With the aim of furthering their leadership skills and connection to Jewish history and life, six area students traveled to Poland to explore the once vibrant Jewish life that ended with the rise of Nazism.
They were part of a 17-student contingent traveling through the Israel-based MEOR, which attracts thousands of American college students to its programs, whose aim is to strengthen their knowledge of Jewish history and identity. MEOR has offices on a growing number of college campuses, including Rutgers University in New Brunswick, one of its four original partnering colleges.
The six students who went from Dec. 22-29 were Asher Ades of Oakhurst, who attends Emory University; Ilana Bandler of Morganville and Jacob Buckman of Manalapan, SUNY Binghamton; and Jeremy Berkowitz of Scotch Plains, Sam Davidson of Marlboro, and Alex Pearlman of East Brunswick, Rutgers University.
Rabbi Meir Goldberg, Rutgers MEOR director and codirector of Rutgers Jewish Xperience, said although he couldn’t make this year’s trip, he was part of it on several prior years.
“This entire organization really gets these students to feel a spiritual connection to their heritage,” said Goldberg. “They get such a sense for what Jewish life was like before the Holocaust, Jewish heroism during the war, and such a deep connection to the entire Jewish people.”
He said one of the most powerful activities is a visit to a mass children’s grave in Tarnow. Afterward, students are asked to write a last letter to their parents if they could imagine they would never see them again.
Despite being “surrounded by death,” Goldberg said, students manage to find joy in the experience. On the previous trips he participated in, “there was singing and dancing…you just feel alive,” he said.
In addition to the Poland trip, Rutgers MEOR also sends students to Israel thought the organization’s Maimonides program.
Berkowitz said he accompanied the group to Poland because he has family roots there and was interested in increasing his knowledge about that background. As an aspiring photojournalist, he also wanted to chronicle the experience.
“I finally got to see what all the movies and textbooks were talking about,” said Berkowitz, a junior journalism and media studies major. “I got to see it firsthand, and it was very moving and emotional.”
By far the most powerful moment was walking into the gas chambers and crematorium at Auschwitz. “It just felt very surreal as we all stood there together as Jews and cried,” said Berkowitz, the son of Roy and Jodi Berkowitz and a graduate of Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School. “When we got to leave the building, I was never so grateful to see the light of day.”
Bandler participated in MEOR because, she said, “it’s something everyone should do once in their life.” Being with other students, skilled tour guides, and a British Holocaust survivor enhanced the experience.
She said her paternal great-grandparents were from Poland and one great-grandmother died in the Holocaust along with other relatives.
For Bandler, the highlight was the Shabbat in a shul in the area of Zbylitowska Gora and Tarnow.
“There wasn’t much of a Jewish community left there and the fact we could share this Jewish experience with them was really powerful — and they were grateful,” said Bandler, a junior integrated neuroscience major and Marlboro High school graduate.
Seeing Auschwitz also made a strong impression on her; as the group was leaving, the area of the camp, she said, they realized “people were cremated there and as we walked around we actually found bones of people and we buried them, which was a very powerful thing.”
“The main thing I took away from this is that it’s important to maintain your family identity and take pride in your Judaism,” said Bandler, the daughter of Colette and Bruce Bandler. “It was just crazy that something like this could happen, and we need to be on guard to make sure it never happens again.”
Pearlman, the son of Joe and Susan Pearlman and a graduate of Wardlaw-Hartridge School in Edison, said he went because “being Jewish, I think it’s important to know this history.” “Every day was so packed with emotion,” said the junior statistics major, adding, “Oh my gosh, I learned so much. I had learned in elementary school about treating others well but you don’t really get the real meaning of that until you experience” the sites of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust.
Pearlman said he also learned “not to judge people based on their experience and the way they reacted to what happened to them.”
He said he had great-grandparents who suffered during the Holocaust and “it really hits home that if I was born 80 years ago, this would have happened to me.”