Ayala Parag, an alumna of the Wexner Israel Fellowship Program, is Chief Physiotherapist of Israel in the Ministry of Health. She participated in the Wexner Foundation’s Mifgash to Eastern Europe in April; below are her reflections. She can be reached at ayala.parag@moh.health.gov.il

As I think of the impact of our quest to Eastern Europe, I return to the theme of a drasha I gave on our first morning together in Warsaw. Then I spoke of the message gleaned from reading the works of Primo Levi and drew a parallel to that of Victor Frankel, namely that in any given situation, thinking man has choices about how to perceive his reality and how to act upon his perceptions, often, even in seemingly hopeless circumstances, realizing opportunity and thus increasing his chances of survival.

So, what does this have to do with 40 adults, 20 Israelis and 20 North Americans, traveling together through the sites of destruction and inhumanity in Eastern Europe? To begin with, The Foundation must have recognized the creative potential of this group. They had a vision; we seized the opportunity so generously provided. It would have been very easy to stay, each one of us, within our respective comfort zones: Israelis grouped with Israelis, Americans with Americans, to find a virtual soul mate and bare our soul only to him or her; easier still, to speak in generalities, one step removed from our core perceptions and feelings.

But this is not what happened. 

It soon became apparent that each and every one of us made a decision to let down barriers and defenses, to share from the depths of our souls our most heartfelt thoughts and emotions. This, for many of us, was to take a giant leap of faith.

Larry set the stage on our first evening together. Usually a very reserved individual, Larry humbly bared his innermost thoughts about his mother as a survivor and how her personal history affected him throughout his life.

This atmosphere of closeness, thoughtful contemplation, empathy and sharing continued throughout the week. Had an aerial view been taken of the group, the prominent feature would be one of people bonding to one another, talking in pairs, in small groups, heads leaning toward one another, arms often in embrace.

This happened as we walked through the grounds of the camps, in the bus and in the cities. The geographical, cultural boundaries soon ceased to be relevant; rather there was a true hunger to know one another, to understand one another and to build bridges for future encounters and experiences. Quite an accomplishment. 

Well beyond the expected outcomes, what evolved was a kinship, a close-knit community which will serve as a foundation for future mutual endeavors.