Painting new life into the past

A photo exhibition at the Jerusalem Theater tells the tale of a group of former pupils from the Re'ut School who helped rebuild Poland's shattered cemeteries.

When 11th and 12th graders from Jerusalem's Re'ut School returned from their Trip of Remembrance Poland mission in 2003, they brought home with them not only intense memories and a better understanding of Jewish history, but also big plans for another visit. After spending one day of the trip in overgrown Polish fields and woods, working to help restore Jewish cemeteries, the students recognized that their few hours of labor covered just the slimmest fraction of what still needed to be done. Postponing army service and jobs, they went back to the cemeteries that summer to dig, clean and rebuild a shattered portion of Jewish history, striking roots for the school's Gidonim service project. Dozens of Re'ut students and faculty have returned every summer since. This month, surrounding Holocaust Remembrance Day, a photography exhibition at the Jerusalem Theater honors and documents the experiences and persistence of these students and teachers, who have unearthed the stories of 11 Polish cemeteries, two grave sites and countless communities. Among kilometers of faded headstones, they saw beyond the persecution and victimization of the Jews to hundreds of years of thriving life and dignity, a past that has grown dusty and, like many cemeteries there, nearly forgotten. "Students before us had always talked about going back after their Poland trips," explains Ishai Rivkin-Fenton, a participant on the pivotal 2003 trip, "but we were actually going to do it. We wanted to finish what we had started." Walking into the photography showcase in the lower levels of the theater, where large color snapshots stand out against the solid colored walls, a powerful sense of accomplishment and dignity pervades. It suggests that the students' goals have, at least partly, been realized. As she traces her finger along the pictures on the wall, Dina Weiner, a Gidonim archivist and Bible teacher at Re'ut, says, "We are not the only group on Earth that does this kind of work. The difference is that our project was initiated by kids, students who believe that they can really make a difference. This is a symbolic act, not only about remembering victims but about restoring dignity to real people and communities. Gidonim is just not a regular Holocaust remembrance trip. More than mourning deaths, we are celebrating lives." Gesturing toward the display, she continues, "The pictures tell our story." In fact, each tells its own story. Taken by many different students and faculty members, the pictures stand devoid of even the photographer's name, their labels acknowledging only the towns in which they were photographed and, implicitly, the Re'ut community members who are all equally deserving of recognition for them. While the photographs vary in coloring and perspective from tightly cropped portraits of aggressive labor to pastel landscapes and distanced shots of intimate attention to particular graves, they share the common themes of movement, connectedness and respect. "They invite you in," Weiner says. "You feel like you are in the forest right along with the students." Even so, the largest photograph at the center of the exhibit, set next to a poem by Yehuda Amichai, is notably missing the faces of any Gidonim students and faculty members. Its message of community and rejuvenation, however, remains astoundingly clear. Observing Kehilat Shenyava, taken in Sieniawa, where participants uncovered a grave from the 1600s, depicts rows of faded brown and grey tombstones bent in all directions among the grass and shrubs. Still, the photograph evokes a sense of new life in place of mourning. "What I see here is a community, a group of Jews praying and bowing up and down," Weiner explains, moving her hand along the points where crooked headstones almost appear to be moving. In viewing snapshots like this one, Gidonim participant Tzvi Barkai explains, friends have argued that all they see is a cluster of tombstones. "What we are doing with Gidonim is reviving the souls beneath the pieces of stone that you can see. We are bringing back their names and their faces. We are making them real again." It is on this dynamic act of "reviving" that most photographs in the exhibit focus. After all, Barkai suggests, students form real relationships with particular graves and feel at times as if they know the person buried there. Some have even been able to trace family migrations between different cities. This mapping and archiving has yielded an Internet search engine that now allows anyone to access Gidonim burial archives, connecting Jewish families and Holocaust survivors all around the world to their previously uncertain past. "When you see the reaction of someone who has just found his family or grandfather on the database, it's just an incredible feeling," says Barkai. "Something he imagined did not exist anymore has just fallen back into his life." Even the choice of the name Gidonim reflects a bridge between modern history and European Jewry of the past. The Gidonim, Weiner explains, were communications experts who worked with illegal Aliya Bet immigration before the establishment of the state. Re'ut dedicates its project particularly in honor of one of the Gidonim and his wife, both of whom were on Schindler's list. In doing so, Re'ut students are called upon to consider the legacy of the Gidonim and strive to repair communication problems in their own lives. Perhaps most significantly, the photographs suggest how Gidonim participants connect with one another as Jerusalemites of different cultural and religious backgrounds. Where students struggle to lift a tombstone or to put up a Star of David at a newly discovered mass grave in Chelm, they exemplify Jews of all types standing proudly as a united community with a common past. Pointing to one photograph of students reciting Kaddish at the grave site in Chelm, Weiner's finger lands on a boy at the left of the photo, whose head is bowed deeply in respect. He wears a kippa and a sleeveless tank top. "It's so Israeli," she smiles. "Despite the differences and sometimes the contradictions, we all work together." Before reaching the fields and forests of Poland, though, it is at Re'ut that students are given a foundation grounded in values of understanding and responsibility. Founded in 1999, the seventh through 12th grade school in Old Katamon, which broke away from the religious school system, prides itself on a philosophy of tolerance and social action. "We are pluralistic in every sense," Weiner explains. "Re'ut accepts everyone from the gifted to the deaf to the handicapped, all different kinds of learners, atheist Jews, Orthodox Jews, left wing, right wing, you name it. We are about honesty and not putting people in a box." "It is a place where you learn how to debate and share ideas," Rivkin-Fenton agrees, explaining that Weiner was his Bible teacher and that they "didn't agree on anything." What the school does insist that students agree on, though, is that their world desperately needs good leadership and repair. Working in soup kitchens and jump-starting programs like Gidonim, Re'ut students learn the importance of taking initiative to help their communities. "I loved the school," 2005 graduate and Gidonim participant Avigayil Horowitz says. "It is the best place for anyone to get an education. At Re'ut they don't make us ready for the world, they make us ready to change it." Gesturing toward the photography display as one example of social activism at Re'ut, Weiner explains, "Younger students have already spoken excitedly about taking part in Gidonim. They know that it will take place again this summer, and again the summer after that. Its legacy is already beginning to take effect. One day when our graduates speak to their children about the past, about what happened to their grandparents in Poland, they will not only say, 'This is what I saw,' but 'I was there, and I made a difference.'" The Re'ut Gidonim Project's exhibition of photographs is open through April 17 at the Jerusalem Theater's Rebecca Crown Auditorium Gallery. Walk-in hours are Sunday through Thursday 3 p.m.-9:30 p.m., Friday 12 p.m.-3 p.m., Saturday after Shabbat until 9:30 p.m. and during special performances. For more information, visit