|Alliance leaders engage with Polish Jews|
|By Kit Haspel|
|Thursday, 08 November 2012 18:59|
|Despite past and present anti-Semitism, Jewish life in Poland is vibrant|
WARSAW – There is indeed life after death. No, I’m not talking about the world-to-come. I’m talking about Poland.
Faye Wisen, chair of the Jewish Peoplehood Subcommittee of the Alliance’s Community Development Committee, or CDC, and I visited Poland during Limmud Keshet (officially named Limud Keszet Polska, in Poland), a weekend of Jewish learning that attracted 1,000 Polish Jews from all around the country. My particular role was to present a workshop on “Embracing Jewish Ritual.” We arrived in Poland on Wednesday, Oct. 24 and departed on Tuesday, Oct. 30; Hurricane Sandy delayed our departure by one day.
Our visit perfectly framed the concept of “life after death.” We got off the airplane and went immediately to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a vast, bleak, dark, empty, cold place. There, we saw ponds into which the ashes of murdered Jews were tossed.
The morning that we were originally due to go to the airport to return home, we saw the future. We were given a tour of the Jewish past of one small suburb by a group of Christian Polish 16- and 17-year-olds who had researched that history as part of a program run by the Forum for Dialogue among Nations.
During the visit, we met with many Polish Jews who are reclaiming their Judaism and with a similar number of Polish Christians who are trying to learn and teach the country’s Jewish history and improve Polish-Jewish relations.
I don’t want to minimize the past. Auschwitz-Birkenau was just as horrific as I had expected, as was the Holocaust related film and exhibit at the Jewish Historical Institute. It was impossible to leave these places without feeling profound and overwhelming sadness. But too many people visit Poland, see these camps, think that’s the end of Judaism in Poland, and leave. And of course, the community that was Jewish Poland – fully 10 percent of the overall population and 30 percent of Warsaw’s population – will never be again.
But. But that is not the end. Particularly since the fall of Communism in 1989, Polish Jews have, as it were, “come out of the closet.” And many Polish Christians have been eager to learn and teach the true history of Jewish Poland and the Holocaust, which was not taught accurately during the 40 years of Communist rule.
We visited the JCC in Krakow, a vibrant community building that has 400 members and is teeming with life. We peeked into a Hebrew class that had at least 15 students in it. And we learned that two busloads of people from the JCC would take the seven-hour bus ride to the Limmud weekend, outside of Warsaw.
We talked with the graduates of a program called “Minyanim,” whose aim is to train young Jews to be Jewish leaders. The program recruits people who have just completed a Birthright trip, teaches them for a year in monthly sessions about leadership and about Judaism (as many of them know little about Judaism despite being Jewish) and then guides them through a project of their own design.
At dinner at the Limmud conference, I chatted with one of the Minyanim graduates, a woman in her early 20s who learned from her grandmother only about three years ago that she is Jewish. She is now one of the Jewish leaders in her small town.
I was probably most impressed by the Polish Christians and Jews at the Forum for Dialogue among Nations. The Forum has sent specially trained educators into at least 50 small towns in Poland that once had a sizable Jewish population. Educators then work with high school students on a project to reconstruct the Jewish past of their town. Between the second and third days of the four day-long sessions, the students take it upon to themselves to find out about their town’s Jewish past. Their research involves digging into historical archives, talking with older members of the community who remember Jewish neighbors and even looking for signs that there were once mezzuzot on doors. Then they create a tour. Some groups have also made films of their tour or written guidebooks.
On our tour of the town of Legionowo in bitter, below-freezing weather, we were shown where the synagogue used to be, where certain Jews lived and what happened to them during the war (including one who survived due to help from his gentile neighbors) and where some Jewish businesses were. The trite phrase that we hear in America so often – “Children are our future” – rang true. This is the first generation of Poles that knows only a free democratic Poland.
But the main purpose of our visit was Limmud, a program that the Alliance’s Annual Campaign helps fund. It began on Friday with a Shabbat dinner for almost 1,000 Polish Jews. Programming continued through Sunday lunch, but, for me, the highlight was Havdalah, as Shabbat ended. After the service, when a microphone could be used, a song leader from Israel led the group in 30 minutes of Hebrew singing and dancing, in which people participated with great enthusiasm. After the dancing, there was a dinner, which several hundred Polish Jews attended, at which the Alliance was formally and enthusiastically thanked for its financial support.
I gave a presentation at Limmud about embracing Jewish ritual, loosely based on my work here in Rhode Island at The Mothers Circle, a program created by the Jewish Outreach Institute for non-Jewish women raising Jewish children, which I run at the Alliance. One of the most exciting results from that workshop was the connection I made with a woman whose husband is an Israeli Reform rabbi who has recently taken a pulpit in Wilanow, once a small town and now a Warsaw suburb. She attended my workshop because she is interested in teaching her town’s children and young adults about Judaism; she took all the extra materials home with her to use.
Obviously, we were shown only a small slice of current Poland. I was reminded by one of the Forum’s educators that there is still anti-Semitism in Poland. But one Christian, who teaches about the Holocaust at a university in Krakow, observed that there are four places in Krakow one can go to observe Shabbat – a sign that things are moving in the right direction.
So, yes, Poland has a profoundly troubling and difficult recent past; and yes, anti-Semitism still exists in Poland and yes, there is a long way to go.
But Judaism is also alive and well and thriving and growing in Poland. It was a privilege to be a witness to it.