Jerusalem—After spending an intense winter break in Poland, 133 college students, including 33 from New Jersey, are now intent on protecting and preserving Jewish tradition for future generations. While they never thought that their paths to Jewish connection would begin in Eastern Europe, the trip—their first Jewish heritage experience of any kind—has left them inspired, motivated and excited to live a meaningful Jewish life.
Run by MEOR, a non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring, educating and empowering Jewish students at top universities across the country, “MEOR Poland” explored the vibrancy of Jewish communities in Poland pre-WWII, the magnitude of the loss during the Holocaust and the rebirth of Jewish life in the years that followed. The students were led by professional tour guides, Jewish educators and Leslie Kleinman, a Holocaust survivor from the UK.
Having gained perspective and clarity during their weeklong trip, these previously uninitiated students are now determined to use their inner Jewish light to illuminate a dark world.
“From our experience, there is no classroom quite like Poland. The journey into this extremely dark period in human history allows our students to think deeper about their lives and the meaning and beauty of Judaism. Being in these places—walking in the shadows of wanton destruction and immeasurable hate—allows them to focus like never before and make decisions about where they are going and who they want to be, as individuals and as Jews,” said Yael Seruya, Assistant Director of MEOR Poland.
“These students are the last generation that will be able to interact with survivors of the Holocaust. If they don’t take that opportunity and do everything possible to fully grasp what happened and why it happened, including visiting the actual sites in Poland, then our future generations run the risk of being totally disconnected. This experience is so clarifying because it’s tangible – the students can actually reach out and touch a period of modern Jewish history that shaped our national identity.”
The students’ own reflections speak to the profound impact of this alternative winter break experience.
“I see now that trips like these are so important to the continuation of the Jewish people,” said Josh Weiss, a native of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and a senior at Drexel University. “In addition to learning about the Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust—not just as moments in history but as elements of our Jewish identities—we share the experience with like-minded students, forming lasting bonds and fomenting a strong and committed Jewish community. Being part of this community is so important to me now.”
Adah Forer, a sophomore at UC Berkeley, echoed the sentiment, adding that MEOR’s Jewish heritage trip to Poland helped her establish a link to her past while also revealing the ever-elusive way forward. “This incredible experience has connected me to my people’s history like no textbooks or classes ever could. But most importantly, it has shown me a path worth following for the rest of my life. At a time when I felt lost, this trip illuminated a light that I can now confidently follow.”
New Jersey students who participated on this transformative trip include Seth Goldstein of Bergenfield; Cecilia Mishkevich of Berkeley Heights; Danielle Bajorek, Jennifer Bajorek, Ronni Luftig and Allison Ziets of East Brunswick; Gregory Gabovich and Daniel Livshits of Fair Lawn; Jacob Nikolau of Fort Lee; Madeline Lefkowitz of Hackensack; Sam Trub of Highland Park; Jonas Singer of Millburn; Jessica McDonald of Monroe; Melissa Schapiro of Montclair; Emily Goldner of Saddle River; Stephanie Wilf of Springfield; Daniel Graubard of Washington Twp; and Bennett Sultan and Tyler Viezel of West Orange.
Over the last decade, MEOR has battled dispassion, detachment from Jewish identity and the ever-rising forces of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism to create a masterwork of Jewish engagement that now functions on 21 prominent college campuses across the U.S. The goal has always been to engage these promising Jewish leaders in the discovery of their own heritage and identity and inspire them to connect with Judaism on their own terms and in their own time.
“Something about Judaism is so valuable and powerful that the Nazis were willing to jeopardize their war effort to eliminate us. To me, this speaks volumes,” said Joshua Kazdan, a freshman at Stanford University from St. Louis, Missouri. “This encounter with my religious and cultural roots has forced me to address the choices that I make in my life. I am now determined to do whatever I can to ensure that our shared heritage will thrive for generations to come.”
University campuses represented on MEOR’s Jewish heritage trip to Poland included UC Berkeley, Brandeis, Emory, George Washington, Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Binghamton, NYU, Rutgers, Temple, Drexel, American, Brown, Cornell, University of Maryland and University of Pennsylvania.
For more information, visit www.MEOR.org.