vast and violent legacy? Our friends and family at home are us only a week ago, but now we feel compelled to share a new story — a complicated and yet beautiful tale of a loss and a rebirth. What will a future Poland look like — a future of possibility? 

Of course we recognize that we have met very exceptional people, filled with passion and drive and openness. But imagine, sitting for Saturday evening dinner, to be interrupted by a stranger who asks if we are a Jewish group. He tells us that he is the oldest living resident in Szczebrzeszyn who would remember the Jews. He was so proud to have us in his town and share his memories of forgotten friends. He mourns with us, and celebrates with us. Two narratives, seemingly opposed, joined under the night sky of Szczebrzeszyn. 

Our Shabbat ends with Havdalah. This week, it really marks a separation. Not only the holy from the regular, but from who we were upon arrival to who we have become during this trip. We have been left with loving thoughts of who we each might become. We are forever changed by this simple, restful Shabbat in a little shtetl.

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