International

 

Shalom from Ben Gurion airport!

After waking up early and working our way through the airport, we are now just one-step away from boarding.

We all are tired but very excited to start our trip and explore the history and the culture of the Czech Republic.

I will be in touch soon,
Shay-El

 

Czech Republic – Day One

Shalom Parents,

We just got back to the hotel after a busy and incredible day! Tali and I are enjoying spending this time with your children and seeing the excitement on their faces at every turn. We can hardly believe how much we have already packed into one day!

Our trip began bright and early… Scratch that. It wasn’t bright out at all when we headed to the airport at 4:00am for our 7:30am flight to Prague. Despite the ungodly hour, everyone was a trooper with such good energy! The flight was uneventful as we all slept, and when we arrived in Europe, everyone was ready to hit the ground running.

After dropping our luggage off at the hotel, which is located in the most central area of Prague, close to the Old Town Square and the Jewish Quarter, we headed out to explore this beautiful city. Walking towards the river, we were wide-eyed as we took in the incredible architecture around us. The colors really stood out for many of us. Walking down an average street, adjacent apartment buildings were often shades of light colors such as orange, yellow, blue, and green. Reaching the Vltava River, we caught our first glimpses of the Castle, the Charles Bridge, and the unbelievable scenery. After lunch on a riverboat, we met our first tour guides who were ready with electric scooters and a tour of the western side of the river.

The electric scooter tour was great fun and allowed us to make our way to some incredible viewpoints from where we could see the whole city. We started at Petrin Hill, and as the path wound its way around the park, Simon showed off his bike skills riding downhill and around turns at great speed. The scooters we rode are essentially bicycles but with a platform to stand on where the pedals usually are. They are powered by a battery and probably don’t go more than 20mph, so I can only imagine the cool tricks we could do on an actual mountain bike!

At the top of Petrin Hill, we had an up-close view of the mini Eiffel Tower, which is actually two meters higher than the real Eiffel Tower… if you include the mountain it sits on as part of your measurements. Riding to an even higher vantage point, we reached the Strahov Stadium, which was constructed in the late 1920’s, it is the largest stadium and the fourth largest sports venue ever built. It has a capacity of 220,000! It is HUGE!!! Unfortunately, the stadium has never been filled to capacity, and instead it is now divided into smaller sections and used as a practice space for the Czech national soccer team.

Next, we went to the Strahov Monastery, which was established in 1143 and is quite famous for an unexpected reason. The monks brew a very special beer, which is available for sale at the Monastery (and only there.) Dating back to at least the 13th century, this beer has been produced at Strahov Monastery for over seven hundred years. As you may know, beer is a pretty significant part of Czech culture, but we were still a little surprised to see that it is cheaper than water on the menus!

Moving on from the Monastery, we rode our scooters down through the gardens and over to the Prague Castle. We made our way past some countries’ embassies and we stopped at the John Lennon Wall just past the French embassy. Once a normal wall, since the 1980s it has been filled with John Lennon-inspired graffiti and parts of the lyrics from Beatles’ songs. In 1988, the wall was a source of irritation for the communist regime, as young Czechs would write their grievances on it. Despite several attempts to paint over the wall and stop the graffiti, the wall today is a symbol of ideas such as love and peace. As you can imagine, the whole scooter tour was informative, interesting, and really enjoyed by us all, despite the cold.

After we had finished our scooter tour, we headed back to our hotel to rest a bit and prepare for our unique dinner. We stepped back in time and entered a medieval tavern complete with music and entertainment. The sword fighters and the dancers twirling fire were a true spectacle, but I think that the highlight of the show was the cameo role the students coerced me into.

In all seriousness, your children are a pleasure to travel with, and they are taking advantage of every moment on this incredible trip.

That is all for the first day. We all are looking forward to our new adventures tomorrow.

Layla Tov (Goodnight) from Praha,

Shay-El

 

Czech Republic – Day Two

Shalom Parents,

Wow! What a day we had today! Lots to tell you about, so here we go:

We woke up early in the morning and started our day at the Jewish quarter. We explored the Jewish Museum of Prague, which is spread throughout several synagogues and other important locations in the Jewish Quarter. In the Maisel Synagogue, in addition to marveling at the beauty of the building and its aron kodesh, we looked at displays about the history of the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia. The Pinkas Synagogue was built in 1535 and now serves as a memorial to the thousands of Czech Jews who perished in the Holocaust. The names of the nearly 80,000 Jewish victims from Bohemia and Moravia are inscribed on the walls. It is a powerful site to see. Each name is recorded along with the date of birth and date of death.

