This past summer, sixteen-year-old Ilana Lazar visited the concentration camps her grandparents survived.
“I was able to walk those roads and places where my family had been,” she wrote in a thank-you note to an anonymous donor.
Na’ama Or, sixteen, was able to put up a matzeivah, memorial plaque, at a mass grave for a member of her extended family who was killed by the Nazis.
Both Ilana and Na’ama were part of The Anne Samson Jerusalem Journey Ambassadors Poland (TJJ AP), an exclusive NCSY summer trip that takes public school teenagers to Poland for a week, followed by a three-week expedition across Israel. Marc Fein, director of TJJ AP, describes it as “shanah bet” for past participants of The Anne Samson Jerusalem Journey (TJJ), NCSY’s flagship summer program that takes public high school students to Israel for their first Israel experience.
“TJJ is meant to inspire; TJJ AP is about translating that inspiration into reality,” Fein says.
While the trip takes participants to sites such as Auschwitz and Treblinka—and includes making a Havdalah ceremony in the house of a Nazi commander—the focus isn’t solely about tragedies of the past. The trip itinerary includes learning Torah at the Yeshiva of Chachmei Lublin, where the Daf Yomi originated, and experiencing a tisch at the beit midrash of the great Chassidic master Rabbi Noam Elimelech of Lizhensk. The trip essentially brings participants face to face with both the darkest and brightest moments of Jewish history.
“It’s not just about survival,” Fein explains. “Our goal is for teens to see themselves as part of a broader Jewish historical story.”
The three weeks in Israel include hiking and chesed activities such as running a camp for children from Sderot. Applicants are accepted after a lengthy screening process, which includes submitting essays describing how they feel about their Jewish identity.
Rabbi Steven Weil, senior managing director of the Orthodox Union, hosts a Shabbaton in his home in Teaneck for participants before they travel to Poland. “In terms of impact, it’s one of the most meaningful experiences we provide,” he says about TJJ AP.
“What surprised me the most was our ability as a community to fill that emptiness and that void with a sense of vibrancy,” Fein recalls. “Every stop we made—whether it was a destroyed shul or Auschwitz—we found a way to bring life to those places. Instead of the trip being about death and what could have been, it became about life. Not about the lives that were lost, but the lives that were lived. Teens left the trip as ambassadors for the Jewish people.”