gap year in israel

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Day 1

Dear Parents,

Guten Abend aus Berlin! Good evening from Berlin! After a wonderful and exhausting first day in Germany, everyone is back at the hotel, probably already sound asleep as I write this. Our day started at 3:00 am as we headed off to the airport for our early morning flight. Some of us managed to sleep a bit before that, while others did not. Our check-in process went smoothly and we all pretty much collapsed at the gate while waiting for our flight to board. Someone (I won’t name names…) briefly misplaced his or her passport but thanks to Mia’s keen eyes, we all boarded the plane with our appropriate documents (and as soon as we got through passport control in Germany, I collected all the passports for safe keeping.) I’m fairly certain that we all fell asleep before the plane even took off and it was a smooth ride to Berlin.

Once in Germany, we sailed through the airport, stopping only to exchange some money into euros, grab coffee or a snack, and pick up our bus passes for the week, then our we went to a private bus which took us to our hotel. Along the way, we had a chance to gaze out the windows and appreciate a bit of the scenery. Once at the hotel, we deposited our luggage in our unbelievably spacious rooms, and headed out to explore the city.

Most of the trip we will be getting around using the local and extensive public transportation system. The buses, metro, and trams are really accessible and convenient, and it is giving us the chance to experience the city a way which is more authentic than a tourist bus. Everyone was excited as the bus rolled up and it was a double decker! Driving through the city, we begin to really take it all in… especially the interesting architecture, some of which is Bauhaus which Taya has been thrilled about as it connects to her Tel Aviv internship!

After a delicious lunch, we headed into the Berlin Story Museum which is located in a bunker constructed during World War II and which details the history of Berlin over the last 800 years. With the assistance of an audio guide, we explored the various rooms focusing on different periods of Berlin’s history and viewed a wide array of artifacts, photographs, film clips and more. Some of the aspects of the museum which we found the most interesting were the incredible photographs from the “roaring 20’s,” the display of the Jewish history of Berlin and the unique cobblestone memorials found throughout the city (more on this soon), the maps illustrating the four zones Berlin was divided into after the war, and the film which gave us a concise and clear understanding of the progression of Berlin’s history (and a few of us may have also taken advantage of the darkness in the film room to fit in a quick power nap during the last few minutes of the film…) Many of us also took note of the “Trümmerfrau” – the 60,000 women who, in the aftermath of WWII, were mobilized in Berlin to remove the rubble leftover from the war.

Building on what we learned at the museum, we next explored the outdoor section of the The Topography of Terror museum. This site is a memorial and exhibition which details the history of repression under the Nazis. It also includes a section which remains of the Berlin Wall. Standing at this site, I shared with the students that I was a teenager when the Berlin Wall came down so that they might better understand that a divided Berlin and the Cold War was not actually that long ago in the scope of history.

Moving on we visited Checkpoint Charlie, the best-known Berlin Wall crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin during the Cold War. Of course we took a photo with the (fake) American soldiers guarding the checkpoint (they were Lebanese, which reminds me to mention that some of the students have already noticed the large presence of Middle Easterners in Berlin – something we will be exploring more about tomorrow.)

Getting to our next site required taking the subway and as we stood on the incredibly crowded train, some of us commented about how strange it was to be Jews in Germany packed in like sardines on the train and the irony of it all, particularly in light of today being Yom HaShoah. This also lead to a discussion about whether it is sometimes acceptable or always in poor taste to make Holocaust jokes. The group was divided on the issue.

