It began with a lecture to a remarkable group of individuals. They call themselves Mifgash and they are mostly Non-Jewish young Polish students who want to make a difference in how Jews and Poles think about each other. They started a non-profit club (applying to become an official organization) which tries to bridge the gap of understanding between the two populations, though caters mostly to Polish high school kids, giving them free lectures on Jews, what they believe, and what their history is in Poland. So far this small group of ten to fifteen members has reached thousands of students with a mission to reach tens of thousands more. I give them lectures about contemporary Jewish subjects to enhance their understanding and ability to teach Poles.
On Monday morning I met with a group of 60 Polish High School students who came (through the Mifgash program) to the JCC of Krakow to learn about Jewish life. They admitted at never having seen a Jew (despite living in Krakow all their lives) and were a bit skeptical when I presented myself, beardless, streimel-less, and peyos-less! We spoke for forty-five minutes and they were surprisingly responsive. One of the more fascinating questions a young boy asked was what Jews think of us Poles? It threw me a bit as it is a question I contend with every day here in Krakow. Walking around Poland with my Kippa my experiences so far have only been positive—from average Poles saying shalom, dialogue with Catholics, meeting open-minded citizens of Krakow who told me about their time during the war, to being around a group of amazing non-Jewish volunteers at the JCC and Jewish Festival who give of their time simply to help out the rejuvenating Jewish community here.
I told the boy that people who haven’t been here think Poland and Poles are still frozen in the complicated war time period and bring their prejudices about 1940’s Poles to the 21st century. In order to change their minds one simply has to visit Krakow and not just as a stopover between death camps and cemeteries.
I met the students later on in the day at a speech given by righteous Gentile Miroslawa Gruszcynska who spoke of her experiences in Krakow saving a young Jewish girl who survived the war and lives today in Tel Aviv. They still keep in touch!
Later that evening I gave my Basic Judaism class to a group of ten men and women, old and young. My topic was the development of Oral Law, trying to understand the connection between divine Torah and contemporary Halakha. After the class I gave a second conversion class. Right now five are coming regularly three times a week to my classes but two of them ‘have Jewish roots’. They either found out for sure (yet don’t have physical evidence) or have a sneaky suspicion that their grandparents were Jewish. They come to class to learn about what that new-found revelation actually means!
I have never been. I figured I had been to Yad Vashem so many times, read so many books and seen so many movies, what more could I expect from the place itself? A lot! That eerie feeling of walking on the same harrowed/hallowed ground as my martyred ancestors, it is inescapable. I met with the Deputy Director of Auschwitz as the Rabbinic Representative of the Chief Rabbi of Poland and he shared some of the philosophy and future programming of the organization. Quite remarkable how 1.4 million visitors come every year to be touched by this place. I was particularly moved by the new exhibit on the history of Jewish Poland before the war and the book of Names at the ground level in which I saw my own family listed.
Birkenau is frightening by its sheer enormity—a murder operation of hellish proportions. Auschwitz just put out a book called Auschwitz-Birkenau: The Place Where You Are Standing…based on a cache of photographs taken by Nazis during the course of unloading, selecting, sending the weak off to the gas chambers… Wow, what chilling scenes. The innocence on the faces of the Jews getting off the train makes you shiver. The contrast in the pictures between the ‘new arrivals’ calm demeanor (actually relief at getting off of the harsh train!) and the stoic prisoners in striped uniforms who would be later cleaning up the bodies is terrifying. The sun was setting and I entered one of the authentic Barracks to daven mincha, a prayer filled with tears about a world lost but never forgotten.
Wednesday: Ask Our Rabbi!
I had an interesting interview with a reporter from the BBC, a lovely woman named Anna Mcnamee who was doing a piece on the resurgence of Jewish faith and culture in Poland. She spent four days interviewing the community and was shocked by the energy one feels here in Jewish Krakow.
That night I gave a lecture to fifty Jews and Non-Jews on the topic, Judaism and Christianity: What Unites Us and What Divides Us. After the lecture a Priest who is a Professor of theology at the Seminary came over, thanked me and asked me to participate in “Judaism Day” in which they have lectures on the relationship between our different faith communities.
Thursday: A Bris!
Jason and Anna met at the JCC a few years ago and just gave birth to their second child—a boy! This is an atypical experience for members of the community here, first Bris in the JCC and we were in need of a mohel. I tried a friend of mine from Israel but he couldn’t make it. Finally, the Chief Rabbi sent us a mohel from Basel, Switzerland, a wonderful young man named Mordechai Solomon. Many in the community came out to see for themselves what this ancient tradition is all about and I was fortunate to conduct the ceremony adhering to the couples request for an unusual name: Shomer Yonatan Yitzchak. Shomer did quite well and the entire community celebrated!
Friday night was a festive community dinner in which, after speaking at Synagogue (in Polish!) we sang songs, I made Kiddush and spoke to 80 members of the JCC and guests. Because Shabbat starts so early I realized that after dinner there was time for a parsha shiur. 15 people came and we learned together for close to three hours(!) until they finally had to close up for the night.
The next morning we davened in the JCC and a small group of us spent the entire afternoon singing zemirot, learning more Torah and sharing a wonderful Shabbat—for some of them, the first one they observed in its entirety! After Shabbat I gave a couples class on Biblical relationships and had a meeting with several members of the community.
As I sit here writing up these memories I am inspired by the thirst that the community has to learn about Judaism, participate in communal activities and identify themselves as the Jewish community of Krakow—home to the great Rem”a, destroyed almost completely during the Holocaust and Communism but brought back to life in the past decades.
I recognize that this would not be possible without the amazing work of Chief Rabbi Schudrich over the last fifteen years, Jonathan Ornstein, Executive Director of the beautiful and vibrant JCC in Krakow which has been a hub for Jewish life and a Jewish future for the community, as well as Rav Eliyahu Birnbaum from the Amiel Institute who made the ‘shidduch’ between me and the Krakow Jewish community and Shavei Israel for supporting me in my position. I continue to be grateful for all who are involved in enhancing Jewish life in Poland and plan to continue to facilitate this re-birth and to continue to teach Torah in all forms to all who seek it.