There are three reasons for a Jew to visit Poland: to learn of the great thousand year Jewish history, culminating in the golden age of Ashkenazic Jewry in the 16th century, specifically in Krakow; to pay homage to the memory of our beloved martyrs who were killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust–Auschwitz is the most infamous of names in this regard; and to witness the remarkable rebirth of a seemingly, savagely erased Jewish world. Miraculously, Jewish life is once again beginning to appear in the hallowed streets where its vibrance was once felt.
From the incipient stages of the March of the Living, the mission was directed at the memorialization of the Holocaust over all other aspects—the destination was a return to Auschwitz and a resilient march to Birkenau but this time as the survivors of horror, treading on the grounds as free men. Jews would not, could not, entertain the notion of going ‘touring’, or learning of the past or future in a place where their loved ones were brutally murdered. Only darkness permeated.
A second stage emerged with the creation of ‘heritage’ tours; these groups, in addition to visiting death camps, concentration camps and places of destruction, also visited cemeteries of the righteous rabbis of Polish Jewish history, explored old Synagogues and toured Jewish quarters in Krakow, Warsaw, Lublin, Lezansk, Tarnow, Lodz, and tens of other cities and locations around Poland. This second dimension underscores the importance of not only commemorating the destruction of Jewish life but celebrating the glorious Jewish Poland of the past which gave rise to Hasidism, Zionism, scholarship, Yiddish, Jewish theatre, sport, culture and many other aspects of Jewish life.
Recently, though, some groups have taken serious steps to round out the Poland visit by adding the final dimension—learning about today’s Jewish life in Poland. Granted it is miniscule compared to what was, and some would even consider it an affront to their ancestors who were tortured killed and kicked out of this land during the Nazi and Russian occupations. However, to deny the plain facts that a very small Jewish population survived during all the years of hardships or that a young, curious, thriving re-emerging Jewish community is beginning to take hold in major centers of Poland today would be a tragedy.
[Now is the time where I have to express my Zionist ideology lest one conclude that I am advocating the development of Jewish communities in the Diaspora. I believe that Jews belong in Israel; that is where God destined us to live, that is where we were commanded in the Torah and ultimately that is where Jews will be safest. However, we are not talking about building a Jewish community from scratch; Jews are still in Poland! They are slowly, hesitantly and nominally restoring their identity and searching for an avenue to explore the meaning of being Jewish. That avenue is on the streets upon where they grew up, in the marketplace, which was once Jewish, surrounding the Synagogues which though empty now, once were filled with their grandparents and great-grandparents. As long as Jews living anywhere in the world desire a greater connection to their Jewish roots, our job is to facilitate.]
Many groups pass through Krakow and most often stick to themselves and their guides and itineraries. In my eyes, a group last week did it right.
Yeshivat Har Etzion got in touch with me several months ago and expressed interest in doing some of their programming together with the present Jewish community in Krakow. They understood that hearing the narrative of the 85 year old survivor as well as the 25 year old Pole who recently found out that she was Jewish, gives the depth and profundity of the Polish Jewish experience today. So they sought me out and asked what we could do together to enhance the experience.
First and foremost I said we needed to pray together. Today in Krakow there are two types of Orthodox services taking place on Shabbat. One is the official Jewish Gminy Synagogue run by their Rabbi who is a Chabad shaliach. This service is classic, traditionally Orthodox, with the ladies section far removed from the service as it is in the upstairs balcony. For Orthodox Jews the service is fine; for young Poles, especially Polish women who are just learning how to pray there needed to be an alternative. When I arrived in Krakow I opened up a beginner’s service to teach Jewish Poles how to pray, to sing and dance together, in an open, yet Orthodox fashion. On a typical Friday night I will host 15-20 women and 5-10 men but different people come on different occasions to ‘test the waters’ and learn what the service entails.
The service ideally would take place in a Synagogue but often I am not given permission to use the Synagogue and we therefore pray in the JCC. I mentioned to Rabbi Berger from the Yeshiva that it would be very meaningful for my community if they saw what a prayer with Jews singing their hearts out sounds like. This is the first step in affecting the Polish Jewish community. The prayer service was amazing, the Yeshiva boys sang in full force and tried to understand my speech in Polish!
The next day we were invited to attend lunch by the Yeshiva and I arrived with four students to the hotel where we ate, sang and heard divrei Torah.
But the key component of the weekend took place Shabbat afternoon at the JCC. We joined together for two hours to hear from the members of the Polish Jewish community, listen to the testimony of a survivor and then equally as important if not more important, we learned together. At each table there were six or seven Yeshiva boys and two or three Poles. Rav Bick introduced a topic about Pesach and then the conversation ensued. This was in my eyes the best way to integrate the two cultures. The Hagada is fertile ground to use as a springboard for discussion about modern day persecution and how to rebuild Jewish life after ‘slavery’.
The session coincided with the conclusion of Shabbat and as we sang songs the sun set paving the way for a joyous Havdalah ceremony. For some of my students this was their first interaction with Yeshiva students and first Havdala service. How fortunate were they to experience it together with a group of fantastic, open-minded and intelligent students who understand the value of helping to show a young Pole a glimpse of Shabbat on another dimension. Check out this link for a video compilation of our Havdalah:
In truth, I am not sure who was more touched by the experience, my Polish community or my Yeshiva one! Growing up with the luxury of being immersed in Jewish life somewhat constricts your purview of the greater Jewish world and its complexities. It also makes you realize the heroic steps taken by this young group of Poles who, against the status quo, have made real strides in enhancing their Jewish roots. Having spoken with some of the boys after the Shabbat I knew that we touched a nerve and made their Poland trip that much more memorable.