Arriving at the area of the Neue Synagogue, we had a bit of free time before meeting our guide David who did a wonderful job of engaging us in our tour of the synagogue’s exhibits despite our growing exhaustion. The Neue Synagogue isn’t actually so new… Built in 1866, it was named this because it was new at the time and it served to provide a much larger place of worship that the older shul in the neighborhood. When I say “much larger,” I really mean it. The original building had the capacity to seat 3200 people and was the largest Jewish place of worship in all of Germany. At the time, the Neue Synagogue was literally a symbol – physically and spiritually – of the thriving Jewish community. As we explored the parts which were not destroyed by the war, we learned about Moses Mendelssohn and his influence on the community and the growth of German liberal Judaism. As we stood in the synagogue and looked out at the area which was once the main sanctuary (the part of the stucture which no longer exists) we could sense just how massive the building once was. David shared with us how the synagogue building itself illustrated the unique characteristics of the community which was the center of Liberal Judaism before the Shoah including the Moorish style of architecture, the presence of a pulpit facing the congregation for the Rabbi to give a sermon in German, the addition of an organ and choir loft, and more.

Finally we climbed the steep steps to the magnificent dome, which on the outside is golden and shimmers grandly for all to see from even a far distance. After marveling at the incredible view, we gathered together and held a memorial ceremony for Yom HaShoah. The theme of our ceremony matched the theme of the official ceremony which was held last night at Yad Vashem, “The War Within the War: the Struggle of the Jews to Survive During the Holocaust.” The students read a variety of selections of poems, historical and personal accounts from the Shoah, and we heard the story of one special survivor. Fanny Ben Ami was born in Germany as a child during the war she demonstrated tremendous courage and leadership which lead to not only her survival but also that of 150 other children. She was one of the six survivors honored to light a torch of remembrance at the ceremony in Israel last night. Everyone had chills as Dana sang for us “There are Stars Up Above” written by Hannah Senesh. We concluded with Miquelle and Dana leading us in the song “Eli Eli.” The acoustics in the dome were incredible which added to the impact of Miquelle’s and Dana’s beautiful voices and the meaningful words of the poems. Our ceremony also brought tears to the eyes of a German woman who happened to be visiting the synagogue dome as a tourist as well. She shared with us that she had lived in Berlin during WWII and later converted to Judaism as an adult. She was visiting Germany this week with her adult daughter who told us that her great uncle had been killed in a concentration camp for having spoken out against the Nazis.

Our last stop of the day was a beautiful restaurant located in Tiergarten Park. Walking through the park was refreshing and seeing the gorgeous natural growth around us perhaps helped us begin to release both the physical and emotional intensity of the day. We had a wonderful relaxed dinner which was really delicious as well.

Our Yom HaShoah – which we began in Israel last night with a fascinating speaker from the Czech Republic, and continued today in Germany – was truly special and gave us all insights, knowledge, and personal experiences which we will remember for a lifetime. If you’re interested in learning more about this year’s theme of remembrance, I encourage you to explore this section of Yad Vashem website’s:

It has been a long and amazing first day here. We look forward to getting a good nights rest and heading out tomorrow to continue to learn and explore further.

Laila tov,

Day 2

Dear Parents,

We’ve clocked 13 km of walking so far today and we rode more subways than I can count… And the day’s not over yet! Right now, everyone is relaxing, shopping near the hotel, and getting ready for Shabbat. In an hour we will be bringing in Shabbat with the local Jewish community at the Central Synagogue. Coming together for shabbat services and dinner with Germans and tourists from around the world should be a nice experience for everyone. It’s always amazing to me that we can walk into any shul around the world and know that we share a common language, culture and traditions even if outside the doors of the synagogue it appears that we share none of those things. I don’t know more than a few words of German and yet I can feel at home the minute I walk into synagogue.

Our day today started out with a visit to the Classic Remise. In a spacious and lofty restored tram depot, the floor was lined with rows and rows of classic cars, motorcycles, old gas pumps, and a couple of boats. Each was more shiny and impressive than the next. While some of us were super excited for the displays, others were a bit skeptical and not so interested in seeing old cars… But that was the feeling before we got there. Once inside when we all saw what there was to see, there was a lot of excitement and we had a great time exploring the showcase and posing for photos. Ethan pointed out a shiny red Porsche to us that was a model in which only about 150 were built (sorry, I can’t remember which model, but it was a beautiful car and the side mirrors were sticking off the sides about a foot away from the car – apparently making it more aerodynamic according to Ethan.) It really was quite cool to see all the cars from various time periods.

