Nicole Nordstrom was visiting Yad Vashem, its concrete walls extending up around her in the famous prism shape, when she felt a newfound passion for the collections of photographs and personal items scattered throughout the solemn building. As any Passages alumni knows, visiting Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to Holocaust victims, makes for an intense few hours. For Nicole, however, this moment was more than a one-time experience of grief or reflection — it was the beginning of a new calling in her life.
“I felt the Holy Spirit very clearly telling me to learn the story of Holocaust survivors in Los Angeles,” Nicole said, “and I didn’t exactly know what to do with that but I really felt the seed of this idea to photograph … living survivors in my community.”
This was actually Nicole’s second time at Yad Vashem. While attending UCLA as a Political Science major, she first decided to travel to Israel-Palestine two years prior to her Winter 2018 Passages trip with a different organization. These trips were very different from each other, but both were impactful for Nicole. After returning from her travels, she decided to add a religion minor focusing on the Abrahamic Faiths.
Her first trip “was a very secular experience and I felt like a huge part of the significance of Israel was missing. It was pretty hopeless actually,” Nicole said. But when she heard about Passages, she recalled, “I was so excited for the opportunity to round out and redeem this bleak kind of experience and learn about God’s plan for Israel.”
This previous experience with Israel-Palestine gave her a unique perspective for her Passages trip. “[The first trip] made me very compassionate toward the Palestinian people,” Nicole said, “but also I think going with Passages the second time I was able to marry that experience and that understanding and that narrative with one that is a very hopeful and a real understanding of what a light Israel is in the Middle East.”
Nicole described these two experiences as “incredibly humbling.” She explained, “I just have 100% certainty that this brokenness is not too big for God. That Christians are in Israel and in Palestine is just so amazing to me.”
According to Nicole, this position of humility and faith allowed her to be open to the Holy Spirit at Yad Vashem and accept the calling to work with Holocaust survivors in her own community.
When she returned to UCLA to finish her senior year, she spontaneously decided to stay after her class about German propaganda during WWII to see if her professor knew anything about Holocaust survivors in the community.
“My first day back at school in this huge lecture hall … I turned back to go talk to my professor. And again, UCLA is a huge university and I am not the kind of person who was buddy-buddy with my professors. I never did this,” she laughed. She went up to her professor and asked if she could point her in the right direction to the Jewish community in LA, and her professor said “Oh, have you met Jacob?”
Nicole turned and there, sitting in the front row of the lecture hall, was Jacob, a 91-year-old legally blind man in big black glasses who was auditing the class as part of UCLA program for senior citizens. He was a Holocaust surivor.
“With this tiny mustard seed of faith,” Nicole said, “I go up to him and I said ‘Jacob I had this experience and I would love to learn your story and hear your testimony’ … He takes my hand in his hand and says, ‘Nicole, I live so that your generation remembers.’”
For the rest of the semester, Nicole sat next to Jacob in the front row of the lecture hall and walked with him, arm-in-arm, to a coffee shop afterward where they would sit for hours talking.
Nicole ended up receiving a grant from the LA museum of the Holocaust to do a temporary exhibition on Holocaust survivors, interviewing, filming, and photographing 10 survivors over 6 months.
It was amazing, she said, remembering that moment at Yad Vashem and “seeing this beautiful project come out of it .. It was just one of those moments where God was just like take one little step and be faithful with this.”
Since the exhibit in May 2018, Nicole has continued her friendship with Jacob, interest in photography, and passion for Israel-Palestine. After graduation, she started her own professional photography business, Nicole Nordstrom Film & Photo, and has been working as PLN Ambassador this year. She was also accepted to the Passages Leadership Incubator and is hoping to continue her work telling the stories of Holocaust survivors.
If Nicole could give one message to other Passages alumni, she would encourage them to “be willing to be used in whatever season and whatever place you are in, knowing that being a part of God’s kingdom purposes is the most amazing, satisfying thing ever.”
To learn more about Nicole’s project, click HERE.