Monday, June 30, 2008

Prague, Krakow, and Auschwitz-Birkenau

On Thursday, after arriving in Prague, Groups 11b, 12 and 14 had some time to rest before going to the world famous town square for some free time with the opportunity to soak in the atmosphere of this amazing town. While Group 11a only arrived later that evening, the participants had the opportunity to do the same thing in Budapest, before making the short flight to Prague. The evening was deliberately kept short in order to enable everyone to get a good night sleep and get over the jet lag.
On Friday the program started in earnest, as both groups traveled to the Jewish quarter of Prague, named Josefov, and went back in time several hundred years. Walking through the cobblestone lanes of the Jewish Quarter, visitng the preserved synagogues and cemetery, the remnants of Jewish life came alive. Our chanichim personally met the Maharal of Prague, a famous Rabbi who lived in this city, Handele Bashevi a woman who became famous for her good deeds (Tzedakah), Mordecai Maisels, a rich influential philanthropist who live in this city long ago, and of course the Golem of Prague, who told them their own story of life and times during the height of Jewish Prague. Making their way through the Jewish museum it became more and more apparent the great culture that was destroyed in the Shoah, the Holocaust.
After the tour of the Jewish Quarter, we all enjoyed free time and lunch at various cafés and restaurants around the picturesque Old Town square, and then made our way up to the famous Cathedral and Castle of the king of Prague which look out over the entire city. In the afternoon we explored the city’s magisterial castle and discussed the power of the Church and how that affected the Jewish community.
In the cool afternoon weather which was ideal for touring, we made our way down from the castle to the famous Charles Bridge, which is adorned with statues, each of which tells a story in the history of the city. From the we made our way back to the hotel to freshen up before heading out again to the magnificent Spanish Synagogue to join members of the local Progressive community for Kabbalat Shabbat services. The kids were moved both by the setting and by seeing how they shared a liturgy with fellow Jews who live halfway around the world. After services it was back to the hotel for Oneg Shabbat with the staff.
On Shabbat morning, after a late wakeup, we loaded the bus before holding our own tfilot, led by Rabbi Laura Novak Winer representing NFTY who gave a meaningful Drasha. Following lunch and more group activities we boarded the buses and made our way out of Prague heading due East for Poland. With breaks for dinner (and other necessities) we arrived in Krakow at 12:30 at night.
The story of the Jews in Krakow is not unlike that of Prague. Yesterday, after a late wake up and lunch, our participants were exposed to the greatness of Krakow’s leaders and Rabbis. Many contributions to Jewish life were made by such rabbis as the Ram”a (Rabbi Moshe Isserles), Rabbi Yom Tov Litman Heller, and the Temple synagogue exemplified the evolution and struggle with modernity of Poland’s pre-Second World War Jewish life. Our tour in Krakow coincided with the week long Jewish music festival here, which made our participants’ experience all the more rich and interesting. Members of group 12 had the good fortune to learn about Polish-Israeli relations from the Israeli Ambassador to Poland himself!
Today the trip changed tones significantly. After an intense preparation for the visit to Auschwitz – Birkenau, our students made their pilgrimage to the death camp about an hour outside of Krakow.. The preparation was both factual and spiritual in nature, with emphasis being put on the fact that we are all there for each other and that we will be going through the pilgrimage as a “kehila”, which supports its members.

We began our visit this morning with Shacharit – or morning prayers - at the synagogue of the Polish town of Oswiecim (what the Germans called Auschwitz), which at its height had close to a two-thirds Jewish population. It was a very emotional experience as our participants’ song and prayer filled the synagogue which has been bereft of any Jewish voices for more than six decades.
We then continued to the museum at Auschwitz I, where we toured the buildings and barracks with local guides. In the afternoon, our mechanchim (educators/tour guides) took our groups through the Nazi death camp of Birkenau, where over 1.5 million Jews were killed. The entire camp ended the day together with a moving ceremony adjacent to the camp’s main memorial. The groups have just finished debriefing after their pilgrimage today and have dedicated significant time to processing feelings and attempting to make sense out of what they saw today.
Tomorrow we will continue on to Warsaw where we will visit the famous Jewish cemetery, and tour the Warsaw Ghetto memorial route and begin to make our preparations for our flights to Israel.
I look forward to updating you soon upon arrival in the Holy Land.
Josh Weinberg

Safe Arrival to Europe

The first post from the trip leaders...

We are in Prague!

What a beautiful city! We look forward to exploring the town later this evening.

The teens arrived today and after collecting their luggage they boarded our NFTY chartered buses and traveled the Olympik Hotel in Prague. We gathered together for a group orientation and some ice breakers for group members to get to know each other and their staff. Everyone checked into their rooms for some time to shower and relax, before continuing with group activities.