Next we visited the Jewish cemetery, which is among the oldest surviving Jewish burial grounds in the world. Right before entering the place, we saw a blessing in Hebrew. The students were curious about the meaning and wanted to practice their Hebrew. After a short discussion, we said the blessing and entered the place:

“Baruch ata adonai Elo-kenu melech ha-olam asher yatzar etchem badin, v’danv’chilkail etchem badin, v’hemit etchem badin, v’yode-ah mispar koolchem badin, v’atid l’ha-chazir ul-ha-chayot etchem badin. Baruch ate adonai-m’chayeh hemetim”.

“Praised be the Eternal, our God, the Ruler of the Universe who created you in judgment, who maintained and sustained you in judgment, and brought death upon you in judgment; who knows the deeds of every one of you in judgment, and who will hereafter restore you to life in judgment. Praised be the Eternal who will restore life to the dead.”

The cemetery was founded in the first half of the 15th century and used for nearly 400 years. Although the cemetery has been expanded several times over the centuries, it was still not big enough to meet the needs of the Jewish community and since space was scarce, bodies were buried on top of each other, with graves layered up to 10 deep. There are about 12,000 tombstones in the cemetery including the grave of Rabbi Judah Loew Ben Bezalel, known as the Maharal. Next to the cemetery is the Ceremonial Hall (mortuary) which includes displays of various ritual objectes connected with death and burial, such as tzedekah boxes, combs and nail files used for cleaning and preparing the body for burial, and memorial prayers. Upstairs, in the area that was used as a sort of club house for the Chevra Kadisha (Burial Society), I was particularly struck by the display of dishes and silverware that was used for the group’s annual banquet. Dealing with death and loss every day, the banquet was an opportunity for the society members to be joyous and celebrate their brotherhood each year.

One of the most meaningful moments for me was a talk about our visit to the Jewish heritage sites. The students shared their thoughts about how to live a Jewish life as adults and how important it is to keep our Jewish traditions alive, each person in his own unique way. We summarised our short conversation with one of the quotes near the exit from the cemetery. This quote is from Ecclesiastes, which was written by King Solomon:

“טוֹב שֵׁם, מִשֶּׁמֶן טוֹב; וְיוֹם הַמָּוֶת, מִיּוֹם הִוָּלְדוֹ”

A good name is better than fine perfume; and the day of death better than the day of one’s birth.
It was fascinating to read it in a cemetery and to think about why the old Jewish community choose this specific quote. Although it is just one sentence, there are so many ways and directions it can be interpreted and our conversation was more about Tikkun Olam, and how important it is as a member of the community to work for it and be a Mensch.

If you are having your own thoughts after reading it then great as this is the point! 🙂

Back in the Jewish Quarter, we headed over to the Denitz’s Kosher restaurant for lunch. It was interesting and we were proud to see how excited the students were to read some Hebrew.

Our next activity was about communism and a Nuclear Bunker Tour. From 1948 to 1989 Czechoslovakia was under communist rule and on the tour, we saw a variety of sites that gave us a glimpse into this important period in the country’s history. One notable stop was the site of a major demonstration during the Velvet Revolution in 1989 that ultimately lead to the end of communism in the country. Our guide was very informative and even told us stories from his childhood in Prague during that time. The best part of the tour was the visit to the nuclear bunker. In addition to exploring the bunker, there is a museum inside complete with paraphernalia from the communist era and we even had the chance to don communist army jackets, arm ourselves with weapons, and put on gas masks…You’ll see in the photos, it was a lot of fun!

We ended the day with The Dark Shadows of the Old Town tour. Scott the tour guide told us legends and tails from the old city of Prague. We were surprised to hear that the story of the Golem is one of the country’s legends. We were proud that one of the cornerstone stories in our tradition became a very well-known story!

Layla Tov,
Shay-El

 

Czech Republic – Days Three and Four

Dear Parents,

I hope you are enjoying your weekend. We had a fabulous one and I am excited to tell you all about it:
We started Friday with meeting our very chatty and very sweet tour guide, Blanka. We then travelled about an hour and a half east of Prague to the town of Kutna Hora. This town was founded in the mid-12th century and became important due to the silver that was mined there. There was once a Jewish community in Kutna Hora as well.

Our first stop in Kutna Hora was the Sedlec Ossuary, a chapel adorned with human skeletons. The bones of over 60,000 people were used to decorate the chapel. In each corner, there is a massive pyramid of bones and in the center and along the walls are displays of bones arranged artistically to create a crest of arms, hanging chandeliers, and patterned displays. We spent a few minutes admiring the artistry, and then trying to figure out which bones were which (we saw vertebrae, hips, pelvic bones, skulls, jaws, and of course many many arms and legs, plus many other bones we couldn’t identify!) According to the church’s tradition, many hundreds of years ago a man brought back dirt from the land of Israel and spread it around in the courtyard of the church. Believing that the area was now holy, everyone wanted to be buried there. In the 1500s, the bones were exhumed and piled up and then in 1870, a local man arranged all the bones into the displays we saw today. The sight is unique, and everyone had a lot to say about the displays.

