Jewish Survival and Revival: From Yad Vashem to the Gaza Envelope

Thursday, January 09, 2020

“I feel that the story of the Jewish people mingles with my personal familial story,” said Yehuda Kaplan of the Victorian School of Languages in Melbourne.

In Jerusalem, following a moving and powerful weekend that included tours and prayers at heritage sites, the second week of the Australian Educators’ Study Tour began at the National Institutions Building, continuing on to Yad Vashem and the Nes Harim Field and Forest Educational Center, and then southwards to visit Israeli communities in the tense Gaza border region.

The impressive National Institutions Building in Jerusalem brings together all of the international Zionist institutions including Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael - Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF). Built in 1930, it became the symbol of pre-state Israel.

During their time there, the Australian guests received a historic overview of the seminal actions and decisions made here by these organizations, beginning from the first stages of the country’s formation up until the present day.

To learn more about the period prior to the establishment of the state, the delegation continued their tour with a visit to Yad Vashem - The World Holocaust Remembrance Center.  They began by walking along the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations, between the trees planted in memory of non-Jews who risked their lives to rescue Jews from the inferno. During their tour of the museum, they viewed videos, exhibits, and testimonies documenting the devastation of European Jewry.

“I feel that the story of the Jewish People mingles with my personal family story,” said Yehuda Kaplan of the Victorian School of Languages in Melbourne. His paternal grandfather was an officer in the Soviet Union’s Red Army and was killed during the war. His family on his mother’s side was sent to concentration camps in Tunisia. “During the tour of Yad Vashem I try to imagine what my family went through and how they survived.”

“As a non Jewish person, I believe it is important for everyone to learn about the Holocaust, to ensure that terrible events such as these never recur”, said Carrie Parrat, a psychologist at the Mount Scopus School in Melbourne, “every year on Holocaust Memorial Day we visit the Holocaust Museum in Melbourne and listen to survivors’ testimonies. It is our obligation to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive for all of us.”

How is the subject of the Holocaust taught to teenagers today? This question, which concerns educators all over the world, was the focus of a talk delivered to the teachers at Yad Vashem.

“Our goal is to bring the children into the story of the Holocaust safely, and bring them out of it safely, without traumatizing them,” said Ephraim Kaye, Director of International Seminars at Yad Vashem. “We don’t just want to talk about how the Jews were murdered, but mainly how they lived, because this is the only way to create empathy. Our ambition is to inspire the students to become better people.”

Upon leaving Yad Vashem the teachers received surprise letters written by their families in Australia. They opened the envelopes and were deeply moved by the messages from their loved ones. There was hardly a dry eye among them following this loving gesture, in the wake of the difficult experience at Yad Vashem.

The next stop was the KKL-JNF Field and Forest Educational Center at Nes Harim, facing the breathtaking scenery of the Jerusalem Mountains. The center hosts many youth groups from Israel and abroad who come to connect with nature through experiential workshops, educational activities, conventions and events. The site includes accommodation cabins, classrooms, and OTD facilities. A large, ecological multipurpose structure for dining, conferences and functions stands at its center, built with the support of JNF Australia.

Onwards South: Sderot and Sha’ar HaNegev

From the bus windows, one can see the city of Sderot on the border with the Gaza Strip. The city is currently experiencing a construction boom, with new housing, children’s playgrounds, parks and public spaces.  In their large central park stands a beautiful artificial lake, created with the support of friends of JNF Australia. In the middle of the lake is an island featuring an open classroom.

The participants took great interest in the city and asked about its development in spite of the security situation in the region. How to lead a normal life in the shadow of a war that has been going on for so many years? This is one of the challenges faced by the residents of Sderot. The residents believe that the best answer to terrorism is to keep building, growing, raising families, and bestowing the future generations with quality education and hope for a better future.

From the roof of the Sderot Hesder Yeshiva, the Australian visitors looked out at the Gaza Strip. Also at the Yeshiva, they were impressed by the large menorah fashioned from the remnants of a Qassam rocket. “Sderot is not just a city trying to evade Qassam rockets, but the fulfillment of the Zionist vision,” said Rabbi David Fendel, head of the Yeshiva.

“For over a decade we’ve been living under rocket attacks, and in spite of this the city is growing and developing,” Alon Davidi, the mayor of Sderot, told the visitors. “Why do we stay here? Because this is our city and we love it, we see ourselves as ambassadors of all the people who believe in life.”

The day ended with a meeting with the educational staff of the Shaar Hanegev High School. The landscaping for this school, which is entirely missile and bomb proof, was developed with the support of friends of JNF Australia. The teachers split into groups to discuss various educational issues with their Israeli colleagues. The educators found that they had surprisingly much in common, even while living on opposite ends of the world and teaching in entirely different educational cultures. After all, both Australian and Israeli educators care deeply for the education of future generations.