Masa lePolin: Inspiring Parents and Donors, in Order to Inspire Students

“Thank you so much for this inspirational experience.” These words were repeated many times over by participants as we completed our closing banquet in the brightly colored dining room of the Jewish Community Center of Krakow. The travelers had spent the last four days traveling the highways and backroads of southeastern Poland, seeing beautiful, soaring, centuries-old synagogues, connecting with members of Poland’s growing modern-day Jewish community, and of course visiting now-silent death camps and Shoah-era kivrei achim (mass graves) over the course of their 500-kilometer journey.

But this closing banquet was taking place over summer vacation, not during the school year, and despite this being a school trip, the participants were not students or even teachers. The 37 members of the Schechter Westchester kehillah celebrating the end of a meaningful journey were mostly current parents and alumni parents, many of them board members, together with a handful of grandparents, community members and friends, and several of us staff members from school. Together, we were enjoying the closing hours of what had been an extremely moving Masa lePolin (Journey to Poland) experience. And as much as they were thanking us, we were the ones who should have been thanking them.

The field of Jewish day school education offers educators the opportunity to inspire and transform the lives of students on a daily basis. We have the ability and the privilege to help young Jews develop their identities, and in doing so, to impact the next generation of the North American Jewish community. But doing so doesn’t come cheap. With many families unable to pay the full cost of tuition, most Jewish day schools struggle to raise the necessary funds to cover operating expenses. In this reality, perhaps the most important question to ask is not, what can we do to inspire our students? Instead, we should examine the experiences that inspire our students and ask, what can we recreate for our parents and donors that will inspire them as well? How can we share our students’ experiences with them in order to inspire their Jewish identities as adults, and just as importantly, to inspire them to support our schools?

This past August marked Schechter Westchester’s third Masa lePolin adult journey to Poland. The motivation behind these educational and experiential summer journeys is summed up succinctly in one of our marketing slogans:

Every winter our high school seniors have the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of their ancestors when they visit Poland on the way to Israel; this summer, take advantage of the opportunity to follow in their footsteps and experience Jewish Poland for yourself.

One of the culminating experiences of a K-12 education at Schechter Westchester is the 12th grade Lev veNefesh (Heart and Soul) experience, through which seniors spend two months traveling and studying Jewish history in the places where it happened. The students begin with a week in Poland and spend the remainder in Israel studying Jewish history and the history of the Land of Israel in chronological order, with an emphasis on the modern day and building their connections to the land, state and people of Israel.

Masa lePolin seeks to recreate for parents the Poland portion of Lev veNefesh within a slightly shorter time frame, while staying true to the general philosophy and itinerary of the student experience, which is unique. Many such trips focus primarily on sites connected to the Shoah, and without question, many of the most visceral, haunting memories in any Jewish trip to Poland will come from these sites. We have learned that for the experience to be as impactful as possible, though, our student and adult journeys must consciously focus on three different eras of Jewish history in Poland.

In a sense, the Shoah portions of the itinerary are predictable: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, Treblinka, Plaszow, and for the students also Sobibor or Belzec, depending on the year. Before understanding these horrible sites of the Final Solution, though, we want students to understand how and why Jews arrived in Poland in the first place, why they stayed, and how they grew to build a new Jewish civilization, and the largest Jewish community in Europe before the Shoah.

To that end, we visit tiny, medieval walled cities complete with their fortress synagogues like Szydlow, built-up Jewish community complexes like the Kaziemierz neighborhood of Krakow, and landmark monuments that attest to the Jewish life that flourished in Poland for centuries. For the adults this summer, one such monument was the recently restored great synagogue of Dobrowa Tarnowska, which left parents marveling in awe at its cathedral-like ceiling and intricately painted interior.

Understanding this era of Jewish history is essential for students and parents alike, for two primary reasons. It is impossible to understand what was lost during the Shoah without first understanding the Jewish civilization, in Europe generally and in Poland specifically, that the Nazis destroyed. Far more importantly, we have a deep-seated belief that our students’ Jewish identities cannot be based simply on perpetuating Judaism because others have sought to destroy it through our deaths. Instead, our students must be inspired to invest in and continue their Jewish journeys because of the incredible meaning and inherent beauty Judaism offers us in our lives. These sites convey that sense of beauty and meaning in an accessible, tangible way.

