In close to 168 hours, 25 students from Texas were part of one of the great, life-changing alternative spring breaks. From listening to the horrors of the holocaust from sweet elderly woman, or witnessing the revival of Judaism from the eyes of Jewish teenage leaders in Budapest, or becoming integrated in the small but cohesive Jewish community in Timisoara, Romania, this trip never had a dull moment. The work the JDC is doing in Eastern Europe is really remarkable, and I am so fortunate that I was part of such a wonderful experience.
Four summers ago I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to travel to the Czech Republic and Poland on an organized trip for Jewish teens. One of the things about my trip that stands out to me was our visit to two of the concentration camps in Poland. While it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, I was very young and did not understand the importance of the places I was in and the stories I learned.
Therefore, I was so thankful to be given the chance by Texas Hillel and the JDC to go to Hungary and Romania, now being four years older and wiser. A big part of our journey throughout Hungary involved learning about Jewish life in the country pre- and post-Holocaust. I have not explored much about the Holocaust since returning from my trip four years ago, and to again be in a country where so many lives were affected by the events of the Holocaust, my thoughts and feelings were overwhelming. Walking through the Holocaust museum in Budapest, I looked at pictures and stories and could only think to myself that I had been to these camps and at the time I visited, I was the same age as many kids were when they were sent to live there. As powerful of an experience as that was, having time to talk with several Holocaust survivors is one memory I will never forget. It was so touching and fulfilling to see the joy and happiness in their eyes when we walked through the doors of the café where we met them. They were so taken aback by the fact that we, American teenagers, had interest in coming to visit their country and wanted to learn and hear their stories. It pleasantly surprised me to see how content they were to still be living in Hungary and to have children and grandchildren who love and care for them.
Visiting the concentration camps is an experience I will forever hold with me, and now I have these stories from survivors, which have taught me a great deal. This experience has taught me to be thankful for my family and for the freedom and opportunities we have here in the States. While people always say, “don’t take things for granted” I now truly understand what that means, and that means to me that one should learn from their hardships and be grateful for all that they have. Thank you JDC for giving me the opportunity to be immersed in such a rich and meaningful learning experience.
Friday night in Timisoara, Romania, the group went to a Shabbat service in the Jewish Community Center. The shul was in a tiny, cramped, musty room that looked like it had not changed since 1914. Men and women sat separately and there was an organ in the corner. It was this odd collision of worlds and traditions that my North American, Conservodox upbringing simply did not understand.
Kabalat Shabbat is a very spiritual service for me that I look forward to all week, yet in that synagogue, in the middle of Romania, I simply wasn't feeling it. We were skipping prayers, the melodies were foreign to me, and let's just say, the organ player was no great talent. In the middle of the service, everyone stood up and together we recited the shema, the prayer which declares that G-d is one. It was an incredibly powerful moment. For the rest of the service, all I could think of was the universality and strength of the Jewish people. In a foreign place that knew the greatest tragedy to the Jewish people, the Holocaust, and with its own distinct traditions and customs, a community survived and preserved its voice, reciting the ancient Jewish prayer together at a Friday night service in 2013. In Timisoara, Romania, I was able to pray with just as much access to G-d as in Jerusalem or Austin, TX.
I later found out that the service was conducted in the Neolog tradition, a movement mixing Conservative and Reformed traditions that is popular in European communities. My conception of world Jewry has been almost exclusively defined by my experience being a part of North American Jewish communities and Israel, yet in so many other places around the world, there are communities just as Jewish, saying the shema together on Friday night. This realization was very powerful for me. Moving forward, I want to invest my efforts in educating myself and my own community on Jewish communities around the world that are just as worthy of our attention as Israel or our own.
My trip to Hungary and Romania proved the depth and great reach of the Jewish people. 2014 Texas Hillel Alternative Spring Break to Turkey, anyone?
Hey everyone! I’m writing this post two weeks from the drive from Hungary to Romania, smack dab in the middle of our trip. As I write this blog post, so many different things come to mind. From the games of Catchphrase on the bus ride to the smiles of Kim and Raul (the children who lived in the home that we helped renovate and transform), there was not a moment that wasn’t memorable. My favorite memory of the trip was at the Ujpest Home for the Aged in Budapest, where one very sweet woman with a smile on her face told us that because she was sterilized during the Holocaust, that all of us were her grandchildren. As our translator and guide told us these words, I could see tears start to form in everyone’s eyes. That moment and so many others along the trip made me feel thankful for how privileged I have been to grow up in a time where I could feel safe, when so many people during the Holocaust did not, and it also made me feel proud to be Jewish. I feel so lucky that I had the opportunity to go on this trip, where I was exposed to so many different people, places, and feelings that I had never expected to encounter.