Our next stop was at Alexanderplatz where we met our guide Franscisco who took us all around the city on a Berlin Wall Tour. Franscisco is originally from Chile but his father and parents were from East Berlin and left after the wall came down. He is now and architect and tour guide. It was great hearing many stories from him about the period from 1961 to 1989 when the wall divided the city. He shared with us a bit about the architecture as well and explained that since 80% of Berlin was in rubles after WWII, the buildings which went up in East Berlin were nearly all constructed by the Soviets. We saw a number of very large buildings which were once centers of government services during the DDR (GDR) time which are now either abandoned or have been converted into commercial use. After we left Alexanderplatz, we went to the Tranenpalast (Palace of Tears), which served the GDR dictatorship until 1990 as a departure terminal for people leaving the GDR for West Berlin. Many individuals were forced to say goodbye to friends and relatives here and each time East Germans were painfully reminded that the border was closed to them and many found themselves powerless in the face of bullying border guards. The terminal is now a museum which we had some time to explore.

Moving on, we headed over to the Berlin Wall Memorial which is the central memorial site of the German division, located in the middle of the city. The memorial extends along 1.4 kilometers of the former border strip and memorial contains the last piece of Berlin Wall with the preserved grounds behind it, thus it is able to convey an impression of how the border fortifications developed until the end of the 1980s. As Franscisco explained, much of the Berlin Wall developed based on problems and the GDR’s reaction to those problems. For example, the wall itself wasn’t so tall and they realized at some point that working together three people could climb over the wall and escape, so they began to put oil on the top of the rounded top portion of the wall so that it would be slippery. Or, they discovered that people were trying to tunnel their way out so the Stasi began to build tunnels on a diagonal path aimed at intersecting any tunnel running perpendicular to the wall. He shared stories with us of some of those who dared to escape – some who succeeded and others who died trying. We also learned that in order to build the wall buildings including homes and even churches were removed if they stood in the way of the path of the wall. Each aspect of the memorial was fascinating. Our final stop was at the East Side Gallery – the portion of the wall which has been turned into the largest outdoor art gallery and includes many famous murals. We learned a bit about some of the more notable murals and of course had the chance to take photos there as well. It was a fascinating tour and we really learned a lot from our guide.

After strolling through the cool Kreuzberg neighborhood, our last stop of the day before some much needed time to relax was the Refugio House. I have to admit, we were running late due to our tour with Fransisco lasting longer than expected and our lunch was already planned to be on the late side, so by the time we arrived we were famished. Nevertheless, the students were all really attentive as we met our host for the afternoon, Samir who is a Syrian refugee that arrived in Berlin a few years ago. As we started the meeting, he spoke only Arabic to us and we tried to explain that we only spoke English. For at least five minutes we tried to find a way to communicate with him – Ori using the little bits of Arabic he knows, a bit of pantomiming, failed attempts by us to speak English to him and Samir speaking Arabic to us, and finally a painfully slow process of using google translate. In the end, it was Samir’s magic ring that helped us as he put it on and suddenly knew how to speak English. Of course he then explained to us that he was sorry for pretending that he didn’t speak English but he wanted to demonstrate one of the first hardships for refugees resettling after having lost their homes and nearly everything which is familiar to them.

Samir then shared with us his personal story including why he stayed in Syria throughout the first five years of the civil war and why he ultimately felt he had to leave. His journey to Berlin included fleeing to Turkey and continuing on to Europe as country after country declined to accept him and other refugees he was fleeing with. He described the harrowing boat journey on a rubber boat across the sea with more than double the number of passengers the boat should have held, all organized by smugglers. And he described the other boat which departed at the same time as his but didn’t make it safely to the other shores. Discussing the plight of the refugees with Samir in an open and honest way was a unique experience for all of us. We shared with him a bit about our group and we all agreed that when people meet on a personal level, we are able to find a common ground and respect, but unfortunately that’s not always so easy when governments and politics are involved. It was an amazing talk and we learned a lot.

