Shabbat shalom! My name is Paris Orloff and I’ve been a part of the Ramah community for six years. I spent five incredible summers at Ramah Darom, and when my final summer as a camper came to an end, there was no question what my next step would be. 41 days ago, I returned from Israel after my two months on Ramah Seminar. Now, I could spend these next few minutes talking about my wonderful experiences in Israel- such as leading Kabbalat Shabbat at the Kotel with my best friend, or spraining my ankle halfway down Masada- but instead I’d like to talk about another aspect of Ramah Seminar that I believe is not getting enough exposure. This summer I participated in Ramah Poland Seminar: an optional week-long trip through Poland where we explored the Jewish history there before going to Israel and beginning the main six weeks of Seminar. I will go as far as to say that my time in Poland was the highlight of my entire summer, and that I will cherish the lessons I learned on Poland Seminar for the rest of my life.
I can tell you that your child will be tested in Poland. This is not an easy week by any means. There’s nothing easy about getting off a plane after 8 1/2 hours in the air and immediately taking a bus to a cemetery. There’s nothing easy about walking the train tracks that carried box cars of Jews to their deaths. There’s nothing easy about bearing the guilt of stepping in and out of the camps alive and by your own free will. But your kid isn’t there for easy. Your kid is there to learn, and to hurt, and to be confused, and to ask questions. Your kid is there to grow.
I can already hear you parents asking, “Why now? Why does my precious little baby have to go and see these horrific places and feel these awful feelings now?” This may seem like it’s too heavy of an experience for a teenager to you, but like I said, your kid is there to grow. This is the age where we truly begin to find ourselves. Where we start to figure out who we are, where we become us. And trust me, you want your kid to learn to harness this emotional strength now, during this crucial period of self discovery. They’ll use it for the rest of their lives. Your child may stand outside the gates of Birkenau and say “I want to cry when I walk through this camp. I want this to hit me like a truck and I want to hurt for those that were murdered here,” and then go through the camp not batting an eye. Or your child may be on the outskirts of Treblinka and say “There’s no way I’m gonna feel anything here. This stuff just doesn’t affect me like that,” and then sob the whole time they’re there. And that’s okay. What Poland Seminar does is teach your kid that their raw, honest reactions and feelings towards this experience, towards any emotional turbulence they have to go through in life, are okay.
Another reason why this has to happen now is that this is the best environment for any kid to have this experience in. Sorry to break it to you parents, but sometimes, you’re not what’s best for your kid. They’ll be surrounded by their best friends and by soon-to-be best friends that they’ve never even met before. They will not be alone through this. Every night, we met in small groups to discuss what we did that day, how it made us feel, how we felt differently than we expected to, and so on and so forth. Those 10-15 minute sessions reinforce the concept that this is a safe place for your kid to express themselves, to get things off their chest, to breathe. They have their friends there, and staff members who are available 24/7 to help your kid if they need it. Ramah Poland Seminar ensures a supportive and accepting atmosphere where your child can get the most out of this incredible, life changing experience.
And don’t get me wrong, it’s not all sadness and mourning on Ramah Poland Seminar!.. I mean, that’s a lot of it, but that’s not it. Your child also gets the experience that you want for your kid when they travel abroad anywhere. They learn about the culture in Poland and how Poland contrasts America. They see how many people they can get to respond to “dzień dobry” (jeen dobre) or “good morning” as they’re walking through the streets of Poland. They’ll enjoy exploring the town squares where they spend your hard-earned cash on souvenirs and Polish treats. Your child will have fun on this trip; but, your child will also not have fun on this trip. That’s another important thing Poland Seminar teaches your child: when to have fun, when to be serious, and that it’s okay to go back to having fun after you’re done being serious.
I distinctly remember an important moment during my time on Poland Seminar when we visited Majdanek. When I walked up the steps of the memorial and saw the 17-ton pile of ash, I thought to myself: “My God those were people. That is a pile of ashes and it used to be a pile of bodies and those bodies used to be living people and I am not supposed to be here.” According to Adolf Hitler and all the Nazis, I am not supposed to be here. According to them, according to their plans, I am not supposed to be here. And you know what, according to them, you are not supposed to be here either. And yet, here we are! We are living, breathing proof that the Nazis failed, that the Jewish people live on, and that we are indeed supposed to be here. Poland taught me to never take that for granted. And that is undoubtedly the most important truth that Poland Seminar gave me to carry for the rest of my life. So why did I just spend five minutes trying to sell Poland Seminar to you? I can’t imagine who I would be today, or what my future self would be like, if I hadn’t participated in Ramah Poland Seminar this past summer. If sharing my experiences gets even just one person to go to Poland, then it’s all been worth it. So send your kids to camp, and send them as early as you can. Send them to camp to find their Jewish identity and to make friends and memories that they will treasure forever. When their time as a camper comes to an end, send them to Israel. Send them to Israel to explore our Jewish home land and to learn to love Israel with their best friends by their side. But, before you send them to Israel, send them to Poland. Send them to Poland so that they never take their Judaism, or Israel, or themselves for granted. Thank you and shabbat shalom.