Pam Alcala
Jewish Educator, Aspiring Artist, and Hopeless Idealist

The heaviest backpack: Holding stories and creating memories

The first and last photo I took during the 8 days in Israel. (courtesy)

“You are not teaching history; you are creating memory.”

That was the opening line that stuck with me from the beginning of our eight-day “Delegation of Responsibility” trip with The Jewish Education Project. When we think of Jewish education, we think about how we teach a long list of moments in time that shape the course of history. We teach about victories, loses, figures that make a mark. We teach about language, land, and culture. We look to feed our students’ souls and strengthen Jewish peoplehood. What many of us have never done before and what haunts us today is, we have never had to teach about the world burning down around us.

I had every intention of documenting every inch of the trip. In a world where technology makes bringing relevant moments straight to the classroom easy, sharing pictures with my students felt like the perfect pedagogical approach. I packed my bag on the first day with my camera equipment and got on the bus. I complained about how heavy my bag was, but having all the fancy equipment was worth it. I took one picture from the bus of an Israeli flag on route 232. Then, our guide took on the microphone and reminded us of the road’s new name, the “road of death”.

Route 232 is the road the terrorists took as they left the multiple kibbutzim and the Nova festival on that morning on October 7. He told us to look to the left, and there they were: the gray clouds coming out of Jabaliya in Gaza, the bus stops turned into bomb shelters, the overgrown fields that have been unattended for months. As I stared at the void, my phone was going off with my mother, who was following me on the GPS, begging me to ask the driver to turn around. That was the moment I put my camera away; the moment I realized that pictures were not what my students needed; they needed stories.

We walked through the site of the Nova festival with rocket sounds in the background, looking at memorials and bullet holes on walls while simultaneously trying to picture those same people in the pictures with blasting music and unbridled joy.

We visited Ofakim, the “City of Heroes” as they were the ones to stop the terrorists from moving further south. We heard teenagers tell us stories, show us where their friends died, where the bullet holes were now seared into the city’s story. We saw the wall art created to memorialize that day and its heroes. We sang Hatikvah and collectively cried, sharing in the grief as singing “to be free people in our land” feels so foreign and rips at your heart.

We met with displaced families, with soldiers that had just returned from Gaza, with teachers balancing their own grief while holding their students and families and processing the memories of those either still hostage or murdered on the Black Sabbath. We stood in Hostage Square, heard stories from family members who had their loved ones returned while others were begging the government to bring them back. We cried with them and laughed with them. We witnessed the memorials and words of a country that collectively grieves on a global scale as the world debates whether the atrocities of that day warrant collective rage or redefine “resistance”.

We had the most delicious food, commiserated at how to bring this back to our classrooms. We wore our educator hats with pride and held each other when it was time to take it off. We sang together, said Kaddish more times than anyone should in a lifetime, listened to a mother’s recollection of her child’s last words while at Mt. Herzl. We saw graffiti reflect the depth of the broken soul. We built bonds through joy and shared trauma. We found our tribe amongst a country that goes on with life and holds each other through memorials on the streets and countdown of the days since their lives changed.

After that first bus ride, I left my camera in the room. I set off to feel every moment of the trip with all five senses and packed every single moment in my educator bag and heart, holding each story now seared in my own memory, making that bag that much heavier. I will carry that heavy bag into my classroom and with pride everywhere I go, with the weight of bearing witness and the responsibility to create memories for others.

About the Author
Pam is a Jewish Educator, Social Worker, and aspiring artist. She has spent her career working in congregational settings, DEI programming consulting, and global Jewish non-profit work. She has a passion for merging mental health, creative arts, and Jewish experiential education.
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