March of the Living prepares to change more lives in 2011


Annual Jewish identity program supported by United Jewish Appeal Campaign

By Daniel Horowitz--Rarely does one have the opportunity to not only learn about history, but to actually enter into it. However, for participants of the annual March of the Living, each of whom shares unforgettable memories while visiting Poland and Israel on this annual pilgrimage, that’s precisely the case.

The March of the Living, which began in 1988, is funded through United Jewish Appeal of Greater Toronto’s annual campaign.

UJA’s 2011 Campaign, chaired by Sherry Firestone and Jeff Rosenthal, is committed to answering the challenges faced by Jews today, in light of the global movement which has emerged, attempting to rewrite history and delegitimize Israel as a Jewish state.

Campaign dollars will provide our next generation with the tools they need to successfully take on these challenges by helping them develop a strong sense of Jewish identity, including a connection to Israel, through education, community programming such as the March of the Living, and culture.

Year after year, the March of the Living, takes great strides in connecting the next generation with their Jewish roots, from the darkest chapter in our history – the Holocaust – and shows how, despite its horrors, the Jewish People refused to yield to despair, but rose up – against all odds – and established the state of Israel.

In fact, according to a long-term study of the program, 88 percent of participants reported there was an increase in their sense of Jewish identity after participating on the March, while 87 percent reported an increase in their desire to travel to Israel again in the future. 

In Poland, the March of the Living takes place on Holocaust Remembrance Day, when thousands of students march together the 3-kilometre distance separating Auschwitz from Birkenau. Then, in Israel, participants will celebrate the 63rd anniversary of Israel on Yom Ha’atzmaut – Independence Day – together with young people from Israel and around the world.

Last year, Toronto sent the largest delegation internationally, with approximately 300 participants.

This year’s March of the Living is chaired by siblings, Peter and Ruth Ekstein whose mother, Anita – a child survivor – has dedicated her life to Holocaust education and is a past National chair of the March. Anita will be accompanying the students for the 11th time.

“I am extremely lucky and proud to be involved in the March, because it is an absolutely vital program which teaches Jewish students about their past and their future, and ultimately, the kind of Jew they want to be,” said Ruth. “Our truly amazing survivors take us back in time to a place where Jewish life once thrived, and then horrific Jewish death followed.  History, previously read in a textbook, becomes personal and entrenched in the students’ hearts and minds.  Without exception, they fall in love with Israel, and understand how incredibly fortunate they are to have this wonderful country as their home. They return to Toronto filled with pride for what the Jewish people overcame and for the State of Israel.” 

“I have been involved in community and volunteer work for close to 30 years, including many years on the Board of UJA, and it is my opinion that this is without a doubt the jewel in our community’s programs when it comes to Jewish education, Jewish identity and continuity,” says Peter.  “Being in the camps, the mass graves and then in Israel watching the kids and the survivors interact, was one of the most transformative events in my life, because I was given the gift of being able to watch my son and the other 225 students transform.  They changed and grew in ways that I know will have a long term impact on not only their own lives, but on everyone they touch and the entire community.”

“As a Jewish teenager attending a public high school before the March of the Living, I did not have the same daily connection to Jewish life as many of the others on the March of the Living,” says 17-year-old Westmount Collegiate student, and a participant on the March last year, Jacob Klugsberg. “But six months following the March, I still feel its impact. The memories I have, the horrors I witnessed, and the conversations I shared, are still vivid to this day.”

Each year, the March of the Living participants are joined by several Holocaust survivors, each of whom relate their personal memories and experiences during the Shoah. Last year, one of those survivors was 82-year-old Hedy Bohm who, in June, 1944, was taken by the Nazis to Auschwitz where she was separated from her parents. It was the last time she would ever see them.

“I went, with the students, and my son, Ron, to the barracks of Auschwitz, where I was held when I was only 16,” she says. “It was very hard, and I was becoming very emotional from the memories, when I looked out during a big ceremony we had at Birkenau, and saw ten-thousand youngsters from all over the world, the Chief Rabbi of Israel, and cantors singing beautifully. Through the loudspeakers suddenly came Hatikvah. I looked at my son and suddenly I didn’t feel like crying any more. I looked at all of these beautiful young Jewish students and the future looked bright again.  It was the first year I had been on the March, and I must tell you, you don’t know what an incredible experience it is until you take part. I have a new faith in our future because of what these young people are taught on the March.”

“If we want our children to bear witness and learn to be proud and knowledgeable Jews, to take responsibility and action to sustain Jewish life and Israel, then I really believe that the March of the Living is the best gift we can give them,” says Ruth.

The March of the Living is open to Jewish students in grades 11 and 12. There is a Young adult and Adult Mission as well. Online Registration at www.marchoftheliving.org. Registration deadline for the 2011 High School March of the Living is Monday, November 1, 2010. For more information, contact Sherri Rotstein at 416.398.6931 ext. 5359 or via email at srotstein@ujafed.org

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