We are scheduled to leave for the center of Prague for a relaxing evening out that will include a short walking tour and dinner in the magnificent Old Town Square, famous for its medieval old town clock tower, cafés and restaurants.

We will return back to the hotel to get a good night sleep before leaving tomorrow for a full day of touring in Prague. We will visit the old Jewish Quarter of the city that holds within it some amazing stories and sites of the thriving Jewish community that lived here before the Holocaust. From there we will cross the river and up the hill to the king's palace, to visit the castle and cathedral to understand the connections between the Jews and the local population of Prague.

Our participants seem tired but very excited to be here in Prague and even more excited about the days to come. We are proud to be here with them and to looking forward to leading them through Czech Republic and Poland as we journey through our people's history here in central Europe.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Getting Back To Normal...Hectic!

Wow, it's been over a month since the housing disaster. I guess that's a solid indication that things are going much more smoothly.

After spending 24 hours in a free-fall tailspin (I LOVE rollercoasters, but this ride made me ill!), things took a terrific turn for us all. As soon as the decision was made that Toby would be finding a new host family, one of his classmates immediately asked her parents if Toby could come live with them.

This was huge because it meant that Toby could stay at the same school, continue to hang out with the friends he had made, and even live in the same neighborhood. (His new host family lives only a couple of blocks from where he orginally stayed.)

On top of this we got further confirmation from AFS that they were certain Toby was fine, and that at best his original housing was just an extremely bad match. The reiterated that his host mother was simply unwilling to work with them or discuss any options other than Toby

So, Toby is now staying with the Hertz family. His parents are Thorsten and Sabine, and he has 3 sisters, Vanessa, Romina, and Fiona. (I think I remember him saying that the eldest had just moved out.) If you want to drop him a line he's at Lüttkoppel 7, Ammersbek 22949, Germany.

He continues to struggle with several of his classes...the ones that depend on a solid command of German. He said he's getting by in his Physics and Math classes, but the others are still mostly a fog to him. Everyone we've talked with says it doesn't come gradually, but more like a light switch turning on. Toby agreed, saying that a friend who had been there for 6 months already told him that's how it happened for him.

Our latest project is working on college applications. Toby is applying to Canadian schools, all in Ontario, and the province has a centralized web site to facilitate this, which is a tremendous help. He's submitted all of his applications, and he's begun getting information from them. His choices are University of Toronto, York University, and University of Western Ontario. Our next challenge will be getting high school transcripts to these schools. We've mostly figured out how to do it, and we've enlisted the help of his guidance counselor here, but we have no clue yet how we're going to get his first term German grades sent along as well. It's unlikely that any of the schools will grant him early admission based only on his transcript through 11th grade, so we will have to figure this one out!

We sent his first care package this week, with clothes and goodies for him, as well as gifts for his family. We went with the USPS as our carrier...very good rates...we'll just have to see what the results are!

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Houston, We Have a Problem!

The past 24 hours have been quite the rollercoaster. Yesterday afternoon my cell phone rang. I almost ignored it because the number displayed on caller-id made no sense at all. I answered it and found Toby on the other end. When I told him about how I almost answered and described the number, he said "yep, that's my number...well, probably not after today".

What?! My mind immediately starts racing ahead of any of the facts to follow. I slow myself down to listen to him. He's telling me that he is going to be changing families because his host mother doesn't like him. I dig for some specifics, but he's having a hard time giving me anything. I can't tell if he's uncomfortable talking about it, or if he really doesn't know what the problem is. He tells me they will try to keep him in the same area, but he will probably have to switch schools. My stomach turns.

I switch gears and ask about school. He says he's doing great in English. They're reading a novel (I've forgotten the title...imagine that!), and they don't spend time discussing metaphors and allegories, and other things that oh-so-annoyed him at school here. How about other classes? He admits to not really understanding anything that's going on, to the point of having just written a test in Physics that he guessed on based on the diagrams and math, and wrote about in English, hoping his teacher's command of our language would be poor enough to not catch whatever mistakes he made. Oy! In his other classes he says he zones out a lot, because it's too hard to stay focused on the teacher when he can't understand the lecture or conversation.

He says he understands his friends and others a little bit when they are speaking directly to him, but he still has very little German.

He sounds ok, but maybe a bit down. It's hard to tell with Toby sometimes, especially having just his voice to judge by. I offer up some nuggets of advice (hopefully useful, although I can't remember a word of what I said to him), tell him to hang in there, ask again several times if he's ok, and reminds him that we are here anytime night or day if he needs anything at all.