Then out came the food. Wow! It was an authentic Syrian meal and it was AMAZING.

That’s all I have time for now. We’re off to shul in a few minutes. Shabbat Shalom to all of you! I’ll write again after shabbat tomorrow night.


Day 3

Dear Parents,

I need to continue where I left off yesterday because our synagogue experience was really incredible. We arrived at the address listed for the synagogue and found a nondescript building with a plain door, no sign, no symbols, and no indication that we had arrived at a synagogue. Ori and I looked at each other and asked each other in Hebrew if this could actually be it. A few meters away stood a man who overheard us and responded in Hebrew, yes, this is it. We entered another plain wooden door to find a security terminal with several more guards and they directed us to the back of the entryway to a small door which half the group had to duck to fit through. We then entered an outdoor courtyard and facing us was a completely separate building – a large synagogue with huge stained glass windows and beautiful architecture.

Inside the synagogue, the service was about to begin and a girl dressed in a fancy pink shabbat dress walked up to the bima and lit shabbat candles as the start of celebrating her bat mitzvah. The community was a mix of people, some dressed in black coats and hats, some in suits and knitted kippot, and others in jeans. Among the women, the dress varied as well, as did the languages being spoken. The service was simply magnificent. The Hazzan, who we later learned is originally Israeli, had an unbelievable voice which simply filled the room. Have you ever seen a photo of a synagogue in Europe before the Holocaust with a stunning sanctuary and the Hazzan standing in the middle with a black hat shaped like a hexagon sitting tall on his head… Well, that’s what we saw last night in Berlin. It was exactly as I’d pictured it would have been eighty years ago.

At one point during Kabbalat Shabbat, the rabbi and cantor lead the men over to an open space and many of the women did the same in our section, and then everyone began to sing and dance. All of us from Aardvark joined in and we danced and danced probably for fifteen minutes. Simon (who many of you know from our staff) would have been in heaven! Just ask your kids if they were in the tefilla he lead on the Aardvark shabbaton in March. Between Kabbalat Shabbat and Maariv, the bat mitzvah girl was invited to the bima again and she gave a dvar torah with the rabbi standing by her side and then everyone threw candy at her to wish her a mazal tov and sweet journey into adulthood as a Jew. It was really interesting to see this bat mitzvah in a shul with an ultra orthodox rabbi (long white beard, black coat, black hat…) It just goes to show you can’t judge a book by it’s cover.

After services, we all moved to the upstairs social hall in the synagogue where the room was packed with tables and chairs set for dinner. In addition to our group, there was another visiting group eating dinner with the community, as well as most of the local members of the community and the bat mitzvah girl and her family and guests. We were lucky enough to be seated with the bat mitzvah girl’s brother, sister and friends who are all the same age as our students. Yesterday I wrote about how we don’t share language and culture with the German Jews outside the synagogue… Well I was wrong. They spoke perfect English and they watch the same TV shows as our students (and one of them may never forget the spoiler Zac let slip as they discussed Game of Thrones.) The students had a great time getting to know these young adults and finding common ground with them (and appreciated the suggestions of cool places to visit in their free time over the next few days.) Some of them are already in touch over facebook.

Today was another incredible day. We began with a visit to Urban Nation street art museum. You’ll see from the photos how cool it was. I think Miquelle would have been happy to stay there all day. One of the coolest parts of the museum, aside from the amazing artwork, was the totally graffitied bathrooms. Next we headed to the center of the city where we visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. This massive memorial site includes over 2700 plain cement cubes which give you the impression of visiting a graveyard but as you walk through the paths the cubes get taller and taller and the ground slopes slightly up and down. We had a fascinating discussion about the symbolism found in the memorial, the feelings it evokes in visitors, and our thoughts being there. We then visited the Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism. There too we had an interesting discussion before we moved on to the site of Hitler’s Bunker which includes a sign and nothing else. The remnants which still exist are sealed off from the public. We discussed there the balance between marking this historical site while also preventing it from becoming a shrine or memorial.

