Prior to this summer, the longest I had ever been away from home was five days. It was Presidents’ Day Weekend 2018, and I spent it in Orlando, Florida at BBYO’s International Convention. I was never a sleepaway camp kid—being away from home from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Jewish day camp was plenty of Judaism and plenty of time away from home. Yet, ever since I entered high school, I knew, looming in the back of my head, that the summer after sophomore year, everyone would go to Israel.
When I was 10 years old, I bluntly told my grandparents and parents that I had no interest in ever going to Israel. They mostly shook it off and blamed it on my young ignorance, but I never forgot what I told them. Honestly, I don’t know if I really wanted to go to Israel or if I was only going because everyone else was. At least when I was 10, I didn’t understand what could be so special about a Jewish country so far away. It would take me six years to finally find out why everyone loved Israel so much.
By the time sophomore year rolled around, everyone was signing up for Israel trips. My friends would start group chats just to find out what trip everyone was signing up for. I went along with it all, but I was terrified of going. I was terrified to fly on a plane for over 15 hours just to get to Israel, and terrified to spend time far away from home with people I didn’t know. Despite all this, at the very last second, my parents and twin sister convinced me to sign up for a trip, and before I knew it, I was booking a plane ticket.
I finally signed up for a trip. I would be spending forty days of my summer traveling through Poland, Prague and Israel. In the months leading up to the trip, I did my best to not think about it. I knew a handful of friends from Minnesota going and I knew my twin sister was going, but that still meant I’d be living with strangers in an unfamiliar place. Things kept creeping up to remind me of my extended vacation: buying a CamelBak, booking tickets and constantly receiving emails from the organizers. Eventually, I hugged my family goodbye, and I boarded the first of nine flights I would take that summer.
After two days of continuous travel, the group of 34 teenagers I had traveled with had landed in Prague, Czech Republic. We spent two days exploring the beautiful city that somehow was preserved through two world wars. We walked through ancient synagogues, the Jewish Quarter, and saw historic landmarks like the Prague Castle. Then, the trip took a drastic turn. Only two days after settling in, we were headed to our first ghetto from the Holocaust.
Nothing hits you harder than driving through the gates of your first ghetto, except for walking through the gates of your first concentration camp. The Terezin Ghetto was haunting. The city within the walls had held several times its capacity, becoming a hotspot for disease and death. While at Terezin, we walked the streets that Jews suffered in many years ago, and solemnly joined to sing in a cellar that had been converted into a secret synagogue. Our time at the first ghetto concluded with a long walk along a river; the same river that the S.S. soldiers dumped thousands of Jews’ ashes into. No one spoke on the drive back.
For the next week and a half, we traveled through Poland, visiting four different concentration camps. Walking through a gate reading “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work sets you free) was difficult. In Auschwitz, Birkenau, Treblinka and Majdanek, we saw where our families had been murdered not too long ago. As difficult as it could, it was a journey we all were glad we had made together.
When it came down to the decision, I was very, very close to not going on this trip. I thought I would hate traveling,and hate being away from home for so long with strangers even more. Looking back, had I made any other decision, I would have regretted it. I met my best friends, I cried, I laughed and I smiled as I traveled through three countries on two continents. I truly had the best summer of my life.
Ethan Fine is an Aleph from Mid-America Region: St. Louis Council in Esperanto AZA #2486. He is incredibly excited to share his love for both BBYO and journalism.More Stories
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