A Special Simcha in Poland

When a child is born, the new parents begin a lifetime of nurturing, protecting, and preparing that child for a future bigger than anything they can imagine. Thirteen years later, Jewish teens celebrate their bar or bat mitzvah, a day of celebration and completion that’s really — above and beyond anything else — a new beginning.

A little more than 13 years ago, the Taube Foundation established the Jewish Heritage Initiative in Poland (JHIP) — and as any Jewish parent knows, a bar or bat mitzvah always brings with it more than a little kvelling. Today, we are kvelling.

In 2016, the JHIP stands on the threshold of its own new beginning, one that comes after 13 years of work and study and deep devotion to the future of the Jewish people. Like teenagers on the bima, proud of their accomplishments, everyone involved with the JHIP looks back on its early years with tremendous pride, excited to build on all we’ve learned on our way to our next challenge.

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Visitors explore the Core Exhibition of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw / Magdalena Starowieyska/ POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Just like those 13-year-olds chanting in front of their congregation, we’ve spent these past years building ties with our community. JHIP’s work strives to include and celebrate Jewishness through all possible avenues, preserving a broad array of tradition while we build a shared future.

This has meant searching scholarship and institutional alliances, while also reaching well beyond traditional educational frameworks in promoting Jewish literacy among young Poles, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, and in creating an ongoing dialogue about a dynamic, living Jewish heritage that’s integral to Poland’s past and future. From JCC classes at which the majority of attendees may be non-Jewish to heritage tours for Jewish college students, the goal is to empower and encourage an understanding of Jewish Peoplehood.

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Children study the Torah with Rabbi Avi Baumol at the JCC Krakow / Photo courtesy JCC Krakow

Of course, oppressors and tyrants have believed that Peoplehood is shaped in real time, and past efforts to erase all traces of the 1,000-year history of Polish Jewry reflect that knowledge. In the 21st century, we must often work with fragments and remnants: Yiddish letters on the side of a building, the familiar slant to a roof in a former shtetl, a synagogue transformed into an archive — the physical traces of the dreams and aspirations of millions of people, still speaking to us, across the generations.

For the past 13 years, the JHIP has worked with major Jewish-Polish institutions to provide a platform for listening to and interpreting those voices, asking what the past means for today and tomorrow.

We’ve danced to neo-Klezmer bands, savored Jewish cuisine, relished the delight of meeting new people who come to feel like old friends. Contributing to establishing the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews was clearly intensely meaningful, and ultimately expressed a commitment to the Jewish people across the generations. The one million or more visitors, both Polish and from around the world, who pass through POLIN’s doors annually return to their lives a little changed, becoming emissaries who ultimately broaden the dialogue and strengthen the Jewish community.

Celebrating Simchat Torah at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw / COURTESY POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

 

As it turns 14, the JHIP looks to a future that will be marked by yet deeper scholarship. Right now, we’re in the midst of celebrating the European premiere of an exhibit featuring American artist Frank Stella’s Polish synagogues series, on display at the POLIN Museum through June 20. At this week’s Limmud Polska conference, hundreds of young Jews will gather for three days, anxious to explore, dissect, and re-engineer modern Jewish life, finding new meaning together. Later in the spring, Warsaw will play host to the Jewish Motifs International Film Festival, promoting tolerance and cultural diversity with a strikingly international selection of films. Come June, Sir Elton John will headline the Life Festival held annually in the town of Oswiecim, a festival established to send the message that humanity no longer has a place for anti-Semitism, racism, or any form of xenophobia – a powerful answer to the town’s historical connection to the Auschwitz death camp.

We are proud of all that the JHIP has accomplished to date, its ongoing commitment to our community and its creativity. We are gratified to have done so much in such a short time.

About the Author
Tad Taube, a Bay Area business, philanthropic and community leader, is chairman of Taube Philanthropies and honorary consul of the Republic of Poland.
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