Traveling has been a passion of mine. Exploring. Discovering. Learning. To taste new foods, to walk on unfamiliar land, to hearing the exquisite language that seem like harmonic melodies that I can’t understand. Yet, one thing is what truly makes a travel worth while, and unforgettable, and that is the people. From meeting the affluent to the less fortunate, people are what truly can make a trip. You hear about all different walks of life, and you are able to strive forward in a pair of new shoes that give you a completely different out look on life, and I believe that this is what life is about. Life is about experiencing, and reaching the world’s wonders in their entirety, and the people... The people are what make this world into a living and breathing organic Earth.
I will discuss one aspect that truly touched my life, and one that I may hope to never forget, and that is the community of Timisoara, Romania. I met a boy named Raul, a 3 year old who lived in a saddening apartment, an apartment that had one bed room, a sink and a toilet. No shower. No Kitchen. Yet, this boy had the grandest smile across his face, a smile that could bring any sad person to life, to full,vibrant, joyful life. I was astonished by the aura that this boy emanated despite his condition. He had it figured out, much more than most Americans in the world... He knew key to happiness, one that I envied. I know that ignorance is bliss but, this... this what something that superseded all ignorance, something that pierced through any sorrow or envy that have engulfed Americans because of things that are taken for granted. His life was simple, but he enjoyed it. He loved every second of his existence, and that is living life to its fullest.
What I learned that day from this boy, was something I hope to hold onto for the rest of my life. To live life to the fullest despite whatever conditions you are in, and to enjoy every moment of happiness because with each glimmer of hope, with each glimmer of light and happiness wherein lies the infinite value of life. Each moment of life has meaning, and each moment of life is meant to be lived.
At the Holocaust nursing home, we spoke to a woman that has been through so much tragedy. I had never had spoken with a Holocaust victim before, and it was extremely emotional. I appreciated the opportunity so much but was overblown with the woman’s incredible story. She told us the dramatic story when her and mother ran away when they had a split second to make a decision. Although it took a while for her to warm up over time, she was able to talk to us. She wanted to educate us because we are the younger generation and should make sure the Holocaust is not forgotten. I learned so much from this trip and am excited to keep our experiences alive. The strong Jewish community can be found all over the world. I know no matter where I am; I can count on finding a Jewish community to welcome me whenever I need help.
Hi there! My name is Randall Olmsted, and I recently returned from a trip abroad to Hungary and Romania through the JDC and Texas Hillel. After telling friends and family about my travels, I am often asked what the most meaningful part of my trip was. I find this question incredibly difficult to answer, as so many aspects of my journey stick out – seeing the renewal efforts of the Hungarian Jewish community, dancing with special needs young adults, and helping a family move into a new apartment, to just name a few. However, what unequivocally left the greatest impact was the opportunity to speak with Holocaust survivors. Though the language barrier initially presented a few minor obstacles, with the help of translators we were able to listen to their amazing stories. As sad as it may be, the few remaining members of the Holocaust generation are reaching their 80’s, and young people my age are the last to have the opportunity to hear their accounts. Their narratives put a real-life account to the horrors I had learned about throughout my education. My beliefs in the utmost importance of the continuance of the Jewish religion were reinforced after speaking with survivors at a Jewish elderly home. I will be sure my children too hear these stories and understand the importance of the Holocaust. I am forever grateful and indebted for the opportunity to have embarked on such an amazing journey.
I am a Religious and Jewish Studies major at the University of Texas. I have always had a strong interest in religion and Jewish communities at home and abroad, which encouraged me to go on the trip to Hungary and Romania. After the trip I can say that some of even my most concrete opinions on Judaism and its communities have changed. I used to think of Judaism in the world as just being in the US and Israel, fully understanding that there were other communities across the world but never actively thinking about them. Additionally when I thought of a big community versus a small Jewish community I thought of communities like New York versus Waco, never abroad.
After visiting two European countries and just a small portion of the communities within them I can now see that my outlook has been flawed. The majority of Jewish communities and the people that comprise them do not live in such tolerant and ideal communities as those in the US and in Israel. While in the States and in Israel people are often convinced on why they should continue to be Jewish, this is a stark contrast to those in Europe who are often fighting just to practice their Judaism. If we want to ensure the continuation of Judaism we must also ensure that Jews abroad can have the same safety practicing Judaism as we do. This is a perspective that needs to be pushed and taught more often, and one that I am grateful for obtaining.
- Will Hall, Junior, University of Texas at Austin