Our next stop was at the Brandenburg Gate which is one of the most iconic sights in Berlin today. In addition to being the only surviving historical city gate, this site also symbolizes Berlin’s Cold War division into East and West – and, since the fall of the Wall, a reunified Germany. Built in the late 1700’s, it sits on the site of the more ancient gate which once marked the start of the road from Berlin to Brandenburg. I debated whether to write about the guy we saw in the courtyard in front of the gate or not, but since Berlin is so proud of it’s alternative culture and acceptance of “freaks” I think maybe this somewhat shows us an example of that. The guy I’m referring to was barely clothed, waving the peace sign to everyone gathered around as he stood flanked by the German flag and perched on some contraption as he promoted something in German which we didn’t understand…

As we continued on, we met our guide for the afternoon, Margot, who took us on an unbelievable food tour which left us stuffed and enriched with stories and insights into Berlin culture. For nearly four hours we ate and ate and ate. My favorite was the dessert – apple dumplings coated in cinnamon sugar, with whipped cream and vanilla ice cream topped with pumpkin seed syrup. In addition to the food, we visited a cool area of town which was once a train depot and industrial area and now is full of cool clubs, a skate park, a climbing wall built on the outside of an air raid shelter, a music school, and more. And of course all the buildings are covered with amazing murals and graffiti. Margot told us about the pressure in East Berlin to keep out brand names and chains like McDonalds and we saw a McD sign which had been posted like a trophy on one of the buildings after the community convinced the restaurant chain to close up the branch which had been opened nearby.

In the evening, the students had free time to shop, hang out in some of the trendy areas we saw over the last couple days, and meet up with friends or relatives who live here in Berlin. (We were supposed to do an escape room, but there was a glitch on the website for the venue and they reserved the rooms on the wrong day. The students were very understanding about the mixup and everyone actually appreciated the chance for some solid free time early on in the evening.)

That’s all for today… Everyone is having a wonderful time. Your kids are a pleasure to spend time with and Berlin is an amazing city!

Oh, one other quick note… You may have noticed that Samir’s face was blurred in the photograph from the refugee center yesterday. He asked that we not put his photo on the internet since he still has family in Syria and his meeting with a group from Israel could potentially place them in danger if it ever got back to his home country.

Laila tov,

Day 4

Dear Parents,

Did you know that Berlin is nine times bigger than Paris? This city is huge and we continue to discover more and more of what makes it so special!

Today we started our day at the Reichstag building with its famous glass dome from which you can actually look down into the debating chamber of the Bundestag, the German parliament. Although the building was constructed in the late 1800’s, the dome was only built in the 1990’s and it provides an amazing 360 degree view of the city. Everyone had a great time looking at ourselves in the mirrored cone which stands in the center of the dome and directs sunlight into the building and the parliament below. The Dome symbolizes that the people are above the government unlike during Nazism. The futuristic design is also intended to symbolize Berlin’s attempt to move away from a past of Nazism and instead towards the future. As we walked up the spiraling ramp to the top of the dome, we had a bird’s eye tour of the city thanks to our audio guides. It was magnificent to see the entire city from up above.

Our next stop was Mauerpark which hosts the largest flea market in Berlin. Everyone found something they wanted: vintage clothing, cool watches, beautiful earrings, old cameras, and more. Sam found a really nice hat, Mia got a great backpack, and Dana found a cool jean jacket… There were also amazing snacks to be had and a number of street performers who were simply amazing. We had a great time and saw first hand the cool vibe that everyone talks about when they talk about Berlin.

