Friday, November 5, 2010

Day 5 - Ethiopian Immigration Center

Today I had a remarkable opportunity to go with a friend of Shalmi's to the Ethiopian Immigration Center here in Mevesseret. These centers were created throughout Israel 25 years ago to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel. The goal is to educate them and assimilate them into Israeli society. The center we visited is like an encampment surrounded by one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the Jerusalem area. Nurit, a friend of Shalmi's, is a university professor who spends much of her free time tutoring the Ethiopian girls in Mevesseret. Nurit explained to me that it is her feeling that the Ethiopians should receive a better quality of life and should be able to leave these encampments much sooner. Shalmi explained to me that coming to Israel from a third world country is very difficult to overcome and often this process is not always met with the success that it was intended to create. Nurit gave me a real sense of her committment to these girls and how important it is for these children to receive one-on-one tutoring. There are days when they can't attend school because their mother's have to work and the older siblings have to watch the other children. Education is a priority for these families, but it also appears that their starting point in Israel is the mere basics of introducing these people to modern life.

I met Yemsrach, an 11 year old girl who has been in Israel for 4 years. (she is in the photo above with her sister) Here name means " I bring good news" and Nurit explained to me that this name was chosen for her because several children born to her mother before Yemsrach died in Ethiopia and her birth was a bright light for the family. We met Yemsrach and her 5 year old sister at their home in the center which to me looked like a cement barrack. It was Shabbat so there was a makeshift market selling used clothing and some food. Children were running around playing games like jump rope and hide-and-seek. When Nurit beeped the horn, Yemsrach came running out of her home with a big smile and happy to greet us. Nurit told Yemsrach I would be coming along and she was delighted to take us on a tour of her complex. I saw the medical building, the community center and a way of life for me that was difficult to grasp. The children go to school in other communities, some as far as an hour away. They do not go to school in Mevesseret and Nurit feels that this is an injustice to these children. Apparently, schools take in a certain number of Ethiopian Jews resembling a quota system.

After our tour, we got in Nurit's car and drove to her home in a neighboring community. Yemsrach was very happy to grab her school books and take off to a tutoring lesson. I was overwhelmed by the paradox of her living conditions and her incredible enthusiasm to learn. She had been waiting 8 weeks to receive these new books because her parents didn't have enough money to purchase them. (In Israeli public schools all students have to purchase their books.) As soon as we sat down and started to work on the English lessons, she knew exactly how to read the Hebrew instructions, begin the task and could pronounce and understand all the words in English represented in the lesson. I saw in her a desire to learn, achieve and most importantly a tremendous sense of accomplishment. It was remarkable to witness Yemsrach's desire and potential.

When I asked Yemsrach what she wanted to be someday, she immediately replied - a teacher - in English! I hope her dream comes true some day because I could see in this lovely young girl such extraordinary potential.

Day 4 - Part Two

Tonight I had the opportunity to see my friend Meriam Haringman and her husband Shlomo in their home for dinner. Meriam and I developed an exchange with our students back in 1998 where we dialogued through the use of chat rooms and email to discuss the Holocaust. In 1999, I came to Yad Vashem for a conference and had the chance to meet Meriam, visit her school and meet the students that we created this conversation with. It was a wonderful project and through this project we continue to be in touch. I last saw her in 2002 when she was in New York for a wedding.

Meriam came to Israel from America when she was 18 years old. She came to Israel one summer for a youth program, met Shlomo and later returned to study here and marry Shlomo. Shlomo and his sister were both hidden in the Netherlands during the Holocaust by Christian rescuers and came to Israel after the war alone as they had lost all of their family. They grew up on a kibbutz and built a new life here in Israel. Since coming to Israel, Shlomo and his sister maintained contact with their rescuers and saw them throughout the years. Today, Shlomo is in constant contact with the children of the rescuers and continues to enjoy the incredible bond that they share.

