This is the part of a series of live dispatches from our Write On For Israel students during their trip to Israel. Write On For Israel is a leadership training program for high school students. You can find out more about the program here, and follow us on Facebook and Instagram for live updates throughout the trip and here for the daily roundups.
Today we explored the ways in which Israel has served as a light unto the nations through a visit to Save a Child’s Heart (SACH). This organization provides life-saving medical treatment for children with congenital heart diseases from countries that are unable to provide proper medical treatment. Amazingly, saving a child’s life costs just $15,000, a figure that’s a fraction of the cost of typical heart surgery because Israeli surgeons are performing the operations pro-bono.
Many of us brought games and toys for the younger children and played basketball and soccer with the older children. Although we did not speak their language, it didn’t stop us from having fun. After speaking to Kasile (age 17) and Lukman (age 19) about their childhood in Tanzania, they shared their aspirations to work as a chef and mechanic, respectively. It was fascinating to see that although these kids are living so far away from home with life-threatening medical conditions, they continued to stay optimistic and dream big.
Aside from medical assistance, SACH seeks to bridge the gap between Israelis and Palestinians. Roughly 50 percent of the children who’ve been treated are from Gaza and the West Bank. Although many of the parents of these children are hesitant to trust Israeli hospitals and doctors, they see that that saving a child’s life transcends politics. SACH has saved over 5,000 children from over 60 countries and continues to expand their mission.
From SACH we headed to Jerusalem to learn more about the history of the Holocaust. At Yad Vashem, the first memorial we visited was dedicated to Irena Sendler, a righteous gentile from Poland. During the Holocaust, Irena was a nurse in the Warsaw ghetto. She took advantage of her position and smuggled children out of the ghetto, saving countless lives. She was very careful in the way she smuggled these children; for instance, she trained dogs to bark when Nazi soldiers were coming in order to mask the sound of children crying. Irena kept meticulous records of each child she helped so that they could reunite with their families if they survived the war. Eventually, her operation was discovered, and she was arrested by the Gestapo. While incarcerated, she was brutally tortured. Despite the Gestapo breaking her arms and legs, she still would not reveal the names of any of the children she saved. Irena survived the war and buried her records when she was released from jail.
It is very difficult to walk through Yad Vashem and not feel defeated and powerless; experiencing the magnitude of the Nazi genocide often makes people think that they wouldn’t have been able to do anything to stop it. On the contrary, Irena’s story proves that an individual can make a difference. This powerful message is why we saw her memorial before those of Holocaust victims.
When we continued on through the grounds of Yad Vashem and commemorated the six million Jewish Holocaust victims, we did not just feel the heavy sadness and sympathy, but we also felt empowered to take action and make a difference so that history would not repeat itself. Through the lens of Irena’s story, we were challenged to consider how we would act as Jewish leaders.
A major aspect of Yad Vashem is the use of architecture and art to impact those who visit. Unlike statistics and photographs, art can tell a story that means something different and personal to each observer. We visited the children’s memorial at Yad Vashem and really internalized this. We started by walking through an unfinished archway with its foundations exposed surrounded by stone pillars cutoff at the top. The message was clear—these were lives that were cut short, and their potential never had the opportunity to be built upon. We then walked down the descending pathway with marked walls and increasing darkness that alluded to the march towards the gas chambers. The last thing we saw before entering the memorial was a pasuk that compared a living soul to a flame as we entered the dark room. By way of mirrors, the inside of the memorial appeared to be an infinite universe of candles. As we walked through, the names of all the children that perished in the holocaust were read in a loop that takes three and a half months to complete. Passing through the room gave us a heartbreaking feeling of the infinity of souls that perished in the dark. We exited the memorial and stepped into the light, and all of Jerusalem was visible from the mountain. The story was complete—these souls were unable to live on, but we are, and we have Israel.
After leaving Yad Vashem, we took a bus ride to the other side of the hill. We visited the graves of all the heroes who gave their lives to protect the state of Israel. We heard multiple moving stories about soldiers from a variety of backgrounds, all sharing a common denominator: a love for Israel. Some were American, and some were Israeli, but all served the Jewish homeland. The young people buried in Mount Herzl put the needs of Israel and the Jewish people above themselves, paying the ultimate price.
For the last part of our day, we went to an art exhibit commemorating the paintings, photographs and writings of former IDF soldier, Alex Singer, z”l who was killed in Lebanon 35 years ago. Through his art and diary entries, we were able to see the world through Alex’s optimistic, colorful lens. We were all tasked to look around and define “to Alex.” Some shared their definition through watercolor and some through words, but I think we all agreed by the end that “to Alex” is to live every day as if it were your last and to not allow a lack of courage to stand between you and where you want to be.