By Marc Schwartz
Honored. That is how I felt when I was selected to be a Frank Fellow of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). Looking around at the seven other Fellows, I saw people from all over the country, with successful careers and active community involvement. One member recently had to get confirmed by the state Senate for her current full-time job – so that's full time public service on top of being a volunteer. Being with this crowd meant I had to be at the top of my game just so I had a chance to keep up.
Traveling together in tight, cramped spaces from JFK through Frankfurt to Kraków meant that we all knew a lot about each other – whether we wanted to or not – by the time we exited the plane in the subfreezing Kraków winter. Those tight, cramped spaces included a 15-minute bus ride from the Frankfurt airport terminal to the plane parked some 5 miles away (or at least it seemed that long) yet still somehow on the airport campus.
Spending two days together in Poland reminding us of how our people were humiliated, embarrassed, enslaved, murdered, and treated as property was another shared bonding experience. The Auschwitz weather seemed appropriate as again it was subfreezing and snowing, with the sky seemingly only 10-feet off the ground. We were shivering in two layers of socks and boots, reminding ourselves the prisoners wore nothing but nightgowns.
Getting to know each other in such a short period of time benefited us throughout the entire trip. It enabled us to do several things. First, not that we were bashful to begin with, there was clearly no hesitation in asking any type of question during presentations, whether just amongst the Fellows or within the larger JCPA mission group, for fear of being laughed at for asking a dumb question. Second, it led to great no-holds-barred honest dialogue and debate between sessions about how we felt about everything from mission organization to our latest program/speaker. I found some of these discussions to be more intense, enlightening, and rewarding than many of the formal programs. Again, direct discussions were only possible because we had spent such intense time together at the trip's beginning. I also think it showed what a good selection of Fellows was made in that every single person was able to hold up his or her end of an argument and everyone was able to keep an open mind as we moved forward.
Frustrated, ideally leading to appreciating different perspectives: that is how I felt at certain parts of every day. Everyone had a differing viewpoint, from our internal JCPA group to the various outside persons we met, ranging from members of Knesset from widely varying political parties (including an Israeli Arab), settlers, Palestinians, government advisors, to others we met on the street. Perhaps my favorite was a store manager who deputized Joel (another Fellow) and me to watch the store for 20 minutes as she ran down the street to find us the perfect gifts to bring back home. Unfortunately, we didn't get an employee discount as Hadara (another Fellow) suggested. The shopkeeper had some specific thoughts on President Obama, his religion, his beliefs, his view of Israel, and other topics that surprised me, which is saying a lot given that I live in the heart of the south and hear some pretty nasty things on a daily basis.
More daily frustration was seeing the different lives the Palestinians and Israelis were living and knowing it is a shame and a travesty that there is not an effective movement toward peace from all sides.
The trip was an undeniable success. I met new people and learned new things every single day. That same success made the reentry process to normal daily life in Atlanta difficult, at best. It took me about a week to get back into my rhythm. Thank you for including me on the trip, and I look forward to continuing to stay involved with both the Frank Fellows and the JCPA.