March of the Living with Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg
Thursday, May 8
As part of the March of the Living, we had the opportunity to observe Yom Hazikaron and celebrate Yom Ha'Atzmaut in Israel this year. Yom Hazikaron, the day of remembrance for fallen Israeli soldiers, started at sundown on May 4th, when a two-minute siren sounded across Israel. We got off our bus and stopped in the middle of the street to observe this moment of silence. All around us, including on the balconies of buildings, people stood to remember these soldiers. It was a very powerful moment. The sound of the siren was like nothing I had heard before — it was very eerie.
The next morning at 11.00 a.m., the siren sounded again, and this time, we were in the middle of the old city of Jerusalem. I think we all had goosebumps. As we attended a ceremony to commemorate some of the fallen and visited the Jerusalem military cemetery on Mount Herzel, I felt an immense sense of gratitude to the soldiers and their families who have given up so much to ensure that we can come to Israel and enjoy this Jewish state.
On May 5th, I celebrated my 30th birthday at the Kotel, which I visited for the very first time. What an amazing experience! It was made all the more special by having Rabbi Mikelberg there with me. That night, we celebrated Yom Ha'Atzmaut — Israel’s Independence Day. I can't say I have ever had fireworks on my birthday! I will definitely never forget it. We celebrated this special day with young adult Israelis at a party right beside the walls of the old city. The most memorable part of the night was when Hava Nagila came on, and we all danced together with thousands of other Jews. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.
I feel incredibly blessed that I was able to participate in this year's March of the Living and visit Poland and Israel for the first time. It is a trip that I will cherish for the rest of my days.
We must never forget.
Tuesday, May 6
There are some Hebrew words that cannot be precisely translated to English. One of my favourites is the term "ma'arav". It implies a blending of phenomenon. For instance, the term for dusk, "erev" has the same root letters. As day turns to night, there is a blending of light and darkness. It's a mixture of the two — neither here nor there, yet so real.
The past two weeks have been full of "ma'arav" moments. As a group and as individuals, we have made sharp transitions from periods of deep sadness to periods of extreme joy. For example, while visiting the remains of a shtetl in Poland, we horaed as family, bringing life to a shul that rarely sees simchah anymore. Later we visited a forest where most of the residents of this town were brutally murdered. We carried on our shoulders the joyous memories of shtetl life along with the hollow emptiness of that which is no more.
More recently, we honored the memory of Israeli soldiers and victims of terror for Yom Hazikaron. At a ceremony led by young scouts, we were struck by the youthfulness of the many who have passed away over Israel's 66 years. These fallen soldiers have paid the ultimate price so that we could have our Jewish homeland. As is the Israeli way, when the sun set and the day was complete, we immediately transitioned into a spirited celebration for Yom Ha'Atzmaut. The solemness of the previous day was replaced with the ultimate joy of pride. At an evening celebration by the ancient walls of Jerusalem, we danced the night away.
A number of our participants have struggled with these quick transitions. How is it possible to move so fast between extremes? It's not natural! Or is it? That's the beauty of the term "ma'arav". It reflects the reality that at every moment we hold in our hearts the pain of loss and the joy of blessing. The two are intertwined. As Jews, uniquely so, as we reflect on our struggles and triumphs in history. Rather than run away from these emotions, we can hold them close. We march forward, never forgetting the past, confident with regards to the future.
Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg
Thursday, May 1, 2014
AuschwitzOn Sunday, April 27, our young adult group on March of the Living went to Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is a place that weighs heavily on the Jewish collective consciousness. I've been to Yad Vashem and the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. But they could not prepare me for the horrors of this awful place. We know about the atrocities and the millions murdered. We know about the barbed wire fences, the cattle cars, the train tracks, the barracks, the gas chambers and the crematoriums. But to actually be here to bear witness is something that cannot be easily put into words. This was not a concentration camp. It was a factory of death.
The area is enormous. We kept walking along the infamous train tracks, but nothing appeared to be getting closer. It took twenty minutes to get to the other end, where the ruins of one of the crematoriums lie. We walked in the steps of those condemned to die, down into the gas chamber. The chilling screams of millions of murdered Jews echo out in the cold, dank room. And then we all walked out. Out past the grotesque human ovens and back up to a beautiful sunny day, in colour no less. This is the worst place in the world, but perhaps it is our responsibility to enter this place so that we can walk out. And now we fly to Israel, full of life.
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Two opposite views:Temple Sinai young adults with survivor Faige Lipman at the Lublin YeshivaAs I prepare to leave Poland, I have many more questions than I do answers. A key question: In what ways does Poland continue to be a home for our people?