For lunch, we had special guests with us – Renata and Katrin – who are Jewish college students who grew up in Berlin and also happen to be cousins.. Their grandparents, who had lived in Russia, resettled in East Germany after WWII. Renata and Katrin, who are cousins, grew up in Berlin. As we ate together, the students had the opportunity to ask them questions about what it is like to grow up Jewish in Germany. To our disappointment, we learned that there is still antisemitism and there is a feeling among Jews that they have to hike their faith. Prior to going on Birthright, the girls had a very minimal connection to Judaism despite having had some Jewish involvement growing up. They said there aren’t really many Jewish schools in Berlin (despite there being over 115,000 Jews in the city.) The community is largely unaffiliated according to the girls. They shared with us that they attended a Jewish club after school sometimes, but that really it was their Israel trip which shifted their commitment to being Jewish.

In the afternoon, we visited the DDR Museum (I should really say we played at the DDR Museum…) This interactive museum depicts life in the former East Germany (known in German as the Deutsche Demokratische Republik or DDR). We had the chance to drive in a car, find a covert listening device (“bug”) which gave us the sense of being “under surveillance,” try on DDR clothes, visit an apartment, use an original typewriter and more. Micah, Ethan and Noah had the most fun I think and they had me laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe as they really embraced the idea that this was a hands-on museum and we were encouraged to try everything. They really got into character!

We then moved on to the famous TV tower and most of us had a much needed Starbucks break before we continued on to our evening’s entertainment – Blue Man Group. If you’re not familiar with their performances, I encourage you to watch a video or two of theirs on youtube. They are creative, hilarious, and incredibly entertaining. We had an amazing time at the show.

It’s been a really full day yet again and the weather even was kind to us today. It’s been cold here but today the sun came out as we wandered around the flea market. Tomorrow we have a tour to the Sachsenhausen Memorial Site, a meeting with a representative of the Israeli Embassy and a last chance to shop before we head home to Israel.

Laila tov,

Home Safely

Dear Parents, We have arrived home safely in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem after another amazing day in Germany which included a guided tour of the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp Memorial Site and a very special meeting with the Israeli Ambassador to Germany, Jeremy Issacharoff. I’ll tell you all about it after I get a little more sleep… Our flight departed Germany at 10:00 pm last night, we landed at 3:00 am and the students got back to their apartments around 4:30 am, so as you can imagine, we are all exhausted. The students will have most of the day to catch up on sleep and laundry before rejoining regular Aardvark programming late this afternoon. I’ll be in touch later today with Day Five’s highlights and photos. -Debbie

Day 5

Dear Parents,

Our trip to Germany fell during a very unique time in Israel’s calendar. We arrived in Germany on Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day – and we landed back in Israel on Erev Yom HaZikaron – Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Terrorism – which then leads right into Yom HaAtzmaut – Israeli Independence Day. The last day of our trip tied together these central themes of Jewish History, Zionism, remembrance, honor, and pride.

We began our day with a tour of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp guided by Nadav, an Israeli whose family originated from Germany. Nadav returned to Germany to complete his PhD research two decades ago and wound up staying. He shared with us stories of his family members who were imprisoned at Sachsenhausen and of other notable individuals – some of whom died in the camp, a few who escaped, and others who were later transferred to other concentration camps.

Sachsenhausen was established in 1936 and is located only 35 km (22 mi) north of Berlin. It served as the administrative center of all the concentration camps and became a training center for the SS officers who would then be sent out to oversee other camps afterwards. First used as a camp for political prisoners, Sachsenhausen was later also used for Jews and other persecuted groups. As we toured what remains of the camp, we entered the Jewish barracks and had a glimpse of the terribly cramped conditions the prisoners were forced to live in. As we sat around a table in the barracks, Nadav talked about the extreme choices the prisoners were sometimes forced to make. For example, it was mandatory to have a hat and each morning as the guards counted the prisoners and would punish anyone not wearing a hat. If your hat was lost, would you steal a hat from another prisoner? Would you try to escape the camp? Would you face the punishments that awaited you? He also talked about the torture some of the guards imposed on the prisoners. They were not allowed to punish them without cause so they would take someone’s hat and throw it towards the fence into a restricted area. Then the prisoner had to choose to either accept the punishment of not having a hat, or enter the area near the fence and risk being shot.