Moving on from the “Bone Church,” we visited St. Barbara’s Cathedral, named for the patron saint of miners. This church was built in the late 1300’s and is incredibly impressive. Next to St. Barbara’s we saw the Charles Bridge of Kutna Hora, which isn’t actually a bridge at all. On a pedestrian street, there is a replica of the Charles Bridge complete with statues lining the bridge. We next walked to the beautiful Italian Court and Royal Mint. Here we marveled at the beautiful rooms that once served as the palace for the king, and we saw an exhibition about silver mining and coining, which had been extremely important to the whole country. In the 1700s, King Wenceslas ordered all other mints in the country to be shut down and he reformed the process for minting coins so that one unified currency would be used.

Before leaving Kutna Hora, we had the chance to see the synagogue that once served the Jewish community here. It ceased to operate as a shul during WWII and was used as an organ factory. Later, the building became a church. However, there is a beautiful memorial to the Jews of Kutna Hora outside the building, and Jewish symbols have been restored to the outside of the building as well (Jewish stars and a set of Ten Commandments.)

In the afternoon we made our way to Kolin. It was one of the oldest and most important Jewish communities in the Czech lands. The first mention of the Jewish settlement in Kolín dates from the middle of the 14th century, and the first mention of a Jewish street in Kolín comes from the 1370s, which means that there must have already been an extensive Jewish community in the town by that time. Of course, Kolín also has a very old Jewish graveyard. The oldest graves date from the end of the fifteenth century, which makes it one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in Bohemia along with the one in Prague. Blanka told us about an important project led by the city hall to keep alive the memory of the Jewish people killed in the Holocaust: next to every former Jewish house, there are names of the former residents (you can see an example in the picture). All of us were surprised by this project, and it is an excellent example of how important it is for the city to preserve the memory of old the Jewish community.

We returned to Prague after a long day and had two hours to rest and prepare for Shabbat. For services, we went to the Old-New Synagogue, which is the oldest functioning synagogue in Europe. The tefilla was really beautiful. As an orthodox synagogue, there is a separate section for the women but after service ended, the woman also had the chance to explore the main chapel area to see it up close. Then, we made our way to Chabad and joined them for Kabbalat Shabat and a pleasant Shabbat dinner with the community.
We made a short video to wish you Shabbat Shalom – you can watch it by clicking here.

We began Saturday morning with a nice stroll (accompanied by a bit of rain!) over the Charles Bridge. Midway along the bridge, we stopped to discuss a particular statue that features a crucifix adorned with a statement in Hebrew cast in gold. The words, “Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh, Adonai Tzevaot” (a statement we say three times a day during our tefillot) were added to the statue in 1694 when a local Jewish resident of the city, Elias Backhoffen, refused to remove his hat while walking past the cross. He was fined and the money was used to add the statement to the cross. In 1971, a Jewish tourist visiting Prague saw the statue and fought to have the offensive display removed. Citing National Heritage laws, the government refused to alter the statue and instead added a plaque next to it explaining the story behind it. We had a very enlightening discussion about the statement the Czech government is making by preserving the statue as is.

Heading onwards and upwards, we reached the castle. We had a really wonderful time exploring the palace and seeing many ancient items, including a knight’s helmet and weaponry, displayed in the Golden Lane, as well as the torture chamber complete with medieval torture tools. A bookshelf filled with thick, old books also caught our attention as special. The incredible St. Vitus Cathedral was unfortunately closed to the public today for liturgical reasons but even seeing the structure from the outside was breathtaking. The Old Royal Palace was also simply beautiful (if you want to see a virtual tour of the castle, here is a link.)

In the afternoon, we went on a really informative and amusing walking tour with a local guide named Lana, who was born and raised in Prague. She told us many stories of the Czech Republic. In the past four days, we have seen close to all the major sites (if not all) in Prague, but it was still a challenge to link all the information together. Thanks to Lana, we are now able to do it!

We ended Shabbat together with a Havdalah ceremony at the Chabad house. Lana, an atheist, was curious about our custom, so we invited her to join us. It became a true educational moment when the students explained the meaning behind it and gave her some other information about Judaism and even about daily life in Israel.

I would like to add that after exploring Jewish history and discussing our Jewish identity over the past few days, it was fulfilling and meaningful for all of us to continue our tradition with the Havdalah ceremony.

With the end of Shabbat, we had some free time for shopping and dinner, and concluded our day by playing laser tag, a sport that young Czech people love! We played two games, split up into teams and played against each other. It was so much fun and I can tell you that Justin got the best score for both games 🙂

Wishing you all Shavua Tov,
Shay-El

 

On our way back to Israel

Shalom,

After five intense days in Prague, we are in the airport now waiting for boarding.

