I never went to Poland, I always felt uncomfortable about it. When all the other kids were doing ‘March of the Living’ or ‘Heritage Tours’, I opted out. Perhaps it was because my grandfather never went back after leaving in 1935 and then hearing about the murder of his brother, mother, cousins… Perhaps I was just not ready for what all the death and destruction to my family and my people.
Then a few months ago, I met my friend and teacher, Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, Founding director of Machon Amiel at Ohr Torah Stone. He and Rabbi Yehoshua Grunstein, the Director of Training and Placement, were instrumental in sending hundreds of rabbis to rabbinic positions worldwide. I went to Vancouver and served the Jewish community for five years, I wondered if he had something special this time around. He certainly did! He introduced me to Rabbi Michael Schudrich whom I met in a café in Jerusalem and after an interview he invited me to Krakow to meet the Jewish community and see what we could do together.
Rabbi Schudrich is the chief Rabbi of Poland having spent close to 20 years serving the Jews who somehow survived the annihilation during the Holocaust as well as the 40 year systematic eradication of anything Jewish in Eastern Europe. Then in the past 20 to 30 years something remarkable began to develop—young Poles started hearing stories from their grandparents or from people in their communities, stories of their Jewish roots! Rabbi Schudrich began hearing these stories by a few individuals, then tens, then hundreds! He feels it is our duty to enable these Poles to begin their search, perhaps find their way home. Over the years, some have made it all the way back to normative Judaism and the land of Land of Israel; others have gotten in touch with their Jewish roots and connected to their Polish heritage. Many are still on a path, attempting to discover their past, their future…
I was captivated; here were uncharted waters. A glorious Jewish community lost, then found, re-emerging, re-discovering itself. They needed a Rabbi who could help out this nascent return; I leapt at the opportunity and prepared for my trip. Departure time? The day after my 20th wedding anniversary! After the celebrations I said my goodbyes to my wife, my five children, my comfortable Jewish life in Efrat and set my course back hundreds of years in Jewish history, back to my roots. My trip was to last one month, covering Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and all of Sukkot. And it has been quite a trip!
Last month was a first for me, in fact, a series of them. First time I was a away from my wife for the chagim in our marriage; first time in Poland, the place where my family lived for centuries and died in moments; first time encountering a Pre-war Jewish community; first time I experienced so many ‘firsts’ in a Jewish community in my life:
- First Tashlich (after 70 years!)–Bernard, an 80 years old survivor, met me at Rosh Hashana lunch and he decided to join us for Tashlich on the river Wisla. As we were walking he remarked “this is the first time I have done Tashlich since 1939”
- First Shofar (blowing it on their own!)–Yagna brought her children to the JCC Sunday school between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Her two children were immediately entranced by all the weird items I had on the table—shofar, Lulav, Etrog, Hadasim, Aravot—first, first, first, first. They actually blew a great Tekiah!
- First dance—Holocaust survivor Anna grew up as a Christian and only recently has opened up to the idea of living as a Jew. She came to Simchat Torah and was able to dance with hundreds of young Israeli girls, circling the ark and rejoicing in this spirited day.
- First weekly return to a glorious Synagogue (in 30 years!)–The Tempel Synagogue, built in 1860, this magnificent and picturesque Synagogue was used as an ammunition warehouse by the Nazis. It was reopened after the war but has not been functioning as a weekly minyan for close to thirty years. The dwindling number of Jews and the lack of knowledge of the service rendered this
beautiful synagogue into a glorified Jewish museum. Until, another first! We gathered a group of 80 men and women to have an explanatory service on Kol Nidre night in addition to the traditional minyan taking place at the ReMa Synagogue. We have had regular Shabbat and Yomtov services ever since and we are slowly restoring this building to its original function, ‘bet tefila’, a house of prayer.
- First Torah–Piotr told me this was the first time he held a Torah but his great-grandfather, he found out, was a great Rabbi in a village some miles away. Antek and Martyna learned how to write Hebrew calligraphy for the first time.
- First Jewish Community Center I encountered (JCC Krakow) inspired by Prince Charles, funded by WJR, supported by the Joint, run by a charismatic guy from Queens (Executive Director Jonathan Ornstein), with countless Non-Jewish volunteers, 450 members with Jewish roots, all with one grand dream-like mission: Building a Jewish Future in Krakow!
I had so many mixed emotions during the course of this month; enchantment, curiosity, inspiration, frustration, sadness, joy, satisfaction, great desire to do more, loneliness, community, most of all—complexity.
As I sit here in my home in Efrat, overlooking the Judean mountains where the ancient history of our people unfolded, I recall the prophets who excoriated the rivaling Jews and warned them of impending exiles and what would take place in the land unprotected by God. I also remember the comforting messages that the spark of Yiddishkeit will never dissipate wherever the Jewish souls end up.
Krakow represents the darkest manifestation of the curse befalling the Jew as well as the everlasting promise of redemption to those who reach out even after 70 years of destruction. I hope as I continue to travel to Krakow every month I will have the privilege to participate in this great return and I will hopefully continue to write their remarkable stories and share them with all who yearn to witness this divine prophecy fulfilled.