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Reform Trip Evokes European Past for Teens

September 13, 2007 By:
Rachel Silverman, JE Feature
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Peter Rigler
As a congregational rabbi, Peter Rigler of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park admitted that he doesn't get too many opportunities to talk one on one with teens about Judaism.

Those conversations, he said, tend to evolve in settings that are somewhat out of the ordinary -- like wandering through an old Jewish neighborhood in the Czech Republic, for example, or holding Shabbat services in a restored synagogue in Krakow, Poland.

Those moments are exactly why Rigler, 35, spent a week this summer with nearly 80 Reform teenagers in Eastern Europe.

"We'd be sitting on the bus and they'd ask about theology -- like 'Where is God? Why did this happen?' " said the Elkins Park resident. "On this type of trip, it opens these windows, and if there's a rabbi or cantor around, there are these incredible opportunities for discussion."

The program Rigler staffed is called "L'dor V'dor," and it's one of several Israel experiences offered by the North American Federation of Temple Youth, colloquially known as NFTY. The idea of the program, which has been running for about 15 years now, is to expose students to Jewish history and life in Eastern Europe before sending them over to Israel for a month.

According to Laurence Jacobs, coordinator of NFTY in Israel programs, who spoke from organizational headquarters in New York, rabbis like Rigler play a critical role on such trips.

"They're really driving home the Jewish connection," he said. "Especially when kids are living [through] traumatic memories."

Rigler concurs. "It's wonderful to have 21-year-old counselors with them, but as they enter concentration camps, they should have the resource of rabbis."

Jacobs said that Rigler was "an obvious choice" because of his long affiliation with NFTY and the Reform movement.

This father of two small children has attended and worked at Camp Harlam for more than 20 years. He has served as a youth adviser at six different Reform synagogues and spent a year staffing NFTY's high school in Israel program.

Explained Rigler, who met his wife at Camp Harlam: "I came to my Judaism through my informal Jewish education. Those are really transformative Jewish experiences."

When working with the teens this summer, Rigler said that he tried to avoid preaching, but instead aimed to relate to the high-schoolers on their level. He wore T-shirts and flip-flops during the trip, and occasionally dressed as historical or mythic figures -- like the golem -- to elicit laughs.

"I tried hard not to be patrolling exactly how Jewish the trip was. I was there mostly as a resource for Jewish content."

On that note, he said that he encouraged students to take ownership of their Judaism, leading prayers and running services on their own.

"I was able to add little rabbinic pieces, but the kids should be doing much of the leading," said Rigler. "It's not about me as a rabbi; it's about these students and their experiences."

Rigler said the highlights of the trip included a tour of Oskar Schindler's factory in Krakow, a walk through the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, Poland, and a Friday-night service in Krakow. The group also spent several hours visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

Despite the trip's obvious Holocaust focus, the rabbi tried to leave participants with a sense of Jewish life before the Shoah.

"Of course, they did a great deal of crying," he said. "But my goal wasn't to simply depress the children. It was to remind them of the power of Jewish life before the Holocaust, and to think about the future."

After touring Eastern Europe, participants flew to Israel, where they spent a month traveling and learning about the tenets of Zionism, Jewish history and Israeli statehood.

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