Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Israel

Why will this day be different from all other days? Because today is Shabbat in Jerusalem, which is always a totally ‘sababba’ (cool) experience.

Tonight we will go back to the Western Wall to celebrate Shabbat. But first we head to Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. For those who’ve never experienced it, no description can really suffice. It’s really not just an history lesson or even just a visual experience. It’s pure visceral. The architecture, the trees, the sculptures, the monuments, the geography of the vast land of Israel below – it just all adds up to the most intense emotional experience a Jew could ever have.

From the moment you enter, your heart begins breaking, no matter how much you try in advance to prepare yourself. The museum is a series of zigzagging rooms that chronicle the horror of those years. There are countless photos, videos, maps and actual artifacts from then – Nazi flags, shoes of the victims, a real, boxcar, letters, jewelry. Video recordings of survivors are everywhere, each one detailing a horrific memory. Their pain – and ours – is raw and palpable.

You pass by videos of Nazi cruelty, with graphic, heart-wrenching photos of the dead. Sometimes you hear Hitler’s rantings, which only adds to the sense of sadness and terror. Your brain kind of slips into a surreal state, and soon you can’t help but to feel like YOU are living this nightmare yourself. The faces and names of the victims seem eerily familiar. They’re not unrelatable, distant people in a history book. They’re family, and their terror starts to feel like your own.

By the end of the museum walk you are completely emotionally spent. You have gotten immersed in the story of the Holocaust in a way that only Yad Vashem can deliver. But then, just as you are about as depressed as you can be, you walk out into the final terrace and before you is one of the most beautiful, vast panoramic view of the land of Israel. You see for miles, and just then our guide tells us to breathe in this air and take in the sight before us. Yes, the Jewish people suffered this indescribable tragedy, but now they have this land, Eretz Yisrael.

There is a biblical quote on the front archway as you exit, with the words:

“I will set you upon your own soil.”

You then fully understand that the Holocaust and Israel are inextricably intertwined, and nothing says that better than this sad, haunting and magnificent museum.

In the evening we head to the Western Wall, and although we have been there the day before, this is Shabbat, and it’s an entirely different and unique experience. First off, the place is jammed. There are multitudes of worshippers, many chanting, singing, joyously dancing and hugging. There’s an electric feeling in the air there on Shabbat. It’s like everyone’s been invited to the same party, and people are allowed to celebrate in any way they want. Birthright kids are dancing together, ultra-Orthodox are dancing together, and a large group of female IDF soldiers are dancing in a circle with regular visitors, including many from our group. The whole scene is loud, celebratory and holy. It’s a moment you can never duplicate anywhere else or ever forget.

I don’t care how religious you are, to be at the Wall on Shabbat is to participate in the ultimate Jewish experience.

Later, we have dinner with a handful of IDF trainees. I sit at a table with a young man that tells us his story, which totally blows us all away. He’s an Israeli Arab, a full Israeli citizen. He came from an Arab village that was so anti-Semitic that they had swastika posters. People hated Jews and Israel. But one day, while working in Tel Aviv, he had an encounter with an Orthodox Rabbi who showed him such kindness that it caused him to begin rethinking how he felt about Jews.

In time, he came to love Israel. His family rejected him as did his old friends. “I lost so much,” he says, “but I gained even more.”

He’s had death threats from his former neighbors and even ISIS. But he is undeterred. He is fiercely pro-Israel and plans on being an officer in the army, which is a 7 year commitment.

People fire questions at him and he answers everything thoughtfully and with poise. To the obvious question – “why did you join the IDF?”, he laughs and says “It’s not for the food.”

But he is really a serious young man who is very proud of “his country.” He is razor sharp, knowledgeable and articulate. People want to know about all the obstacles he’s faced, but he just laughs it off and says “It’s not an easy thing to protect Israel.”

He’s another example of something we see all the time on this trip: things are complicated here in Israel. So damn complicated.

Mark Jacobs

Read yesterday’s blog from Israel, Blogs From Israel – Mark Jacobs’ Day 7.