When you first walk in to the museum compound at Yad Vashem there is a black and white film projected against the triangular wall at the start of the exhibit. That film is a collage of photographs and moving images depicting Jewish life in Europe before the Holocaust. What’s striking is the diversity that the film depicts. Orthodox men in prayer, children learning to play musical instruments, women sewing and knitting, men in suits, boys and girls playing ice skating on a winter vacation and so on. The importance of this film is that it reminds us that a person cannot even begin to make any sense of the Holocaust with considering the fact that embedded in that horrific word are millions of stories of individual human beings—mothers, fathers, children, friends... human beings. For that reason, the film is called, “Landscape of Life.”
Before entering the museum compound we took a moment to stand at a place where two roads diverge. One road leads upward, the other leads down into the museum. The upward path is known as the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Gentiles. It is lined with trees. Trees symbolize protection, bounty, prosperity, and in Jewish tradition so much more. Each tree on the path is planted in honor of a righteous gentile who risked their own life to help save a Jew without ever seeking any reward or compensation. The trees are a reminder of the tremendous blessings that an individual life can bring to the world. I think it’s fair to say that the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Gentiles is also a kind of landscape of life.
At Yad Vashem the chaperones asked 4 individuals who have demonstrated exceptional poise and presence on this trip to have the honor of giving additional tzedakah on behalf of the class. The accepted this honor graciously and agreed to speak about what was in their heart and mind as each made their donation. Jenny spoke about the final room at Yad Vashem and how, when looking down into the reflecting pool she could not only the reflection of the faces from above, but her own face and the faces of her classmates. That, to her, was a symbol of personal responsibility. Audra spoke about how we had been asked to leave our belongings on the bus, kind of like how the Jews of Europe were forced to leave theirs. In our case, we knew we’d be reunited with them soon and not having them allowed us to focus on what really mattered. Tristan remembered the person that he wrote about for his 7th Grade Shoah project. He felt that Yad Vashem helped him reconnect with the important learning that took place in Ms. Schwartz’s class. And Chloe spoke about how important it is to remember the faces, the names, and the stories of the day. All of these thoughts were shared in a special place—the educational wing of Yad Vashem. We were taken there and allowed to use the space for reflection because of a family connection with the Feintuch’s. Their relative, Mr. Fred Hillman of blessed memory, survived the Holocaust and after achieving great financial success in his life, endowed an educational position at Yad Vashem. We had a chance to see the plaque bearing his name and utilize this special space. Places where true sharing, learning, and teaching happen are also part of the landscape of life.
Toward the end of our visit to Yad Vashem we walked through the children’s memorial. There 5 candles burn constantly. Through the use of specially placed mirrors these 5 candles create an immeasurable amount of life. Unfortunately, the children’s memorial offers no redemption and no comfort. This painful tribute to the 1.5 million murdered children is a reminder that, in the absence of humanity, there resides only a landscape of death.
Unable to leave without redemption, we paused to share some readings and prayers. There are many Jewish responses to the Holocaust. Today some of those responses were part of our itinerary. We recited Kaddish. We sang Oseh Shalom. We ate lunch. We visited Mt. Hertzl. We had a beautiful Shabbat experience and dinner. We hung out in the hotel and enjoyed some chill time. In my opinion, all of these things and countless others can be thought of as Jewish responses to the Holocaust. The Jewish response to the Holocaust is to create a flourishing and sacred landscape of life.
At Mt. Hertzl we paid our respects to the founders of the State of Israel and the thousands upon thousands of men and women that made the ultimate sacrifice to protect and uphold our Jewish homeland. Standing at the grave of Hannah Senesh, Caroline and Sarah Sz. read one of Hannah Senesh’s most beautiful poems. Then Zach L. read something that he’d written many months ago in Judaic Studies. But I’ll share that at the end.
We quickly ran back to the hotel before heading out to what ended up being the most wonderful Kabbalat Shabbat experience many of us (myself included) have ever had in Jerusalem. In the middle of the Old Train Station in Jerusalem, which is now populated with boutiques and restaurants, there was a stage. At 5pm a rabbi and handful of musicians took the stage and began a musical experience that made welcoming Shabbat feel totally authentic and wonderful. After our kids got oriented, they embraced the experience fully. Noa Grace, Olivia, Sarah T., Mary Ella, Sarah R. and a number of other girls were among the first in the crowd to start dancing. Shortly thereafter the rabbi came down from the stage and began a hora around the entire area with them. Along the way, many Israelis and other visitors either joined in or took pictures. Our girls, building on their time at the Kotel, summoned their special spirit. By doing so they helped others find the joy and beauty of Shabbat. When the service ended and it was time to walk back to the hotel, we were all in a great mood.
As we walked out of the train station I saw a beautiful carousel. In that moment I thought, “why not”? If you remember, last Shabbat ended with us having Havdallah on a playground. To statisfy your curiosity, yes, our Shabbat in Jerusalem began with The Davis Academy Class of 2016 joining together for a beautiful and carefree carousel ride. Between the dancing at Shabbat and the “painted ponies going up and down” I can assure you that our Kabbalat Shabbat was truly a landscape of life.
Before singing hamotzi at dinner I found myself moved to say the following. Look at the people sitting at your table. Tonight might be the last Shabbat dinner you have with this particular group of people for a long time. For some of you, it might be the last Shabbat dinner that you share. Shortly life will take you all in many wonderful and different directions. My prayer for this Shabbat meal is that the people at your table be more nourishing to you than the food that is placed on your table. I think they go it.
We concluded the evening by letting the boys hang out on one floor and the girls hang out on another. We unearthed a secret stash of “goomy” candy and let the kids chill out, play cards, and do other things that they seem to love doing. As I tried to make my way from one end of the narrow hallway to the other I found myself literally stumbling to find my way across the most beautiful landscape of life I’d seen all day.
I mentioned Zach L. earlier. In Mr. O’Dell’s Jewish Studies class, Zach and other students created a spiritual portfolio. Somehow I had a chance to read Zach’s several months ago. At that time I was deeply moved by something I found there. I photocopied it, knowing that Zach would likely not remember having written the piece and also likely not find it as profoundly moving as I did and as I know that you will. Imagine hearing these words being read at the most beautiful cemetery in the world. Imagine them echoing across the landscape of life and death that is known as the “Silver Platter” upon which the State of Israel was delivered. Think back to the trees that mark the path of the Righteous Among the Gentiles and think too of the fact that we are in Jerusalem, a place so deeply connected to Torah, our tree of life. I don’t think I’ll be able to type his words without a landscape of life welling up inside me. I don’t think you’ll be able to read them with experiencing the same.
Shabbat Shalom. This is Jerusalem. These are your children. This is our landscape of life.
I have lived one hundred years.
I’ve seen babies in strollers.
I’ve seen elders in wheelchairs.
I remember when they were the babies.
The grass grows and gets cut.
The flowers bloom and they die.
It’s hot, it rains.
It snows, the people change.
I remain the same.
I’ve seen wars.
I’ve seen peace.
Soldiers have had battles here.
Families have lived near me and enjoyed the
Freedom given to them by my old friends the soldiers.
Even I have grown.
I began as a little seed.
Now I stand tall, strong and proud.
I am The Tree of Life.