Am Yisrael Chai: Beth El Travels to Eastern Europe
By: Brandon Chiat, Digital Media Manager
On June 24th, 65 Beth El members - accompanied by Rabbi Steve Schwartz, Cantor Thom King, and Dr. Eyal Bor - will arrive in Warsaw, Poland to begin the congregation's trip through Eastern Europe. While the synagogue has led numerous trips to Israel, this is only the second time in 20 years that Beth El has traveled to Europe.
Throughout their 10-day journey, the group will visit Warsaw, Kraków, Prague, and Berlin, following an itinerary that will bring them face to face with the sometimes glorious and often harrowing history of the Jewish people in Poland, Germany, and Czechia.
"Our Eastern European trip is about coming to terms with the Holocaust, the most painful chapter of Jewish history," Rabbi Steve Schwartz said. "But, in the course of exploring those sites and grappling with the ensuing emotions, we will hopefully come to understand how vibrant Jewish life was in Europe before the Second World War and see that the Jewish community still exists in this part of the world."
Am Yisrael Chai ("the Jewish people live"), a central theme in Judaism, will serve as the guiding message of the trip. "Despite our difficult history, despite the anti-Semitism and prejudice, we are still here, still thriving, stronger than we've been in many centuries if not in thousands of years," Rabbi Schwartz said.
"The idea of Am Yisrael Chai is manifested in the sites we'll visit such as the Jewish Museums of Prague and Berlin and The Neue Synagoge ("New Synagogue"), now the center of Berlin's flourishing Jewish community," said Dr. Eyal Bor, Director of Education and the Rabbi Mark G. Loeb Center for Lifelong Learning. "These sites - and the trip itself - are proof that Jewish memory doesn't fade."
In addition to a memorial service led by Rabbi Schwartz and Cantor King at the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, the group’s noteworthy excursions include a tour of the Warsaw Ghetto, dinner at the Jewish Community Center of Kraków, and a visit to the villa in Wannsee, Germany where the Nazis formalized the "Final Solution."
"I am excited to be in Prague with its stories of the Golem, and Kraków, home to Moses Isserles, one of the great Jewish legal minds of all time," Rabbi Schwartz said. "It will also be my first time visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, and I expect that to be an important, though difficult experience."
Undoubtedly there will be visceral moments, but the Jewish people have a responsibility to acknowledge and confront the painful events of their past. That the Beth El clergy will guide the congregants through this cathartic process adds a more profound significance.
"Jewish identity is linked to many things – to family, to synagogue, to history, to memory, to belief – and this trip will bring all those elements together at one time," Rabbi Schwartz said. "That can only happen with a synagogue-based trip."
While the trip will be impactful on an individual level, such immersive experiences reverberate throughout the congregation as a whole and are central to life at Beth El, according to Dr. Ed Mishner, the synagogue's incoming president.
"One of Beth El's roles is to foster the Jewish identity and spirituality of its members," Dr. Mishner said. "Connecting with our Jewish roots in Europe allows us to learn firsthand of our Jewish heritage and identity and will enhance the strong foundation we have already received at Beth El."
Former synagogue president Ray Kahn agrees that the congregation's international trips inspire those who travel to feel a deeper connection not only to their Judaism but also to their Beth El community.
"The congregation's trip to Eastern Europe is an opportunity for members to nurture new relationships with each other and become more personally connected with our clergy," Mr. Kahn said. "This trip creates the impetus and energy for members to become more active in the synagogue."
Often, the impact of Beth El's trips can be measured by the increased attendance at Friday night services, as well as the emergence of new leadership. "Our Israel trips and the trip to Eastern Europe are an opportunity for Beth El's clergy and senior staff to identify potential lay leaders in the synagogue," Dr. Bor said. "I can think of at least five synagogue presidents who are alumni of our trips."
Such is the case for Beth El's newest president. "After traveling to Israel with Beth El, I returned with a deeper connection to our congregation," Dr. Mishner said. "As a layperson on that trip, I was so impressed with the enthusiasm of our clergy and professional staff, that it inspired me to become an officer and now president of the synagogue."
For that reason, Beth El will continue to prioritize travel to Israel and the diaspora, including a potential trip to Cuba.
"We take for granted our religious freedom in the United States and specifically Baltimore, but other Jews around the world are not as lucky. It's vitally important that we experience how Jews live in other parts of the world," Dr. Mishner said. "As anti-Semitism has risen around the globe, Beth El members must act as ambassadors for religious freedom and specifically the practice of Judaism."