We've been on the phone for nearly 15 minutes now and he's in no hurry to hang up. This only makes it worse for me, seeing as how he pretty much never wants to talk on the phone. I finally tell him I need to get back to work and hang up the phone.

I'm in a daze; I can't think about anything work-related right now. My eyes are tearing up, I've got a huge lump in my throat. He's halfway around the world, having a miserable experience right now. I know he's hurting, even if he won't say it, and I can't do a damn thing to help.

Now my brain goes from zero to insanely-fast...what's wrong with that family, why don't they appreciate him? Why didn't Toby put more effort into learning more German before he left? Why did he choose Germany in the first place? And what about this beer-drinking he's been doing? Is he drinking to escape problems, and coming home drunk and disorderly? What if can't cut it at school? Is he going to fail? How did I let this happen?

I may have gotten something else accomplished before leaving for the day; I couldn't tell you. I get home to find that Judy had just spoken with an AFS liaison here in town. She suggests I call her too. I don't feel like talking to anyone, but it was damn good advice. The volunteer explains that this is not uncommon at all, and that they have a standard process to address it. An volunteer in that area sets up an appointment with the family, where family and student get to air grievances in an uncontested way, and then together create a contract of behavior that they all sign and can use if things start to become difficult again. If that doesn't work, AFS finds a new host family for the student. She adds that every year they have to re-host 30-40% of all exchange students. This is somewhat comforting, but still, why our kid? Everyone loves Toby. What's going on here?

Today I wake to find that Judy has written Toby an amazing e-mail, capturing everything I wanted to say but couldn't begin to find a way to we love him and that he's a wonderful human being just the way he is, that he can surely work on finding ways to fit in, but never to sacrifice who he is. Just reading it makes me feel better. Now we just have to sit and wait.

Fortunately, I have a ridiculously busy day, so there's no time to think and worry and chastise myself any further. When I get home Judy tells me that Toby has already been moved to a "bridge" home with an AFS volunteer, while they work on finding him a new permanent placement. I'm curious why they apparently skipped the next step of their process, but also relieved, especially to hear that he sounded like himself on the phone when he called Judy with the news earlier. Then we pick up a message from the volunteer here, in which she conveys comments from the volunteer in Hamburg saying they have never dealt with a more difficult parent. Now I'm feeling better. Good thing I didn't listen to those voices telling me to doubt my son....and come to think of it, why didn't the parents ever write back to us, after we sent such a lovely note, and even went to the effort of asking a friend to write a summary of it in German for us? Seriously, it sounds like in the end this was a match made in hell, and that the parents may have had some unrealistic expectations in the first place.

A great lesson for all. Toby's already thinking about what he can do differently in his new home to make things smoother, and I'm coming to grips with the reality of him having to work through things like this (and making the decision when he's had enough to drink) on his own, with us as his cheering section, sounding board, and safe haven (at least emotionally) whenever he needs us. There's a decent chance he will be staying in the same area at the same school, which is a huge plus, as he has already made several friends.

Wow, who knew this was going to be so hard on me?!?!?

Friday, September 28, 2007

Adjusting to New Rhythms

Toby finished his language camp, and his final orientation, and started school this week. He's got a pretty full load, and it's all being taught in German, so he's struggling now to understand what is going on. I find myself trying to reach back to me teen years to imagine how I might feel then sitting in school all day literally not knowing what's going on. (I know I'd have no patience for it today!)

We've settled into a rhythm of mostly weekly calls. He calls usually in the late evening there (mid-afternoon here). We also get brief e-mails and messages on Facebook, and he's posted a couple of nice notes there and a slew of photos too. (For those of you who intentionally keep your distance from Facebook, I've got his posts copied on our website. I'll also put up a photo gallery soon.

And there are still those moments when we remember that Toby isn't there to "hang with Jer while Ian runs to temple to get Judy and Shar after hebrew school", or to help get the recycling out to the curb, or any of the dozens of other things we've come to take for granted. These realizations aren't unsettling, they just keep catching us off guard.

After talking with Toby today, Judy said "he already sounds different". I think I noticed something too, a slight feeling of greater independence is the best I can describe it. He sounds happy and adjusting well to his life there. Funny how that makes me feel terrific and just a bit sad at the same time. It's reassuring to feel that he's thriving (he's at a birthday party tonight with three friends!), being able to let go just a bit of that back-burner worrying that simmers there all night long.

And yet, there's that little tug that let's those voices pipe up, asking why he would be happier there than here. Of course we know it's a completely unfair comparison, and that it has no reflection on the life we've made here...and yet those voices still pipe up as if they delight in annoying us and sowing doubt.