We have also found it enormously powerful to connect with Jews and others living in Poland today. For both our adult and student journeys, this has meant mifgashim (meetings and cultural interchange) with Jewish peers in Poland, and for our students, with Polish Catholic high school students as well. Our most inspirational moments of connection to modern Polish Jewry often occur at the JCC in Krakow, where our teens meet Polish Jewish teens much like themselves, and at the Ronald Lauder Jewish Day School in Warsaw, where the delightful cacophony of students filling the halls between classes sounds exactly like it does in Westchester, except in Polish!

The third main focus of our journey in Poland is understanding the events that took place in the six short years between the German invasion of Poland in September of 1939, and the liberation of Auschwitz in January of 1945. While we plan our itinerary to make sure that no day for either group of travelers is composed exclusively of Shoah sites, we also recognize the reality that for both our 12th graders and our parent participants, it is the camps, ghettos and forests they are coming to see. What they may not realize until they arrive, though, is the many layers involved in visiting these horrible places of loss.

These sites must be approached with reverence, as the final burial places of tens of thousands and in some cases hundreds of thousands of Jews and other victims of the Nazis. They are also spiritual places, where we are left to ponder both man’s inhumanity to man, as well as the incredible acts of faith, sacrifice and kindness attested to in the testimony of so many survivors. On top of all of that, these sites functioned as complex operations, and as visitors we must study and understand them in order to explain how they operated to others. Especially for our 12th graders, if and when they encounter Holocaust denial or skepticism on the college campus, it is essential that they be able to share not only a list of places they visited, but their understanding of how these places functioned: how ghettos were designed and operated across Poland, how selections were conducted on the ramp at Birkenau, and how German Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing squads) with local auxiliary support rounded up and shot entire Jewish communities in the forests on Poland’s eastern edges.

The combined experiences of this week in Poland have a lasting impact on our 12th graders, for whom it is the first step towards their extended travel experience in Israel. In multiple senses, that impact is the reason we began offering the same journey to our parent community. First and foremost, if the journey can have a lasting impact on our students, why shouldn’t adults have the opportunity to be similarly impacted? Especially when we acknowledge the role that day schools can play in transforming the Jewish lives of entire families, and not only their school-age children, it becomes clear that whenever possible, our schools benefit from offering the same inspirational Jewish experiences to the parents that we offer to their children. Just as importantly, if we believe this Poland experience in the context of the larger two-month Lev veNefesh Israel experience is essential for every 12th grader who desires it, then in a school where 52 percent of families receive some level of tuition assistance, we must find new and innovative ways of raising the necessary funds to ensure that every student can participate.

Masa lePolin is therefore planned and executed as a partnership between the same team of experiential travel educators that plans the expanded student version, and our institutional advancement team, which is charged annually with raising the money needed to support a robust tuition assistance program. Very intentionally, the journey is offered to parents and community members at cost, and does not generate income directly. This enables the participation of community members who can afford the trip, but who would not be able to afford a mandatory additional donation. Nevertheless, because of the experience it offers participants, and their resulting desire to enable every student to participate, traveling on Masa lePolin invariably leads to significant financial support for the student experience. In short, our adult participants return home inspired, and when in a financial position to do so, they want to make sure that our students can be similarly inspired.

Equally critical, participants return home having become advocates for the importance of such travel experiences because of the impact it has had on their Jewish identities. This is even more poignant for the board members who have traveled with us, many of whom have sent their children on the student journey in previous years and long promoted it to the community, but who only now fully understand its importance and potential to influence the lives of our students. More often than not, they thank us sincerely for the experience and the opportunity to “see what their kids see,” as so many did at our closing banquet in Krakow last summer. The ultimate beneficiaries of the adult journey, though, are not the summer travelers themselves. It is the future generations of students who will require support, yet still be able to have this inspirational experience, who will benefit the most, and for that we all have much to be thankful.

As day school educators and leaders, we must be thoughtful and creative in thinking of new ways to solicit support for our schools. We benefit when we recognize our potential to impact the lives not only of our students but also of our wider parent communities. To do so, we should start by recognizing the unique experiences and educational opportunities we afford our students, and how we can offer them to adults as well. What classes do each of our schools teach that could benefit the parents as much as the kids? What trips or programs are milestones for our students, and could they be equally impactful for adults? What are the ways in which our schools inspire our students, and which of these inspirational experiences could lead parents and donors to appreciate the need to support our schools? I believe our day schools are essential to the future of the Jewish community, which makes these essential questions to ask, for the benefit of our students and the adult community alike.

Rabbi Harry Pell
Jewish Inspiration
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning