One cannot honestly say they know another person until they have not only celebrated simhas (celebrations) together, but have also shared sadness and hardships. This is the conclusion I came to after travelling through Poland with my senior class from Solomon Schechter of Westchester in January 2011. The topic of this issue is spirituality in the face of adversity, and as my peers and I travelled the roads of concentration camps and ghettos throughout Poland, I witnessed this very evolution.
Our class always struggled with prayer, seemingly unable to find meaning in the words or the concepts and history which they represented. Unfortunately, many of our teachers struggled to help us find this meaning. However, by the January of our senior year, many had given up. Most of our formal classes were completed and as we left school for a week in Poland, to be followed by seven weeks in Israel, neither students nor teachers believed our class would find meaning in the prayers we had sat through every day for at least four years. However, contrary to many of our expectations, that connection would occur when we least expected it.
While I have personally found meaning in prayer, being surrounded by a kehillah (community) of people as engaged as myself always helps to enhance and infuse more meaning in the texts of our ancestors. Ironically, throughout our trip in Poland, even when we were davening (praying) in the most unusual places, such as hotel dining rooms and random parking lots, I finally found the kehillah I wished to find among my grade during our four years in Hartsdale.
Why did so many of my peers find spirituality in Poland, after struggling and failing to find meaning day after day, month after month, year after year? Seeing people who never even opened their siddurim (prayer books) volunteer to help make a minyan on Shabbat morning at a local shul in Krakow, or not having to struggle to make a minyan for optional ma’ariv (evening) services — these were the moments when I truly saw spirituality come to life in the face of adversity. One of my lasting memories was created outside of Birkenau, the death camp built not far from Auschwitz where we had spent the entire afternoon.
Walking along the train tracks of the camp, and through the foundation of a destroyed gas chamber, were some of the most emotional hours of our trip. We left the camp just as the sun was setting, and naturally, before heading back to our hotel, our rabbi announced that we would be holding a ma’ariv service. This didn’t seem different from any other ma’ariv service we had had during this and other class trips, however, to my surprise this was the day when I would find the kehillah I had always craved. Immediately after the announcement, no begging needed, people began to come off the bus, siddurim in hand. While the traditional way to pray is facing Jerusalem, we decided to daven facing the ruins which were the reason so many of us were eager to participate. In the course of the short, seven minute service, while looking out at the terror of our ancestors, we were all able to come together and find a deeper meaning in the prayer service many of my classmates had once considered an annoyance.
Pamela Kessel is a first year student at Binghamton University. She is a proud alumna of the Nativ College Leadership Program in Israel.