Re-post Oprah and Elie Weisel at Auschwitz - Part 1 of 6

Tonight and tomorrow, April 23 and 24, marks the Holocaust Remembrance Day or Yom Hashoah when we commemorate the six million Jews who lost their lives in the Holocaust. Here is a highly moving Oprah episode featuring Elie Weisel on the Holocaust. It testifies to what went on at Auschwitz from 1944-1945. Elie Wiesel based his book, "Night"--at least in part--on his own experiences at Auschwitz during World War II. The book has received considerable acclaim, and the author received the Nobel Prize in 1986. Here is Elie Weisel being interviewed by Oprah in Auschwitz

What the Story of Pesach Means for Us Today

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah                                                               for her neshama.
By Samantha Hulkower

Even though we tell the same story every year on the first night of Pesach, there is always something new we can learn. When we are children it is a captivating tale, interesting enough to keep us at the table to hear what happens next to our ancestors. As we get older, perhaps we become more interested in the philosophical discussion of the four sons, or how Pharaoh's behavior at the expense of the Egyptian people could be seen in other leaders in the world today. There are many ways to view what is ultimately a simple, yet fantastic, part of Jewish history.
Pharaoh reading the news
For the uninitiated, here is an abridged version for you: The ruler of Egypt (or Mitzrayim in Hebrew), is paranoid about maintaining his power. When his advisers tell him that a leader will emerge from the enslaved Jewish people to bring them out of Egypt and to freedom, Pharaoh orders all baby Jewish boys be killed. We already learned how Miriam HaNaviah convinced the Jews to ignore Pharaoh's decree, and from this Moshe Rabbeinu, the predicted leader is born. Moshe actually grew up in Pharaoh's own palace, but after killing a cruel Egyptian taskmaster, had to flee. While in exile, God catches Moshe's attention through a burning bush and here Moshe begins his ultimate quest to lead the Jewish people to their freedom, albeit quite reluctantly. He returns to Egypt, and with the help of his brother Aharon, warns Pharaoh if he doesn't let the Jewish people leave, he's going to regret it. As we can guess, Pharaoh is nonplussed and the plagues begin. First the water turns into blood, then frogs get everywhere (literally), followed by lice, wild beasts attacking, the domesticated animals dying,  boils, hail that also happens to be on fire, locusts that eat whatever vegetation hadn't been destroyed by the hail, darkness so thick the Egyptians couldn't move, and finally the death of the first born in every family. By the end, his kingdom had been ruined and Pharaoh grants Moshe the ability to let the Jews leave. However, they are barely a few days out into the desert, on their way to Israel, when Pharaoh changes his mind and sends his chariots to recapture them. There is a dramatic showdown where the Jews are trapped between the Sea of Reeds and Pharaoh's army. Of course, at this point, God splits the sea, the Jews cross, and when Pharaoh's army tries to follow, the sea closes and that is the end of that.

One thing that is very special about Pesach is that the events all unfold in front of the entire nation of Israel. All other religions have more intimate gatherings when their spiritual leader has his communication with their god. In our case, the Pesach story happens, including all of the plagues and the splitting of the sea, happens in front of the entire nation, not to mention also in front of all of the Egyptians. It is for this reason that it is a mitzvah to remember every day that God took the Jewish people out of Egypt, to become a free nation in Israel. Because we (or our super duper great grand parents) were able to see the actions of God with their own eyes, it was easier for them to connect with Him. Today, we have so many distractions in the world and ways to rationally explain why there isn't a God (G-d forbid) it can be hard to remember what we were able to see so clearly at this very point in time thousands of years ago. By remembering these things every day, we help to stave off those doubts.

Rav Shlomo Wolbe, of blessed memory, says that this is exactly why we had the various events that not only make for a good story, but physical events that we could feel with all of our senses. Part of the mitzvah while reading the story from the haggadah is to actually feel like you yourself are leaving Egypt, being freed from slavery. There are many ways to interpret this to someone's modern life metaphorically, but sometimes part of getting yourself into the right mindset includes physical action. Part of the idea of 'fake it 'till you make it' is to put on a smile until you feel happy, or if you are working from home, still putting on your office clothes rather than staying in your pajamas in order to be more productive. On Leil HaSeder (the Seder Night) really put yourself in this story. Whether you are reading it in English, Hebrew, or some other language, utilize the descriptive terms to feel like you are there and utilize this metaphorical experience the joy of being freed from whatever personal slavery you feel that you are trapped in (it could be anything from a bad habit you are trying to break or learning how to deal with a Pharaoh in your own life). Don't forget that it is always possible to be freed from slavery, no matter how it manifests itself in your life. Chag sameach!!

