– Jake Weiss
Today, I woke up at 8:50 AM, eagerly prepared for the day, waited a wee 10 minutes for yogurt at the hotel breakfast buffet, and got on the bus. When we began the drive from our hotel in Springfield, VA, Billy played “One Day More” from Les Miserables, and suddenly it dawned on it me. No, not how amazing of a singer Hugh Jackman is, but how we only have ONE day left on the trip! It was truly crazy to comprehend! I vividly remember walking into Billy’s synagogue 35 days ago, feeling homesick and awkward and genuinely questioning whether I’d made the right decision coming on this trip. Yet here I am, having stuck it out to have one of the greatest, most formative experiences of my life, and it’s coming to an end. While it will certainly be nice to sleep in my bed at home again (and even nicer to have it to myself), I am truly at a loss for words as I look back on this monumental journey, and it seems I have this bittersweetness in common with all of my friends.
Unfortunately, our first activity of the day was incredibly bitter and not at all sweet, yet it holds a massive place in the identity of the Jewish community. We went to the United States Holocaust Memorial. The main exhibition was perpetually and unrelentingly tragic, yet it’s truly a blessing that the United States has constructed a memorial of such accurate, in-depth detail to all the courageous human beings who lost their lives to pure, nonsensical hate. But the unique brilliance that has gone into creating the museum with such attention to detail and memory is truly incredible. I had previously been to Yad VaShem, Israel’s official Holocaust Memorial, and one of the many differences between the two museums is the placement of the cattle car artifacts, which were used to transport the detainees to the concentration camps. At Yad VaShem, the cattle car is located on an outdoor ledge, high up on a wall, whereas the cattle car at the US memorial is much more interactive. You can even walk through it! I see the cattle car as a symbol of the Holocaust itself. Yad VaShem pushes the cattle car off to the distance, hoping and praying that the Jewish people never again find themselves at the helm of such inhumanity. Yet, the US Memorial is far more reflective of the harsh reality of anti-semitism and its current rampancy, prompting us all to wonder if another Holocaust is really impossible. The museum also had a beautiful Hall of Remembrance, in which you could light candles to commemorate all of those who were lost and a compelling exhibit about the modern-day mass torture of millions of people in Bangladesh. It was harrowing to see the connection between the Holocaust and the current states of oppression and torture that happen all around the world. We pray for it to Never happen Again, yet it seems it has happened time and time again.
After the overwhelmingly tragic program at the US Holocaust Memorial, we had some free time on the lawn outside the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, surrounded by food trucks. It was a very nice way to spend our free time, and it would have been even nicer if the birds surrounding us were potty trained!
From lunch, we set off for the National Archives Museum to view some of the country’s most central and influential texts. Before we went inside the Museum, Billy enlightened us about the great gamble our Founding Fathers took when writing these documents, particularly the Constitution. They left the Constitution up for ambiguous interpretations and the perfect ability of adaption. Billy then discussed how the same can be said for the Torah, and how that has led to much debate in Judaism and beyond. The documents were located in a sumptuous rotunda, and people were tightly crowded around them, making them hard to see. But it was truly amazing to be in the same room as them!
Our next stop was the National Museum of Natural History. It’s truly a cultural marvel with a plethora of exhibits chronicling the past, present, and future of American Humanity. My personal favorite exhibits were the Hall of Presidents, the Food Exhibition, and the General Motors Hall of Transportation. But it was all super fan, and there’s no wonder why it’s the most visited museum in the country!
From there, we returned to Northern Virginia and stopped to grab dinner at Whole Foods. We spent the ensuing two hours winding down from the last of four on-the-go, action-packed days in DC before convening at 8:00 in one of the hotel’s conference halls for the beginning of the end of our Etgar 36 journey! We arranged chairs into an oval and went around the oval, sharing personal, in-depth accounts and takeaways from our time on the trip. We were all becoming very emotional, each taking our time to reflect on this monumental experience and thank our extraordinary friends and staff. After nearly two hours of beautiful sharing, Billy capped it off, discussing how he was so happy to bring the trip to an end with our group and all of the things the trip has meant for him over the last 20 years he has run it. As he spoke, tears began to well up in my eyes. They were the same tears that ran down my cheeks with homesickness and misery a mere 5 weeks earlier.
We took a short break so everyone could collect their bearings and blow their noses, and we ate some delicious chocolate cake in honor of the eve of Simon G’s birthday. Now that’s bittersweetness! We then dove into some of the most brilliantly meaningful programming we have done on the entire trip, and Billy, the staff, or any special guest speaker didn’t lead it. It was led by Eli and Josh, our fellow journeyers. They wasted no time diving into the activity, dimming the lights, and having us all sit on the floor in a circle with our eyes closed. The activity went like this: Eli walked around the circle, tapping a select few people on the head and having those people stand up. He would then announce a quality or ability in people, such as ‘Making Me Laugh,’ or ‘Always Trustworthy,’ or ‘A Forever Friend.’ Those who were tapped would then walk around the circle, tapping the heads of those they felt said sayings could be best applied to. We played several rounds of this, and I can’t tell you how humbling it was to be tapped on the head. All the while, Josh was strumming a soothing melody on his guitar, helping create a calming and intimate environment. Josh and Eli then had us stand up hand-in-hand, and they led us in a sweeping Havdallah service. It was the most fitting way to begin what is truly a new chapter in our lives. I can’t speak for everyone, but I will certainly be leaving this trip a better and stronger person, and I will forever be indebted to this experience and everyone who helped create it. And I owe so much of my personal growth and increased open-mindedness to Billy, whose retirement after 20 years of changing the courses of teenagers’ lives couldn’t be more
well-deserved! Still hand-in-hand, we sang goodbye classics “Leaving on a Jet Plane” by the late John Denver and “Rivers and Roads” by The Head and The Heart. What ensued was 20 minutes of all of us rotating around the room, taking turns hugging each other, the imminence of tomorrow morning’s departure bearing down on us. Yet none of us are quite ready to return to our lives tomorrow, but at the same time, we couldn’t be more ready! Still, we’ve all been savoring every last moment, feeling every crease in the sheets of our hotel beds, but nonetheless knowing we can now change the world!