My students, both past and present, will recall discussions we have had about the Red Cross archive being opened just two years ago in Bad Arsolon, Germany. This is the archive that holds 50 million pieces of paper documenting the paths of many Holocaust victims. Meriam shared with me some recent documents she received from the archive relating to Shlomo's family. These documents detailed movements of several family members, one of whom they knew perished during the Holocaust, but had thought her fate was different than what was finally represented in the documents. She actually died just after liberation, not in the camps.

Additionally, a few years ago Shlomo was reunited with a cousin that was adopted during the war by a Christian family. The story is quite amazing. This cousin had never known he was adopted or Jewish until his parents died and he found documents detailing his real identity. Through the use of the internet he found Shlomo and called to tell him that he was the 7th child of his aunt. Shlomo and Meriam had only known that this aunt had 6 children. Apparently, he was born 1941 during the war and had to be given away. Of course they were astonished to find a long lost relative and have enjoyed, beyond words, this reunification. Remember, Shlomo survived the Holocaust along with his sister and left the Netherlands to come to Israel and make an entirely new life for themselves which is remarkable.

I very much enjoyed catching up with Meriam and Shlomo ! They are such lovely people who have been so kind to me and who have shared so many personnel stories that have enriched my life. They hope I come back soon and bring my family !

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Day 4 - Yad Vashem

Today I went to Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust museum and had the opportunity to meet with two colleagues, Irena Steinfeldt, the Director of the Righteous program and Richelle Budd-Caplan, the Director of European Education. I have known them both for many years and for the first time met Richelle in person as every other time I was at Yad Vashem she was away. Richelle arranged for me to do the exchange with Meriam in 1998 that I mentioned yesterday.

Irena was able to take out the file on the Wolf family rescuers. The file was very interesting and revealed some important information about our work with Trsice, Czech Republic. For those of you who don't know about our project in Trsice: This is a place we have visited for the past three years as a result of researching the rescuers of the Diary of Otto Wolf. This is a diary we read in the Holocaust class in which Otto, his mother, father and sister were taken in by families in Trsice and hidden in underground hideouts and homes. Each year we visit the village hosted by the mayor and by the remaining rescuers. The undergroud hideouts still exist and we have been raising funds to build a memorial at the site which will hopefully be dedicated this April.

First the file revealed that Milos, the survivor who has arranged for us to meet the rescuers and continues to work on the project, had written many letters to Yad Vashem in the 90's asking for them to certify the rescuers for their actions. I copied some documents that he had written in English and learned how the search for Lici, the sister, in America took some time. They had difficulty finding her and then getting her to respond. At one point the file was almost closed because they hadn't received verification from Lici. Milos worked tirelessly to certify these rescuers and their efforts and to keep the memory alive of the Wolf family. Milos is a survivor of Auschwitz and knows all too well the necessity for remembering those who suffered and those who participated in rescue.

Since I last visited Yad Vashem, they opened an entirely new museum. As you enter the museum you see a very large image which is a digitized collage of images, both still and film, of Jewish life before the war and images from the Holocaust period. It is a very compelling opening to the exhibition. My students will recall the opening image at USHMM of American soldiers liberating Orhdurf. The opening collage set the tone for the Israeli approach to the exhibition.

The museum is shaped like a triangle with side rooms that force the visitor to move from exhibition to exhibition by moving back and forth through the triangle. Survivor testimony is woven throughout the entire historical narrative and aligns very well with each content strand presented in the museum. The most compelling aspect of the narrative included two aspects for me. First a series of photographs taken in Serbia of Jewish men who were ordered to be rounded up by the Nazis. The sequence of photos showed the men arriving at the forest, all of their belongings were taken from them and they were given shovels. As you scroll through the images, you see the men digging ditches. Several meters away each man was taken into the forest, shot and buried in the trenches that they had dug themselves. It was a horrifying series of images in which their stark facial expressions were painful to view.
Lastly, the final room of the exhibition was very moving. You will see several pictures in this post of the final room which includes images of victims, walls filled with pages of testimony and an abyss which obviously forces the visitor to recognize the victims and remember what was lost. As you leave the exhibition you look out into the hills of Jerusalem and you are amazed at the beauty before you and the fortitude of this nation after the Holocaust to build such an amazing nation.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Day 3 - Jerusalem - Israel Museum

Our day began with Olaf (our German guide for our Holocaust trip) meeting us in Mevesseret where Shalmi lives and then driving to Jerusalem about 20 minutes away.

