This past Thanksgiving I had the good fortune of spending quality time with my tweenager on a mother/daughter bat mitzvah trip in Israel.
Organized by Emunah and led by Rebbitzin Lisa Septimus, yoetzet halacha of the Five Towns and Great Neck, 20 of us (eight mother/daughter and two grandmother/granddaughter pairs) followed the theme of doing chesed (good deeds) as we explored the country’s history and daily life. Some memorable chesed moments were interspersed with visiting such sites as the Haas Promenade, Ir David, and Kever Rachel, as well as perspective-changing places such as Dialogue in the Dark (aka the Blind Museum), and an exciting spelunking adventure in the Charitun Caves in Tekoa. We packed food at Pantry Packers, the food distribution arm of Tzedakah Central/Colel Chabad. We handed out treats to chayalim at Pina Chama. We had a bat mitzvah party with the girls from Simcha L’Yeled. We spent Shabbos at Emunah’s Beit Elazraki Children’s Home.
In stepping outside their norm, the girls had the opportunity to think about their place in a world that extends beyond their day-to-day lives. Yes, middle school provides the first stepping stones on the path from adolescence into adulthood. But there’s no substitute for literally walking on those same stones in a place where that coming of age is palpable. The trip my daughter and I took this late fall was a hands-on introduction to what it means to become a bat mitzvah.
Visiting Yad Vashem was, expectedly, intense and meaningful as it relates back to our Jewish history and where we’ve come to now. It was established by an act of the Knesset in 1953 as “a monument and a name” — the literal translation of Yad Vashem — to memorialize the 6 million Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust, as well as to commemorate those who fought for the survival of others during one of the darkest periods in our history.
I had been to Yad Vashem before, and on this trip I was particularly taken by the “Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations,” which honors the 27,000 non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. In this section, trees were planted in each “Righteous” person’s honor, symbolizing the lives that were saved as well as the lives that sprung from them and the generations that will continue to grow thereafter. When there was no more physical space for trees, names were displayed on the wall to commemorate these Righteous Gentiles. Some people saved thousands of Jews, others saved just one. But as the saying goes, even when a person saves just one life, he is considered to have saved an entire world. The size of the trees planted in the garden do not vary based on how many lives were saved by each person.
As you pass through the visitors center, at the entrance to the garden, there stands a tree commemorating Irena Sendler, a Polish social worker who did indeed save many lives. It has been noted that she and those working under her lead in Warsaw saved about 2,500 children.
I bring up Irena Sendler because of the nature by which her courage was brought into the spotlight.
In short: In 1999, three girls in a high school in Uniontown, Kansas, worked on a project for National History Day that focused on Irena Sendler. Although Irena had been recognized by Yad Vashem in 1965 and had received support from the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous in New York City, the students — and the world — knew very little about her other than what was published in a short newspaper clipping in 1994. The students researched Irena’s story and created a play called “Life in a Jar,” which was picked up by the local press and was then further recognized up the media food chain until her story was told worldwide.
One of the things I took away from this story was the tremendous power adolescents possess, and how important it is to help them see this and strive to actualize their potential. Here is a story of an amazing woman who saved thousands of children during the Holocaust — and three ordinary high school students had the power to bring her name into the public eye on a national scale and identify the importance of her role in history.
Through the years, Irena Sendler’s story has continued to flourish. Schools have been named after her. In Warsaw, a teaching award was named after her. The Polish Embassy in Israel honored her with a stamp. The Life in a Jar presentation has been produced almost 400 times. There have been thousands of media stories about her. Irena was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Movies, books, exhibits, and even a musical score have been created. And most recently, 2018 was declared Irena Sendler Year in Poland. All of this stemmed from a school project a small group of teenage girls made for National History Day.
This is not to equate the act of saving thousands of lives with the thousands of ways that have memorialized that act. What it does illustrate is the magnitude of the actions of a single person, whether she be a social worker during the Nazi regime or a school child in rural Kansas.
According to the 18th-century Jewish mystic the Baal Shem Tov, “In forgetfulness is the root of exile. In remembrance the seed of redemption.” We as a people have faced anti-Semitism in every generation, whether that be in ancient Egypt, Nazi Germany, modern-day Israel, or Pittsburgh. A sense of vulnerability exists as part of the Jewish identity, especially in Israel on the heels of the Holocaust. Yet so, too, exists resilience, regardless of affiliation and practice.
In Israel, physically planting a tree is both an honor and a practical act of survival. In a desert land, each tree must be planted, nurtured, and cultivated so that it can provide food and oxygen and assist in the natural progression of life. When looked at as a metaphor for Jewish survival, in relation to our children as they become bar and bat mitzvot, I think it is imperative that we teach them about our heritage and nurture them on a constant basis so that they may preserve our identity, culture, and faith and continue the cycle going forward. Survival on a cultural level succeeds not only with a single seed but with many seeds planted. Not with one bat mitzvah girl but in a group of 10.
And still, our tour group existed only because of each individual girl. Or rather, each mother/daughter pair. And so the lesson I would like to tell my daughter is not only about the power of numbers but also that she, herself, has the power within to change the entire world. The lesson I would tell myself is much the same.
As we left Yad Vashem, a friend and I followed behind our daughters and reminisced about our summer teen tours in Israel — she on Machach and me on ACHVA — and how interesting it would be to go on those trips as adults. In a different context, the places we visited would yield a different meaning. The amazing thing about this mother/daughter trip, though, was that as adults we have the ability to experience multiple perspectives — through our own eyes as moms, from the memory of our teenage selves, and through the eyes of our daughters as they approach adulthood.
The opportunity to experience Israel with my daughter was both magical and meaningful. In addition to quality time, enjoying the sites and history of the land, and partaking in acts of chesed, we learned about those who helped us flourish despite the threats to our existence. The trip in itself was testament to our growth and success. And what I took home with me was the idea that we must love and nourish our children, because they are the seeds of redemption.