Trip gives new understanding

BY AMANDA SHER

I know it’s a cliché, but I really did have the adventure of a lifetime. I was one of 77 participants who traveled to Israel and Poland on the March of the Living’s Birthright trip. We went to Poland for five days, where we visited several death camps, ghettos, and other significant Jewish areas in a country that was once 30 percent Jewish. Seeing the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek was an overwhelming, and quite frankly, traumatic experience. I find myself still haunted by what I witnessed.

I always envisioned Auschwitz in black and white, so I was surprised to see the dark red brick buildings that lined the rocky dirt paths inside the camp. Walking through the infamous gates was surreal, knowing that I was traveling on the same path as so many before me. The difference was that I knew what lay behind the gates, and what the fate was for those who entered during World War II.

The most intense part of that visit was walking through the gas chambers. Touching the walls, seeing the scrape marks, you could only imagine what went through the minds of literally millions of Jews. That was perhaps the strangest part — even though we were physically present at the camps, we still found ourselves saying “I can’t imagine.”

After five extremely emotional and powerful days in Poland, we were all overjoyed to travel to Israel. We left Poland on Dec. 31 and arrived in Israel in 2007. It seemed fitting that we spent the last five days of the year experiencing our history, and now we were about to spend the beginning of the new year in our homeland. This was my second time visiting Israel, and this time, it really felt as if I was returning home. And that’s part of the uniqueness of Israel — that a foreign nation can seem so familiar and so much like a motherland.

ADVERTISEMENT
MERS Goodwill ad


We spent the first two days in Israel in the North in a war zone — we actually went to the borders of Lebanon and Syria, as well as the Golan Heights. I actually saw yellow Hezbollah flags. Sitting atop Mt. Bental, looking ahead at the country of Syria, I was struck by how beautiful this land was, and how senseless the fighting over it seemed.

My favorite part of the trip was the integration with the Israeli soldiers. Sixteen soldiers, ages 19-21, joined us as civilians, which is a staple of the Taglit program. They fought in last summer’s war and shared so many stories of that experience with us.

Israeli youth’s reality of war is vastly different from our impressions. I never understood how it felt to serve in their army. But for them, it’s tradition. It’s what their parents and older brothers and sisters have done. When American high school students are filling out college applications, Israeli high school students are picking out which unit they want to join after boot camp is over.

It’s very easy to sit in the United States and hear about the conflict in the Middle East and think that we understand what is going on. I’ve always been pro-Israel, but after visiting the borders and talking with the people that are actually fighting, I have a much clearer sense of why it is so imperative that Israel fights back. Look what happened to us when we didn’t — we were almost exterminated.

Israel goes to war in order to defend its existence. This is an Israeli’s duty, and it’s an honor for them to participate in that fight.

As a law student at SLU Law School, I don’t often have the opportunity to spend time with other Jews. That’s part of why I didn’t want the trip to end. I didn’t want to leave the 76 other people who are the only ones that will truly understand how life changing this experience was. I recommend all Jewish youth take advantage of this free gift.

It’s the best gift I’ve ever received.

Amanda Sher is a law student at St. Louis University and was a participant in the March of the Living’s Birthright trip to Poland and Israel.