I've had these thoughts running around in my head for a week or so, second-guessing how I've done as a step-father to Toby for the past 7 years. Did I do enough for him? with him? Did I genuinely find interest in his life and the things that delight him? Those voices keep bringing up archery.

Yeah, archery. Right after becoming a Bar Mitzvah, Toby wanted to buy a nice bow and some arrows and take up archery. I did research, consulted a friend, and when out and purchased him some terrific equipment. Despite zinging his forearm with the arrow shafts several times, he seemed to really like it. But finding a place to shoot was a challenge. This bow would put an arrow straight through those straw bales that the put up over at Lake Calhoun! And somehow, we just never seemed to find or make the time to get out and do it. Time past, and he stopped asking, and I never knew if he just lost interest or lost the energy to keep asking me.

Maybe one day we'll talk about that. Until then, I listen to him laughing on the phone, look at his smiling face in his photos, and read about all the things he's doing, and I tell the voices to go bother someone else.
Toby's host family, the Gudrun's

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Settling In

Things are settling back to normal here, and from the sound of it, for Toby too. Sharon has stopped asking if we're going to be depressed all year, perhaps because we're not both moping around, or maybe because we took her to Ikea to scope out new bedroom furniture.

Sharon is still envious of Toby's bedroom there, even after he explained that the bed is in a loft, not a second floor, and that he bumps his head on the ceiling all the time moving around up there!

Good news for Toby is that his family has a computer, and a flat rate internet access plan. (Apparently, it's common in some European countries to have metered goes the story of an AFS student from a previous year who consumed his family's monthly allocation of internet access in his first several days there...yikes!) We're hoping to see photos from him soon, but probably not for a couple of weeks.

I said before he was starting a language camp for two days. I mis-heard him; it's for two weeks. Guess that makes sense. I mean how much could somebody learn in two days anyway?

He's also already made contact with someone associated with an Ultimate team in Hamburg, and is working out logistics for getting into town for practices. (It's about a 45-50minute trip for him each way.)

Rabbi Offner (our rabbi) made contact with a reform/liberal rabbi in the Hamburg area, and he offered to have Toby come with him for High Holidays services. Because the communities of reform/liberal Jews are very small there, he travels to several communities. It should be fun!

The last thing on my list to worry about was his visa. He needed to wait and apply there, which he has now done...according to him, he got his visa at the rathaus (loosely translates to city hall). He said it's the first of many forms he needs to fill out for things like his bahn-card for the train, etc.

Oh yeah, it sounds like his younger brother scored by having Toby there. He's taking English as a language course in school this year. Can't hurt to have a brother who's fluent, eh?

Ok, so maybe things aren't quite "normal", as I'm obviously still thinking about this that and the other thing for him (and maybe still worrying just a bit too), but I'm definitely heading that way. It's funny. I find myself worrying, but not quite about him. Here's an example. I was thinking the other night what I imagined would be going through my head right after arriving, something along the lines of "oh #*$@! what have I gotten myself into...what was I thinking? I didn't understand a thing they said all am I going to get by..." etc. I think I would be terrified, but too proud to admit it. Here's the weird part. I'm not really projecting any of that on Toby. I don't imagine he's experiencing that, or at least not like I would. I can see him being mildly amused at my concern and fear, and somewhat puzzled about why it would be a big deal.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Meet The Parents!

After an eight hour wait in the airport, and a four hour journey by train, Toby met his new host family and settled into his new home in Ammersbek. His parents are Ralf and Gudrun, and he has a brother Kester, who is 14. They also have a dog named Sunny.

Toby described the area as not quite suburban, but not quite small town either. ("You drive for two minutes and you're surrounded by farms, then two more minutes and you're into the next town/village/suburb.") He says the house is a similar size to ours, but it sounds like his room is much cooler. It has two levels; on the first he has a sofa, table, and TV, and then above is a loft with his bed and dresser and such.

On the train ride from Frankfurt, Toby was joined by Eva Wolf, who is writing and directing a documentary film about cultural exchange in Germany, focusing on AFS students. (Hmm, I'm absolutely certain her pitch to the film company was far more compelling than my lame description!) He said it went fine (that is his adjective of choice for everything that isn't amazing or horrible), and mentioned that he almost walked off with the lapel mic she had him wear, a fair indication that he was at ease with the whole thing...y'know, fine.

He's got a German language camp for the next two days...hopefully the bit of prep work he did over the summer will help him get more out of it. His parents speak a little, but not much, English. His brother Kester speaks more.

I think now I can sleep better, knowing he's got someone looking out for him...OMG, did I cause my parents this much stress everytime I took off somewhere?