Make it Count: Sefirat HaOmer

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah 
                                                     for her neshama.

By Shayna Hulkower
Ultra Orthodox Jewish man harvests wheat ahead of the Jewish Shavuot holiday, in a field outside the Israeli community of Mevo Horon
Whether you are relieved or saddened Pesach is behind us, we are still in the midst of a special time. The period between Pesach and Shavuot is called 'The Omer'. It is a time when we count, each day, up to the holiday of Shavuot. There are many questions associated with this: usually when we are excited and looking forward to an event, we count down to it - not up! And the omer is actually barley - what does that have to do with anything? Let us explore.

First, let's go back around 4,000 or so years. The Jews had just ended their slavery in Egypt, and once they were able to see their former slave masters dead on the seashore after the splitting of the Red Sea, they were able to take a breath, and begin the transition from slave to free man. It's not so easy to pitom (suddenly) go from such a low and disenfranchised place to one of responsibility. Not to mention the fact that the Jews were also on a very low place spiritually - the so-called 49th level of tumah (you don't want to be at the 50th level). And, as it happens to be, Shavuot, the holiday where we celebrate receiving the Torah is 50 days after the night we left Mitzrayim (Egypt). It was during this period of 7 weeks (shavuot  means 'weeks' in Hebrew) the Jewish people spent time in the desert working on themselves, and preparing themselves to receive the Torah.

What does all of this have to do with barley? Yes, it's one of the seven species special to Eretz Yisrael, and perhaps more appreciated this time of year after having to abstain from all leavened grain products for seven or eight days. Yes, this is the time of year when the spring grains can be harvested, and many cultures have spring harvest festivals. But why barley and not wheat? Or spelt? Barley is traditionally a grain fed to animals. It's not really a people food (unless you count it in a cholent on Shabbat!). During this period of seven weeks we are working on so many things - taking the spiritual heights we hopefully reached over Pesach and working to integrate those changes into our character. This is no easy task. Each day as we count the omer there is another Gate opened above, allowing us to tap into the powers of chesed, gevurah, tiferet, netzach, hod, yesod,and malchut corresponding to loving kindness, discipline, harmony, endurance, humility, connection, and leadership. These are character traits that we can only achieve if we rid ourselves of our more animalistic tendencies. For example, doing things because they are just although not comfortable, or powering through because we know the delayed gratification will be all the sweeter - these are high-level ideas and emotions. These aren't concepts that someone just out of slavery could take upon themselves easily. So each day, slowly slowly, we work to bring ourselves up - out of slavery and worthy of receiving the Torah from G-d.

The counting up allows us to value the growth we are hopefully experiencing each day. It's not that we are counting down to something, but rather building up to it. We're already two weeks into the omer, but it's not too late to jump in and work on yourself from now until Shavuot. Whatever it is that you want to accomplish - it's there waiting for you. 

What to do in Israel over Chol HaMoed Pesach

By Samantha Hulkower

North, Banias
Twice a year, the Jewish people celebrate a week-long holiday. The week is couched by yomim tovim at the beginning and end, days that are holidays and rules similar to those of Shabbat apply. But in between are essentially enforced vacation days - time when if you can avoid going into the office it's preferred. Where if you don't have to write anything it's great. But you are definitely allowed to get in a car, spend money, and otherwise go on tiyulim (trips) and have fun. If you are lucky enough to be in Israel for Passover, here is a list of a few of the things going on.
Dead Sea Festival (website in Hebrew, but if you view in Google Chrome it easily translates). Festivals and musical acts play around the area, in addition to nature hikes and history tours. This is all in addition to the natural wonder and enjoyment of the Dead Sea. All in all, there is surely something for everyone. 
Stone in the Galilee Festival This international sculpture festival is a draw for art-lovers from everywhere. Stroll through international works of art, arranged in outdoor pavilions. 
Ein Gev Music Festival Held in Ein Gev, this mostly music festival celebrates with performances and group singing. Boating, art fair and train rides around the port. Many events are free and a great reason to visit a beautiful and often over-looked city
Jerusalem's Old Train Station, there you can find daily arts and crafts fairs, yoga classes, art galleries, tours, restaurants, shopping and lots more. Not a place you want to miss on your next trip to Israel.

If you are looking for something that is more outdoorsy, join the many other Israelis exploring this ecologically diverse land on a tiyul, or hike. Check out for hikes from the Golan to Eilat, along with info about local flora and fauna, and ways to find tour guides.
In addition, many museums all over the country offer free admission over Pesach. Intercity buses often offer reduced ticket prices, allowing explorers to have fun without breaking the bank. Enjoy!

Yashar LaChayal

The majesty of the Western Wall

Nefesh B'Nefesh