Our first visit of the day was to the Israel Museum located in Jerusalem. The Israel Museum is largely an art museum, but also exhibits some of the most ancient artifacts and documents in our world. We were able to see the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient manuscripts that were discovered between 1947 and 1956 in eleven caves in Kumran near the Dead Sea. The vast majority of the scrolls are written in Hebrew and a few in Greek and Aramaic. We learned a great deal about the scholarship that has gone into translating and interpreting these documents and the religious debates over the interpretation.

The Israeli art exhibits were very interesting and without Shalmi's interpretations and explanations we would never have understood the value they hold for Israeli life. In particular, there was a sculpture in the main entrance way to the first exhibit that Shalmi made Olaf and I deconstruct ! Well, we needed some help, but this modern sculpture portrayed the struggles, conflicts and sense of unity that Israel was built upon. As we moved through the exhibition we saw many modern artists portray the contemporary and historical struggles of the Jews, some reflecting the creation of Israel and all its war. As we moved to the outdoor exhibits, we saw a model of Jerusalem from the Second Temple period and Shalmi explained each aspect of the city and described what remains today.
After leaving the Israel Museum we went to the Jewish Market for lunch and had hummus, falafel and pita which we were looking forward to all day, at least Olaf and I were !
We later went into the Old City and Shalmi took us to meet a friend, a pastor at the Christ Church. We received a personnel tour and learned a great deal about these mostly American Jews who converted to Christianity. As dusk was approaching and we heard the Muslim call for prayer, it caused me to think about the many religions that are represented today in this ancient city. I asked the pastor if there was inter-faith cooperation amongst these groups. He explained to me that there aren't official committees like in America, but the reality is that they live amongst eachother and they have to find ways to cooperate. He said that one area that they all seem to have in common is helping the needy within their communities regardless of religious affiliation.
The evening ended with a lovely dinner at Shalmi's home in which he invited some neighbors. The hospitality in this country is incredibly heart warming ! Tomorrow I will be going to Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Museum and later in the evening I will be having dinner with Meriam and Shlomo. In 1998 Meriam and I were connected through Yad Vashem and we had our students discuss the Holocaust through the use of email and chat rooms, in those days we didn't have videoconferencing technology. Meriam has since retired from teaching. We have remained friends all these years and I last saw her in 2002 when she came to New York. The last time I was in Israel in 1999 I had Shabbat at her home and met the entire family. It will be very nice to see them and catch up.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Day 2 - Lohamei Haghetaot - Ghetto Fighters' House

Today I had the opportunity to visit Lohamei Haghetaot, the Ghetto Fighters' House. This was my first visit here and I was very impressed with the museum and the way in which they work with groups of younger students. They have a seperate museum for children which teaches the lessons of the ghetto fighters and more importantly how these lessons are relevant to their world. My students reading this blog who have taken the course will recall a film we have watched entitled UPRISING. This film depicts very vividly how the Warsaw Ghetto resistance evolved amongst the Jews and how hard these individuals fought for survival and dignity. Lohamei Haghetaot was built by the ghetto fighters who survived and are depicted in the film. This museum is also a kibbutz and some of the surviving fighters live on this kibbutz today.

As I left Nahariya today, I left feeling the warmth and hospitality of the Jewish agency who hosted me. Mercedes, Liat, Noga, Yona, Gadi and Ravit took great care of me and opened their world to me which I will always treasure. I look forward to our continued work and to their upcoming visits to New Jersey.

Tomorrow I will be visiting Jerusalem with Shalmi and Olaf ! Olaf, our German guide for the trip is in Tel Aviv and will be joining us tomorrow for a first class tour with Shalmi !! The sunset picture below is from Shalmi's balcony! The city of Jerusalem is in the distance.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Day 1 - Nahariya High School

Today was an incredible day ! Visiting a school anywhere is always interesting, intriguing and always feels familiar. There were many reasons why I felt at home today. Let's first start with the bell. Yes, in this high school too they have bells. They are just a bit different. Imagine, Jingle Bells being the ringtone for your school bell !! I was astounded at this fact and even more amazed that the students did not know it was a Christmas song ! The teachers did and in the middle of my first presentation we laughed over this very unusual system.

