July 25, 2024
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July 25, 2024
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Northeast USA Teens Visit Poland and Israel for a Life-Changing Experience

In May, some 5,300 high schoolers from 52 countries, including 25 from the Northeast, USA Region (New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and New England) participated in the life-changing experience — the 2024 International March of the Living, a trip that spends a week in Poland and a second in Israel. The region was one of only five of those groups that continued on to Israel to show their support, caring and solidarity.

This was the 36th annual March of the Living (MOTL) journey, a program that brings high school students from around the world to Poland to see the remnants of the Holocaust and the modern-day miracle of Israel. MOTL teaches and educates the participants that through learning about the past, understanding the historical nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the remembrance of victims and fallen heroes, peace will hopefully be achieved. The two-week experience also expands participants’ commitment to Judaism, Zionism and desire to learn more and to teach others about the Holocaust and Israel.

On Yom HaShoah, the teens marched out of Auschwitz and walked to Birkenau. They also walked through other concentration and death camps, ghettos and Jewish communities. For the second week of this unique journey, the group flew to Israel to commemorate Yom Hazikaron with families who have lost loved ones in all the wars of Israel. On Yom Ha’Atzmaut, together with their Israeli brothers and sisters, they commemorated and celebrated Israel’s 76th year of independence.

Since the March of the Living’s inception in 1988, over 300,000 teens from all over the world have participated in the program.

On each of my 24 trips, I’ve watched and seen the teens (and the adults with them) learn about their Jewish past. They get the opportunity to delve into their families’ history and legacy. While on this journey some get to walk through their grandparent’s communities, ghettos and camps. As they get to touch the past and speak to survivors, the participants become as Elie Wiesel said: “When you listen to a survivor you become a witness.” All of the marchers learned and returned with an expanded knowledge of the Holocaust and Jewish history. Their lives were changed forever.

Over the last two years, with growing worldwide antisemitism and increasing Holocaust denial on campuses, workplaces and in communities across the country, March of the Living participants and alumni have gained a greater respect and understanding of their heritage. They have also gained a better understanding and meaning of “Never Again,” “Remember,” and to fight antisemitism wherever they confront it.

This year added opportunities were included during both weeks. On Shabbat in Krakow, Poland our group was joined by Natalie, an olah chadash (a new Israeli immigrant) from Long Island, New York. She is a survivor too; she survived the massacre at the Nova Music Festival on Oct. 7.

The teens spent the afternoon with Natalie as she shared her experience in juxtaposition to their experience of walking through the remnants of Holocaust death camps. Together the group celebrated Havdalah and shared a kumzits with other MOTL regions at a Krakow synagogue where Natalie led the singing of Hatikvah. The time spent with her allowed the teens to further strengthen their Jewish and Israel commitment in preparation for their next major life steps, the very challenging and complicated start of their college education and life on college campuses today.

Another added special and unique experience occurred on the mission’s first day in Israel. After landing at 3 a.m., the group went to a leket, an Israeli farm outside of Tel Aviv, whose staff were fighting on the front lines in Gaza. There the teens helped the farmer pick 5.5 tons of kohlrabi. This was such a rewarding experience and allowed the participants to further appreciate their presence and special time in Israel.

In preparation for the journey, trip leaders educated the teens and their parents about the value of visiting Poland, the site of all the Holocaust atrocities, touching and seeing the remnants of the concentration camps, and learning about and seeing where “man’s inhumanity to man” took place. This introduction helped the students develop a deeper empathy and appreciation for the magnitude of the murder of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust.

When the teens were asked, “Why are you going on this journey now, during such troubled times in Europe and Israel?’ They replied, “It’s more important now after the tragic events of Oct. 7 than ever before. We must go to Poland and see and learn about the atrocities of the Holocaust and be in Israel to see the impact of the current war. As American Jews we are experiencing ongoing hatred today! We have a greater understanding why Israel MUST BE self-reliant and defend itself.”

The teens all agreed that this particular mission was incredibly special, as it gave them greater insight into the context of the ongoing and expanded conflict and acts of terrorism. It also gave them a deeper understanding of the complex political, social and security challenges facing Israel daily. It allowed the students to meet their Israeli brothers, sisters and extended families in order to support them in their efforts to achieve peace in Israel.

MOTL has already started to plan for 2025. For information about the 2025 journey for teens and adults, contact Joel Katz, Northeast, USA regional director, at (973) 632-9035 or email [email protected].

Am Yisrael Chai!

Joel Katz is the March of the Living Northeast, USA regional director.

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