1. In Kielce, we visited the Jewish cemetery. It's in this place that two memorials recall Jewish massacres. In 1942, 45 children ranging from infants to teens were murdered, buried in a mass grave. Post war, the trauma continued as many Jews hoped to return to the town to make it home once again. They were unwelcome and a pogrom followed where many were killed. This was an important turning point for survivors who saw this experience as a sign than Poland could no longer be home.
2. In Warsaw and Krakow, we visited liberal Jewish communities. We celebrated Shabbat at Beit Warszawa. The room was full of congregants and we needed to share siddurim. These siddurim have homemade Polish transliterations so that people could follow the Hebrew. For many in this shul, they have March of the Living participants with Prezek, our new Polish-Jewish friendonly recently discovered their Jewish roots. For so long this Judaism was hidden and locked up, now once again Jewish seeds are being planted. Krakow tells a similar story. Hundreds have joined the JCC, looking for a place to reconnect and build community. It's inspiring to hear the stories of rebirth. Poland is once again home to a Jewish community numbering a few thousand.
Poland was once my family's home, but that is no more. I'm on my way to Israel, a dream realized, the Promised Land for our people. I feel unsettled at the moment, eager to once again head home to Israel.
Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg
Tuesday, April 29, 2014
Temple Sinai's young adults are on day five of the March of the Living trip. Joining us are 38 other young adults from Toronto, the United States, Australia and the Netherlands who have added important voices and perspectives to what we have seen, heard and learned so far. In the last five days, we have been to Jewish cemeteries in Warsaw and Lodz, a shtetl, former Jewish ghettos, and the vestiges of Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau.
At each place we visit, Rabbi Mikelberg shares references connecting the past to the present through a Jewish lens that his rabbinical teachers would be proud of. For example, at every cemetery and extermination centre we say Kaddish, which we have learned is written in Aramaic, not Hebrew, and actually never mentions the word "death". None of us knew that.
Saying Kaddish here in Poland, often at mass graves, has been particularly poignant. These graves contain tens of thousands of Jews who died mercilessly without anyone to say Kaddish for them, and the prayer has taken on a new meaning for us all.
We have also had the privilege to be accompanied by Faigie Libman, a Holocaust survivor from Kovno, Lithuania, who settled in Canada after the war. Faigie's remarkable story of tragedy, hope and miracles has captured our hearts and minds in an unforgettable way.
Everyone on this trip will carry with them her lived experience and indefatigable optimism that was born out of events beyond her grasp, despite how those events robbed her of her home and her family as her life began to spiral out of control. She was 10. And yet, in the years and decades since, she believes as deeply as she misses her murdered father and grandparents that "a heart full of hate cannot love".
We have laughed with Faigie, cried with Faigie, but most importantly we have sung with Faigie, because she believes in the power of song to heal wounds.
Yesterday we joined 10,000 Jews from communities on every continent in the March of the Living. Walking between the Auschwitz and Birkenau, we proved that those who died did not do so in vain. Apart from my Bar Mitzvah, I have never felt more proud to be Jewish.
Tomorrow we fly to Israel. More updates to follow!
Impossible Choices — Dilemmas of the Ghetto
Sunday, April 27, 2014
Our first stop on the March of the Living was Lodz. We visited the cemetery where 180,000 of our brethren are buried. Included is a ghetto field. Even under the harsh conditions of ghetto life, thousands were given proper Jewish burials. Lodz has an interesting history, the ghetto was the first established and the last to be liquidated. The long life of the ghetto is due to the leadership of Chaim Rumkowski. He was ruthless in his chairmanship of the Jewish Council obliging to any request of the Nazis. He chose to follow orders obediently, playing on the sympathies of the Nazis. Even when called to do the unimaginable, he followed, exerting hope that, in the end, the Jewish nation would survive.
Warsaw was our next stop. Once the Jews made up a third of this metropolis, but that is no more. The city was destroyed after the war and few remnants exist of Warsaw's rich history. The Jewish Council was chaired by Adam Czerniakow. In 1942, the Nazis ordered him to sign a deportation order for thousands of Jews. Realizing that they would be led to concentration camps, he refused. He went to his office and was later found dead, having committed suicide. The order for deportation went forward without his signature.
Two towns, two leaders, two impossible positions. Who was right? Who paved the groundwork for our people’s survival? It's not for us to say. We are blessed to live in a time when our choices are less brutal. Yet, our Torah is the same. We do the best we can to ensure life for our community.
On a lighter note, I'm grateful to be accompanying such a formidable group of Temple Sinai young leaders. They have chosen to embark on this precious journey, affirming their Jewish roots as leaders of our people. I'm also indebted to H. Lawrence and Beverley Fein and Family for making this opportunity possible. In honoring their dear friend Seymore Obront, presently 12 community members have traced the journey of our people, becoming stronger in the process.
Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg