(photo credit: Courtesy)
A group of New Jersey Hebrew school teachers accompanied some 150 soldiers on a trip to Poland, the first time a group of unaffiliated civilians have participated in the IDF’s Eidim B’madim (“Witnesses in Uniform”) program, which immerses Israeli soldiers in the history of the Holocaust.
Two of the teachers suffered leg fractures. But the educators, who arrived in Israel this week after the week in Poland, say the journey was the experience of a lifetime.
The IDF has sent 136 groups of soldiers to visit Holocaust sites since
the program began nearly a decade ago.
“That one week was a very, very hard experience for all of us,” said Joe
Sillman, a Hebrew teacher in southern New Jersey, whose family suffered
in the Holocaust.
The educators spoke of the intense emotions that overcame them as they
confronted the horrors of the genocide alongside IDF soldiers, defenders
of the Jewish state.
“When you are with a group of soldiers walking through Auschwitz with
the Israeli flag and singing Hatikva, it gives you that fervent feeling
that it’ll never happen again,” Sillman said.
In Warsaw, the soldiers and teachers celebrated the 82nd birthday of a
survivor who was accompanying the soldiers.
“The soldiers lifted him in a chair and we all danced and sang,” said
Sheila Lever. “It was amazing.”
Steve Beilowitz, a self-described philanthropist who is heavily involved
with a program that supports lone IDF soldiers (with no close relatives
in Israel) from abroad, said last week’s trip was an opportunity to show
support for the army.
Beilowitz, who also traveled through Poland, said many of the soldiers
expressed concern that the Diaspora does not stand behind Israel.
“They felt as though the world has forgotten about Israel,” he said.
“I said to them, we are one as a people. We will fight together, we will
sing together, and if we have to, we will fight together,” he said, to
nods of approval from some of the teachers.
Robin Finkelstein described forming deep relationships with her travel
companions, who accompanied her on “the highest of highs and the lowest
of lows I’ve ever had.”
She says the soldiers taught her one new Hebrew phrase: “I am part of
The joint trip was the result of serendipitous scheduling overlap, said
Dina Eliezer, the education director at Temple Beth Shalom in Cherry
Hill, New Jersey, where most of the Americans teach.
The temple was planning a trip for its teachers, and Eliezer contacted
Eidim B’madim when she realized that they were headed for Poland the
same week. As a result, the teachers found themselves not only touring
with the soldiers, but traveling on their buses and flying with them
back to Israel.
Eliezer believes the goals of the IDF and the Temple Beth Shalom
“They are [on the] the front lines,” she said of the Diaspora educators.
“We have to build this next generation to be as strong as us.”