Eighteen Jewish students-a number fittingly equaling chai, or life, in Jewish Gematria-from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign traveled to Berlin for a weeklong Alternative Spring Break in March. Led by Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel, co-director of Illini Chabad, the ASB students found a thriving Jewish community in Berlin, and experienced Jewish pride in a place they thought unlikely.
Upon arriving in Berlin, Tiechtel led the students in dancing at the Berlin airport, singing "Am Yisrael Chai"-"the people of Israel live."
"Before the trip, I really wasn't sure why a Jewish individual would want to visit Germany, let alone live in the country that once tried to destroy us," said Mikayla Pollard '20, one of the ASB student participants. "I also was unsure how people in Germany would react to a group of 18 American Jewish college students standing tall, walking together through the Berlin streets. And now, I
have an answer to the 'why Berlin' question. Judaism must thrive in Germany because it is a place where the Nazis tried to exterminate an entire religion there,
religion, 75 years ago. I went to Berlin to further connect to my Jewish heritage and to stand with pride in the country that once said that I do not deserve to be alive."
During their visit, the students cleaned up the Weisensee Cemetery, the resting place of fallen Jewish soldiers in World War I, where the students also put on tefillin (phylacteries) and prayed. The soldiers, whose families were murdered shortly after World War I, have no visitors. "These soldiers had no one to come visit them, so in honor of their service, we put in a few hours of work to beautify their resting places," said ASB Student Jacob Apter '19. "The soldiers had no way of thanking us for the time we put in today, but Rabbi Dovid told us that they would still be quite thankful…"
Among the many highlights of the trip was the Shabbat the group spent with Rabbi Yehuda and Leah Tiechtel, directors of Chabad-Lubavitch of Berlin and brother and sister-in-law of Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel. Just before Shabbat, the students packaged and distributed Shabbat meals to 80 needy Jewish families in Berlin. Later on, after the women lit Shabbat candles, the students joined other members of the Berlin Jewish community in the Friday night prayers and the celebration of a bat mitzvah in the community.
Most of the activities on the trip were somber, yet inspiring. The students saw up close the planning of the "Final Solution" at the Wannsee Conference, where they danced and sang "Am Yisrael Chai". They visited the building that used to house the activities of the Hitler Youth, where there is now a thriving Jewish day school, and danced with the students there, singing "Am Yisrael Chai". They visited Hitler's bunker where he committed suicide, where they put on tefillin, danced and sang "Am Yisrael Chai". They visited a concentration camp, where they saw the secret, makeshift shul the Jews had made with the words "Am Yisrael Chai" scrawled on the walls.
"Touring around the main streets of Berlin has changed the way I see myself as a Jew," said Matt Sherman '18, an ASB student participant. "Walking through the main squares, Pariser Platz, Checkpoint Charlie and many more, I wore my chai necklace, along with my Illini Chabad kippah (something which I rarely do in the States), head up and smiling. Today I feel that pride of being a Jew. I reflected upon not just the past, but the present and the future of the Jewish People."
"The ASB Berlin trip was an emotional roller coaster and a huge success," said Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel. "On the one hand, it was hard and challenging to see the places where they murdered so many of us. On the other hand, the students felt victorious as Jews and brought light to what was once the seat of Nazi power. We are here, they are not. While many talk about the proper response to anti-Semitism, I'm proud to say that we took action, connected with each other and the Jews of Berlin, and the students came back empowered to lead others in building Jewish unity wherever they go."
This is the ninth year that Illini Chabad has sponsored the ASB Berlin trip.
Mikayla Pollard, `20, and Matt Sherman, `18, are all students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.