As we moved through the camp, we commented on how it was hard to imagine surviving such a place. The weather this past week in May was cold (in the 40’s fahrenheit or 4-10 degrees celsius) and we had coats and hats. It was impossible to fathom what it must have been like in January with only thin camp uniforms. The conditions also exposed the people to diseases due to the lack of soap, poor bathroom conditions, and the lack of silverware. A spoon was a valuable item which not everyone had and using your hands to eat could be a death sentence due to the terrible hygienic conditions.

Visiting the crematorium was perhaps the most difficult part of our tour. The building itself was destroyed but the foundation remains and we could see the outline of each room and Nadav described to us what happened in each space. The room where they checked the people for gold teeth which would later be removed. The gas chamber where they would test different gasses to see which would be most effective. The room where they would shoot people in the back of the neck. And the ovens. At the memorial statue next to the ovens we read a poem entitled Yizkor (which means remember and is the title of the memorial prayer) and together sat the mourners kaddish as we lit a memorial candle for those who perished.

Returning to Berlin, we travelled directly to the Israeli Embassy where we had a very informative meeting with the Israeli Ambassador to Germany, Jeremy Issacharoff, and Minister Counselor Rogel Rachman, Head of the Public Relations Department. For an hour and a half, the Ambassador shared with us his perspective on German-Israeli relations, answered all our questions, and spent quite a bit of time asking us questions about our experiences in Israel. He was interested to hear from each student what internships they had been involved in during the time on Aardvark and their thoughts about living in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. As the conversation moved towards politics, we learned that the Embassy in Germany is considered to be the second most important embassy of Israel in the world (second to the embassy in Washington, DC) because Germany is a strong ally of Israel and among the strongest countries in Europe. Ambassador Issacharoff explained that the two countries’ relationship is unique due to the Holocaust and that history is simply an influencing factor in everything. In other words, has Israel forgiven the Germans for the atrocities of the Holocaust and moved on from allowing the past to influence our present now that we are two generations removed from it, the answer is that it is impossible to really do so. Walking around Berlin there are reminders everywhere and the magnitude of the Holocaust was simply too great to fully move on. The Ambassador tried to explain it to us this way by sharing something with us that the mother of Amos Oz (a famous and prolific Israeli author) once said, “If the Germans never forgive themselves, I can forgive them. But if the Germans ever forgive themselves, I can not forgive them.”

We talked with the Ambassador about cooperation between the two countries in the area of industry and technology. For example, he told us how the German car makers see Israel as a source for advances in the technologies for the software used in cars. We also discussed the political party, Alternative für Deutschland, AfD, which is gaining popularity in Germany. He explained that the Israeli Embassy has no relationship with them at all and will have no relations with them as long as Ambassador Issacharoff is in the post. He described the party as one which has nostalgia for the Nazi party (I think that was the phrase he used…) When we asked about the presence of BDS in Germany he explained that it’s a bit like playing the game “whack a mole” and that although there are here and there issues with BDS, it does not have as great a presence that exists in other countries.

On a side note, the embassy and the ambassador’s residence are beautiful structures. The residence was once the home of a Jewish family who fled when the Nazis came to power in 1934. The architecture of the embassy building has a lot of significance as well. If you are interested in learning more about these buildings, click here for a link to an article with more details.

We wrapped up the trip with a couple hours of free time and an amazing dinner before heading to the airport. At dinner each student shared one thing they found most memorable about the trip. Many students talked about the visit to Sachsenhausen, others talked about the visit to the synagogue on the first day, one person mentioned the food tour, and another talked about the DDR Museum. I shared with the students that while I enjoyed all the sites we saw and really found them all to be memorable, what really made the trip wonderful for me was spending time with them. I’ve staffed a lot of travel programs and I have to say that I laughed the most this past week. This group of students was consistently on time, asked insightful questions, and generally were a pleasure to spend time with. Your kids learned a lot this past week and they made my job easy – you’ve raised them well!

All the best,