January 25, 2024

An Enlightening Journey

Ilyse Muser Shainbrown Director of Holocaust Education

I have said Kaddish at Auschwitz. I have stood in the gas chambers in Majdenek. I have touched the remnants of the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto. I read the words of Anne Frank while standing in the attic where she wrote them. And now, sadly, I can say that I have seen the destruction of K’far Aza and Ofakim and mourned the horrific destruction, rape, and murder that took place there on October 7. The words “Never Again” were shattered on that day.  

Earlier this week, together with my colleague JCRC Director Linda Scherzer, I was privileged to lead a group of area educators, legislators, and community leaders on a 40-hour fact finding, primary-source-meeting mission to Israel. From the moment we arrived until boarding the plane home, we experienced the true intensity of the situation, marveled at the pride and resilience of the Israeli people, and recognized that becoming witnesses to the atrocities inflicted by Hamas, much the same in how we speak to Holocaust survivors or visit concentration camps, is imperative to understanding the conflict.  

After a long day in the south, visiting sites where Hamas terrorists inflicted unspeakable terrors on innocent civilians, we went to Jerusalem to explore and learn about the diversity of Israeli society. On an unforgettable visit to Hand in Hand, a Jewish/Arab school, everyone, but particularly the educators, marveled at how the school was able to blend its student populations and create an environment where they could learn together, side by side. Amongst all the fighting, terror, and animosity that exists in Israel now, this enclave gave us all hope not just for eventual peace in the region but also for our community here in the New Jersey, where we too are facing similar strife among different groups.  

We then headed to Tel Aviv to visit Hostage Square, what has become an incredibly powerful place where the families of the hostages and visitors from around the world who want to pay tribute to them gather. What our mission participants noted most from our visit to Hostage Square was the strength of Jewish peoplehood – the unbreakable bond with and support from the Jewish people across the globe during this time of crisis.   

We are so appreciative of the legislators and educators who made the choice to join us on this journey. While here in the U.S. they are subjected to a constant stream of criticism of the Israeli government and the military actions it’s taking in Gaza, in Israel they had an opportunity to see firsthand Israelis’ struggle and their desire and commitment to live in peace. Meeting the survivors and hearing from family members about those who were murdered or are still being held hostage in Gaza, they recognized the complexity of what Israel is grappling with and are acutely aware that this is a fight not of revenge but of survival.  

In a world that is hyper focused on quick information and immediate resolution, it is challenging to genuinely seek and understand facts and truth. Over the course of our two days on the ground, we took the time to listen, consider, and question. We heard from leading Israeli thinkers, Yossi Klein Halevi and Michael Oren. We had difficult but important conversations with Israeli Arabs at the Jewish-Arab school, Hand in Hand. Through all of this, we walked away with a belief that it’s possible to develop deep and meaningful friendships by embracing our differences rather than fighting against them.  

Elie Wiesel said, “Whoever listens to a witness becomes a witness, so those who hear us, those who read us must continue to bear witness for us.” On this brief but powerful mission, an unlikely group of people who are in positions where they need to have a deeper understanding, heard and bore witness. Most of them had never been to Israel and could not understand the deep connection the Jewish people have with the land – now they can. Most had no context in which to process the constant stream of negative media coverage – now they do. Most had not heard the voices of Israeli victims of terrorism – and now they have. We are confident that they will return to their jobs, to their districts, to their schools, enlightened by this experience and eager to share what they learned with others.