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Temple Israel women’s mission participants at the gates of Auschwitz.
Temple Israel women’s mission participants at the gates of Auschwitz.

On Redemption

Temple Israel women’s mission to Eastern Europe spurs reflections, connection.

Rabbis Jen Kaluzny and Jen Lader Special to the Jewish News

Several weeks ago, we stood at the waters of Birkenau and said Kaddish next to a pond where the ashes of a half-million of our people were cast away. Then we found redemption in the vibrancy of the Jewish Community Center in Krakow.

We closed our eyes and sang the Shema in the synagogue of Rabbi Moses Isserles, a space now quieted by history. Then we found redemption in the colorful classroom of the first Jewish kindergarten in Poland since the 1940s.

We stood in the gardens of Mikulov in the Czech Republic, home to the Maharal of Prague, one of the greatest Jewish minds in history. There isn’t one Jewish person left in the city, and the synagogue is a silent museum. A mausoleum. But not that day. Our voices raised in praise brought redemption to that sacred place.

We sang Pitchu Li Shaarey Zedek (“Open for me the gates of righteousness”), the inscription nailed above the door of the synagogue. We stood on the sturdy bimah and offered the priestly blessing to the women on our trip — probably the first time this blessing had been recited there since World War II.

We gazed out at the waters of the Danube, among the bronze shoes forever frozen in memorial of the Jews who were killed on that very space. We found redemption at Shabbat services where the music was familiar, and children played on the bimah, laughing, playing, relishing in the candy the rabbi gave them to keep them from knocking over the Torahs.

Our week was a journey from the depths of despair, to the song, the poetry, the vibrancy and the shores of redemption. We saw it in Poles and Austrians who refused to let our history die with the millions who were killed. We saw it in the young adults who are living in the Moishe House of Budapest.

We wandered around these cities, these places, these spaces where our people lived and breathed and thrived, and now are ghosts. Shadows. Empty rooms and photographs and memories and memorials.

But we carried life with us.

When news of the attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh hit, we were headed to a cooking class in Budapest to learn to make our grandmothers’ goulash and strudel. After a challenging week of bearing witness and learning how quickly countries and governments that we know and trust can slip into chaos and darkness, we were ready for a little levity and a little joy. Instead, we watched with horror and dread as news trickled in, little by little, person by person, death by death.

It was an hour before any of our rabbinic colleagues in America knew what had happened. They were all on the bimah, leading our holy, peace-seeking people in prayer for a better, more righteous world.

Mere hours after the first shots were fired, we sat in the dark, our Havdalah candles flickering, a group of women in terrible pain, thinking quietly of our children. Our parents. Our neighbors and friends. But when they spoke about how much it meant to them to be together, holding each other, immersing themselves in their faith and culture and history, finding truth and meaning in being a link in the chain of tradition that reaches back thousands of years, through so much trauma, we felt hope. We felt strength.

Our history is a repetitive journey from despair to redemption.

The attack on our people in Pittsburgh was a time of deep despair. And yet, these moments of togetherness, these moments of redemption will carry us tenderly into the future.

Rabbis Jen Kaluzny and Jen Lader are rabbis at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield. They led a group of women on a mission to Eastern Europe from Oct. 20-29.

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