For decades teens have traveled with USY — the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth organization — to Poland to see the remnants of Jewish life wiped out by the Nazis.
This year adults got a similar opportunity, touring Nazi death camps, former ghettos, and synagogues and experiencing signs of revival of Jewish culture.
“We went from morning until night,” said Ira Cohen of Highland Park, one of three NJ participants in the first adult USY Pilgrimage to Poland this past July. “There were people on the trip from all over the United States — Chicago, Nashville, Atlanta, California. We probably could have used even more time. The memories will last me a lifetime.”
Rabbi David Saltzman and his wife, Judi Fabricant, of Boonton also took part in the trip. Saltzman, most recently religious leader at Lakeland Hills Jewish Center in Wanaque, said the trip contributed to his understanding of the roots of modern Judaism.
“As a rabbi I had been well-educated about the Holocaust and what’s currently happening to the Jewish community of Europe,” he said. “It helped me to understand what was happening with Jewish communities worldwide, especially the Masorti [Conservative] movement.”
Jules Gutin, who founded the USY pilgrimage in 1986, said adults had been clamoring for a similar trip for years. A busy schedule precluded Gutin from doing that until two years ago when he retired as longtime USY director to become USCJ’s senior educator.
July’s trip proved such a hit another has already been scheduled for July 2014.
“It was essentially the same trip but we did not go to Israel because unlike the teens, just about everybody had already been to Israel,” said Gutin.
Gutin said the trip was both “draining and uplifting” and “filled with many special moments.”
They went to Warsaw, Cracow, Lodz, and Lublin as well as smaller towns, and the Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, and Majdanek concentration camps. They also experienced Cracow’s annual Festival of Jewish Culture, which included a major concert of klezmer music in Szeroka Square, and spent Shabbat with teens from USY’s Eastern Europe/Israel Pilgrimage.
Calling it “an extremely emotional, thought-provoking trip,” Cohen said going to Poland “had always been on my bucket list.” A board member of the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth, Cohen said his grandparents came from Lodz to Paterson before the Holocaust, both of which were then centers for silk manufacturing.
For Cohen and Saltzman, highlights included visiting the newly opened Museum of the History of Polish Jews, built near the site of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and attending the klezmer concert and cultural festival. Spending Shabbat with the USY teens and sharing their enthusiasm and “feeling their growth and maturity” added to the trip, said Saltzman.
Saltzman said he had read about the festival but “being there and experiencing all that positive energy was really very special.”
“We were told that the new generation, both Poles and Jews, realizes there is something missing in their communities,” said Saltzman. “A lot of people are claiming Jewish heritage and are converting to Judaism. Others just realize something is missing. Sometimes a third or half of a town was Jewish and now it’s just missing.”