Our brilliant academics, teachers, historians, and more on bringing the “historic and cultural Jewish experience to life”
“A journey of self-discovery,” said the rabbi, though he clearly had more.
As Jewish Heritage Travel scholar Chaim Seidler-Feller was naming some of the most influential Jewish writers of the 19th century, we asked him to sum up his fall trip to Vienna and Prague in a single sentence. Somehow, this led to a more significant, deeper discussion (as seemingly simple questions posed to a rabbi often will) on why we must visit the lands of the diaspora — the kind of enlightening discourse and guidance our scholars provide throughout each and every Jewish Heritage Travel trip.
“Jewish travel is an encounter with these divergent strands of our identity and ultimately a personal journey of self-understanding,” said Rabbi Seidler-Feller, who has spent 40 years teaching Judaism and Jewish history, most recently as the executive director of the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA.
While discussing his October 2024 trip to Morocco and his upcoming fall trip to Spain, Raymond Scheindlin, professor emeritus of Medieval Hebrew Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a former Guggenheim Fellow, expanded on this thought, explaining that these tours explore history “on the spot where it was made” to make it “concrete” and “memorable.”
“Even if you have read or attended lectures, seeing the sites where it happened, walking the streets where the great figures of our past walked, experiencing the ambiance in which they lived, makes the whole subject more vivid,” said Scheindlin.
Though they all phrase things a bit differently — each with their own particular focus on family history, Jewish Law, or even the power of the land — all of our scholars confirmed that a Jewish Heritage Travel tour is a singular and transformative experience. “Our scholars create a vibrant tapestry that brings to life the historic and cultural Jewish experience in the splendid countries and cities we visit,” agreed Aryeh Maidenbaum, the founder of Jewish Heritage Travel, who has led these trips for over 30 years.
Renowned Jewish genealogist Tomasz Cebulski, who will again lead our autumn trip to Poland, spoke in terms of deepened family connections. “We can’t understand who we are and where we are without grasping the past which defined us,” said Cebulski. “Going to these places is about touching the very essence of Jewish history to better understand ourselves.”
Therkel Straede, one of the world’s leading experts on the October 1943 Danish rescue, talked about locations themselves — noting that all stories play out at specific settings, which in turn have the power to transform yesteryear into something immediate.
“To gain insight into the history of Jews and other minorities requires extra effort — and knowledgeable facilitators.”—Therkel Straede, accompanying scholar to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, summer 2024
Straede, who will accompany travelers on the trip to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia next year, said, “Topography is important to history and memory — landscapes and cities, institutions of Jewish history and culture. Wandering along the paths and visiting the rooms where Jewish life took place, culture unfolded, and anti-Jewish oppression happened provides insight into the conditions of Jews of the past. Their thoughts and feelings and the choices they made. This makes us think: How would we have reacted? How would we put up with the challenges they faced?”
This particular type of remembrance, that covenant, has always been a core responsibility for Jewish people, noted Yoram Bilu, professor emeritus of anthropology and psychology at Hebrew University. “One of the basic tenets of Judaism is the commandment to remember key events,” he explained, citing Passover Seder as the perfect example.
“[With the reading of the Haggadah text] all participants are involved in active remembrance of the birth of the Jewish nation, a performative recall, if you will,” Bilu wrote, along with some specifics about the mellahs, museums, and ancient archaeological digs he has planned for our March trip to Morocco.
“The scholars were beyond fabulous!—Dale S, 2023 traveler
We learned so much. Hard to say what we liked best. It was all great. Beyond our expectations!”
As each of our scholars listed their itineraries — the significant sites and unique places of Jewish interest they’ve selected, including private access to historical archives, special guided tours of ancient synagogues, and more — they also passed along stories of catharsis and connection, when the past suddenly turned personal.
Professor Scheinlin spoke about a monastery in Spain where his group, overcome with emotion, crowded together to read aloud from centuries-old Hebrew manuscripts — “ancient but perfectly legible and identifiable … a material link between us and medieval Jewry.” Straede recalled the phrase visitors repeat as they peer over the narrow stretch of water the Jews of Denmark crossed into Sweden to escape the Nazis: “So close, and yet so far.” Cebulski explained the intensity that comes from touring seven synagogues in Kazimierz that “tell the story of 900 years of Jewish life.” And Rabbi Seidler-Feller remembered a day trip to a secret house of worship just thirty miles from Prague.
“We are an international people made up of diverse communities. Through the centuries, we have assimilated much from our surroundings that have shaped Judaism and Jewish life, and at the same time, we have made profound contributions to those very cultures.”—Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, accompanying scholar to Northern Italy in the fall of 2024
“There was a book there about the people in the Terezin concentration camp. One of the travelers pointed to a name and said, ‘That man was my Hebrew school teacher. A cantor in my synagogue. He was one of the survivors of Terezim who helped create this prayer space as a young man. As a boy during the war.'”
“There are moments like this that happen on almost every trip,” he added.