New program looks to reinvent the Holocaust memorial tour

Project to incorporate a service component excavating Jewish tombstones in Poland.

A group on students on a trip through CJP visit the Warsaw zoo (photo credit: FROM THE DEPTHS)
A group on students on a trip through CJP visit the Warsaw zoo
(photo credit: FROM THE DEPTHS)
A new joint initiative between an Israeli NGO and the Jewish community of Boston is attempting to increase the participation of non-Jews in Holocaust memory programs by flying them to Poland to restore tombstones.
Called “Together, Restoring Their Names,” the program, an alternative to “heavily scripted…death camp tours” such as the March of the Living, aims to “craft a new kind of experience for young adults in Poland – one that engages not only Jews, but their peers of all backgrounds,” organizers say.
While Jewish Holocaust trips centered around restoring synagogues, cemeteries and other sites have been around for some time, the concept of using them for building bridges is something new and can pay dividends for an increasingly isolated Jewish state, explained Matt Lebovic, the director of campus services at Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP).
“Students want to bear witness, but beyond that they want to play a restorative role. This trip was crafted using findings from other Jewish service-learning experiences, largely in Israel,” he said.
“Involving non-Jewish students was essential from the get-go. There is Holocaust denial in the world and ongoing calls to annihilate Israel. We need allies and partners to ensure another genocide does not take place, this time against Israel.”
One of the participants in the upcoming trip is Makalani Mack, a senior at Brandeis University who serves as a member of the board of the Men of Color Alliance.
A collegiate sprinter and member of his university’s theater, Mack is also a member of Brandeis Bridges, a group dedicated to fostering connections and building relations between African-American and Jewish students.
It was with this group that he took his first trip to the Jewish state “to learn more about the Jewish religion, engage in dialogue [with] both Israelis and Palestinians, and to ultimately explore the ‘Holy Land’ of Israel,” he recalled.
“I’m going on the trip to Poland to better my knowledge of the Holocaust and what that traumatic event did to the Jewish community, and to also further my efforts in working for solidarity between Jewish and Black people because I do believe that we share similar pasts,” Mack said, adding that he was “overwhelmingly excited.”
According to Jonny Daniels, the founder of From The Depths, which runs memorial service trips and which is partnering with the CJP on this program, the new initiative is a way to make sure that Holocaust memory is not lost after the final survivors pass on, “making Holocaust memory and memorial relevant to us.”
The program “shows the deep interest reclaiming this past, by traveling to Poland on a service and memorial trip with both Jewish and non-Jewish students alike,” he told The Jerusalem Post.
This marks the first time that From The Depths’s programs are being picked up by the American institutional mainstream as well as a change in which a Jewish federation is paying to send non-Jews on a Holocaust trip to Poland.
“This upcoming trip is a true first,” Daniels continued. “We will be working alongside Polish firemen, students and even ‘Poland’s strongest man’ to remove Jewish tombstones stolen over 60 years ago by Poles, and return them to the local Jewish cemetery. This focus on physical work and partnerships with young locals is what makes this trip so unique, and what has led to countless groups around the world reaching out to us, looking too to prepare ‘service and memorial’ trips to Poland.”
According to Lebovic, engaging in such activities, especially in mixed groups, is crucial because “for many years there has been a notion in the American-Jewish community that Jewish youth have been overloaded with the Holocaust, and that this ‘overload’ is somehow damaging to their Jewish identity.
“In our rush to sort of ‘bury’ the Holocaust and not have young people identify too closely with it, what actually wound up happening is that today’s Jewish college students know almost nothing about the Holocaust, much less anything about Europe’s treatment of Jews in the centuries leading up to it. There is no understanding of Israelis’ psychology, much less of the condition of the Jewish people around the world today, without studying the Holocaust,” he asserted.
The program will have a “huge emotional impact,” said CJP President Barry Shrage.
Examining a thousand years of Jewish civilization in Poland will be very significant for students, he continued, adding that while there is no “perfect follow-up” for everyone returning from Birthright, programs like this are very important in adding to the multiplicity of post-Birthright options that are now being made available.