We are sad and can’t believe our trip is over, but happy to be back to our homeland very soon. We will land around 2:30 am IST.

Tomorrow, I’ll send you a summary of our last day in Prague. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, enjoy this lovely (!!) picture taken by Skylar:

 

Prague

 

Czech Republic – Day Five

Shalom all,

Our fifth day in Prague was very meaningful and powerful. Our day began the early morning with an hour drive out to Terezin, a garrison town built in the late 1700’s and later converted into a concentration camp and Jewish ghetto during the Holocaust. Although the camp was used as a transit camp and not as an extermination camp, tens of thousands of people died there in any event. Some were killed outright, and others died from malnutrition and disease due to the cramped living quarters, lack of hygiene and medication, scarcity of food, improper heating, and other horrendous conditions.

Terezin is divided into two areas – the Small Fortress, which was a prison for political prisons and for Jews who broke the rules of the camp, and the Main Fortress, which housed the ghetto. Walking through the Small Fortress with our guide, we passed through the gate above which was painted the infamous words, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” (work makes you free). Throughout the prison we saw up close the horrific conditions in which the prisoners held here were forced to live with – rooms with cement floors on which the prisoners were forced to sleep even in the cold of winter, isolation rooms where prisoners were packed in with not even enough room to lay down to sleep, and other rooms which no windows where prisoners were kept in total darkness.

When Terezin was built, over 30 km of corridors (tunnels basically) were constructed to give soldiers a way to move protected through the fortress, with shooting positions to defend themselves, and with escape tunnels in case the fortress was attacked. Although these corridors were never used during the Holocaust for fear of a prisoner escaping, we walked through one which was 500 meters in length and it helped us understand more about the construction of the compound. We then reached the area where the guards conducted target practice and later performed executions to prisoners who the Gestapo decided should be killed. The last group of executions at this site was two months before the camp was liberated when 52 people were shot and killed.

One of the unique aspects of Terezin was the effort made to use the camp as a model concentration camp in order to dupe the Red Cross into thinking that the Nazis were actually taking good care of the Jews. For example, we saw a “shaving rooms” which was constructed merely for show. In this room, the walls were lined with sinks and mirrors, but the entire room was never used. We also saw a propaganda video which was made by the Nazis in Terezin and used to demonstrate to the world that the Jews were being treated well. There were scenes of men playing soccer, with thousands of spectators cheering them on. There were scenes of women knitting. And there were scenes of the ghetto orchestra which was forced to play.

Also unique about Terezin was the artwork which was produced by the children at the camp. In an effort to help the children cope with their trauma, and as a part of the propaganda, many children were given the chance to draw pictures of their experience, their homes which they had been forced to abandon and their dreams for a better future. Seeing the drawings throughout the Ghetto Museum, we truly felt the sting of the loss which we suffered as a Jewish people in this place. Music, plays, and poems were also composed and written in the ghetto. During the tour, we had the chance to read a different poem which was found after the war but written by a child held at this camp. Most of these children later died at Auschwitz. By reading these poems, we were helping the memory of each of these children live on even after the had perished.

As we continued through the Ghetto, we saw the areas where the bodies were prepared for burial, the crematorium, and cemetery consisting of a mass grave. To put things in perspective, the ghetto in Terezin was originally built to house around 7500 people, but during the Holocaust, over 60,000 people were in the camp at one time. The infrastructure did not exist to accommodate such a large group of people. Before leaving the cemetery, we read the mourners kaddish for those who have no one to stay it for them, and we each placed a stone on one of the unmarked gravestones.

During the day, our tour guide Pavel shared with us how important was it for the Jews in the camp to keep some of the tradition in order not to lose their Jewish Identity and try as they can to keep routines from the past. As we ended the discussion, we surprised the students with the letters you wrote in advance. ALL of them were in shock and it was such a powerful moment for all of us, thanks to you. I can share with you that none of the eyes left dried by reading the letters…even mine’s and Tali’s by seeing how excited they are.

Being in Terezin reminded me of all that we as a people have lost, but also being there with our students reminded me of all that we have to hold on to as well.

As we departed from the castle, we headed to the Klementinum which is a historic complex of buildings in Prague. Until recently the complex hosted the National, University and Technical libraries. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take pictures there, so you can click here to be impressed by its beauty.

We ended our day with dinner and headed straight to the airport. After a short red-eye flight, we arrived safe and sound in Israel and joined back to the program schedule.

Both Tali and I had a terrific time with the group this past five days. It was wonderful getting to know them in a different context and to spend so much time with each other. International travel can be so rewarding as it exposes us to different cultures and people, and this trip certainly did that for all of us. Thank you for giving your children the gift of exploration and for trusting us with their experiences this year.

B’Shalom,
Shay-El

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