Puerto Vallarta. Panama City Beach. Poland. Which of these spring break destinations is unlike the rest?

Over spring break, 18 University of Wisconsin students traveled with UW Hillel to Poland.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) organized the service-learning trip.

Sophomore Erica Sperber was motivated to participate in the trip because she saw it as a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”

“I’ve always wanted to go to Poland,” said sophomore Ellie Kahn, another trip participant. “I kind of felt like it was something I needed to do in my lifetime.”

The group volunteered in three different communities within Katowice, Krakow and Lublin and visited a former concentration camp in Warsaw.

Within the communities, the group put on Passover programs for children, families and the elderly. The group told the story of Passover, painted Seder plates and sang songs in Hebrew.

The group also learned about Poland. The trip allowed students to see Jewish communities outside the United States, especially in an area where the Jewish population does not receive much attention.

Kahn explained their trip was different from other trips to Poland in that they focused on the Jewish community in Poland in the present, rather than in the past.

“All you learn about in school [about Poland] is the concentration camps and death,” Kahn said. No one ever learns about what it is like there now.”

Sperber said her favorite part of the trip was listening to the chief rabbi of Poland in Warsaw, as well as the leader of the JDC in Krakow.

“Both explained how we should not overlook areas that are normally deemed non-Jewish,” Sperber said. “These areas often need the most help.”

Up until the end of communism in 1989, many in Poland were afraid to say they were Jewish, the chief rabbi explained to the group.

Both Kahn and Sperber were shocked to find out about how many Jews in Poland did not find out they were Jewish until later in life because their parents or grandparents were too afraid to announce their religion during the Holocaust and the communist regime.

“For us the Holocaust is history, but for them they live it every day,” Kahn said.

Because of this, the Jewish community in Poland is small and relatively new.

One of the trip’s goals was to support and encourage the Jewish community in Poland.

“I think we affected the communities we visited by merely showing our interest in them,” Sperber said.

“The work that we did, you aren’t going to see an automatic improvement,” Kahn said. “We’re just showing the people in Poland that other Jewish people care.”

Hillel’s Director of Programs and Engagement, Jonathan Eisen, led the trip with the aid of Emily Blumenthal, a sophomore who traveled with Hillel to Rwanda for an alternative spring break trip last year.

Previously, Hillel conducted alternative spring break trips to Argentina, Rwanda, Brazil and New Orleans, among others.

Sperber encourages students to go on alternative spring breaks.

“Even though they are not your typical beach-party trip, they will be much more meaningful and fun in the long term,” Sperber said.

Kahn was inspired by the trip.

“Playing with kids and seeing them laugh and realizing this is the future of Polish Jews, the community is growing,” Kahn said. “It was cool to see.”