I did three presentations today to mostly juniors and seniors. The presentations were about our Holocaust program with emphasis on the Holocaust Study Tour. These students all will take similar trips to Poland during their high school career. The concept of traveling to authentic historical sites to study the Holocaust is very familiar to them.

What did I learn from this group? First, studying the Holocaust is part of their life and their consciousness. Most understand the Holocaust from the history of Jews during that time period. When I began to discuss other genocides and the warning signs of genocide, they were completely unfamiliar with the term even when the teacher translated it into Hebrew. So, I asked them to name other genocides to build the connection. In the first class, they were familiar with the Armenian Genocide, but not Rwanda, Cambodia, Darfur, etc. I asked them if they were aware that they had 200 Sudanese refugees living in Israel, they were unaware. I told them about Holocaust survivors in America speaking side by side with Rwandan survivors, they couldn't conceptualize that idea and were amazed. I told them about our efforts to raise funds for Darfur, how many schools in America participate in this kind of relief work and I think I caused some of the students to research this more.

When we continued the conversation of genocide, I asked them if they knew Israel's stance on the Armenian Genocide in connection to Turkey. This they knew, that as a government, just like our government, neither go against Turkey's wishes and call the massacres against the Armenians and other Christian minorities a genocide. Several students in the first class felt very strongly that the nation of Israel should be outspoken on this issue and call the atrocities against the Armenians a genocide. And this is exactly how the students in my class feel about every recent American president who won't confront Turkey on this issue.

What did they learn? Well, they were amazed at the backgrounds of our students studying the Holocaust. It just isn't in their framework. I emphasized the lessons that our students learn in the course and on the Holocaust Study Tour. In particular, they watched a clip from our 2009 trip documentary of the clean-up of Plaszow- the former site of a Nazi concentration camp. They were horrified over devastating the conditions of the historical site and clearly understood the level of responsibility of the students who initiatied this effort. I had them read the Hebrew text on the gravestone to involve them fully in understanding that this was a gravestone of a Jewish woman who started the first girls Orthodox school. And then they saw at the end of this piece, a Muslim student, Sarah Moghul from Jersey City, also participating in this effort. I don't think I have to explain to anyone who is reading this blog why that is an important lesson for these students and they fully embraced the idea. Most students thanked me for this work and for the students who have taken on this issue. We all walked away learning something new and with a deeper level of appreciation for eachother's culture.

As we work on this partnership, it is obvious to me after today that we have a school that in many ways has students like ours; bright, passionate, enlightened and most of all willing to delve deeper into issues that matter. They were very open to a dialogue which I am very much looking forward to. In the future, I see a wonderful opportunity for these students to visit us in New Jersey ! Yes, another project that will be fruitful for all !!!

I am trying to download pictures from today to this post. I am going to publish this post now and edit later when someone can help me with this computer that doesnt' seem to like my camera !

Oh, by the way, all of Israel is going on strike tomorrow! Trains, buses, airports, schools, all union workers! This is very much like Israel. The last time I was hear in 1999 the airport was threatening a strike and it didn't occur until I left. To get to Jerusalem tomorrow I already knew that they were driving me in the afternoon to Haifa, which is one hour from here and then I was supposed to get the train to Tel Aviv where Mr. Barmore was picking me up. Yesterday the train didn't go directly to Nahariya so I had to get off at the end of the line and take a shuttle to Nahariya. Thank goodness for the young Israeli soldiers who could speak English because they were very, very helpful. Now the plan will have to change if there is a strike and the car will have to take me directly below Tel Aviv for me to get picked up and go to Mevesseret which is a suburb of Jerusalem.
All I can say is, they tell me here the strike is supposed to last only 24 hours so I hope that is true!