Arriving in Poland, Again

I just arrived in Poland for the fourth time, and each trip fills me with a range of divergent emotions.

The first time was in 1982, on a brief stopover from Moscow as I returned from a two-week visit with Soviet Jewish refuseniks. Martial law had just been declared, the Solidarity anti-Communist movement led by Lech Walesa was gaining strength, and no one could predict the fall of the Soviet Union in just seven years. My three subsequent trips have all been with Ramah — initially with our teens on Seminar and now twice with a Reshet Ramah adult trip.

My previous trips left me terribly conflicted. Poland is a beautiful, tolerant, pluralistic country with a rich 1,000-year history of glorious Jewish achievements, strong ties to the U.S. and Israel, and a growing Jewish community.

Yet, the tragedy of the Holocaust is foremost in all our minds, along with the awareness of Polish complicity in the murder of nearly all of Poland’s two million pre-war Jews. Visiting Auschwitz is indescribably painful; it is confusing to be there with thousands of casual “tourists” who include this death camp as a “must see” stop on their tour.

But this year is different.

I begin my time in Poland sickened over the fresh round of attacks against Jews in Israel, with the recent shootings, stabbings, and other violent incidents bringing fear to millions as they attempt to go to school, work, or simple everyday activities.

I am very proud that my 18-year-old son is studying in Israel this year, where his Kivunim program leaders are taking all measures to ensure his safety, just as we do on all our Ramah Israel programs. I know that statistically he is probably in less danger than if he were living and driving on any college campus. Nevertheless, the fear in Israeli society is pervasive. We are not only afraid of the threat of injuries and loss of life, but we are also reminded about the fragility of Israel’s existence and the tremendous odds against us ever finding a true peace partner. But we must never stop trying.

polandjourney2015This will be the first time that I experience traveling directly from Poland to Israel, a transition that so many describe as life changing and “the most amazing way to appreciate the miracle of Jewish redemption in our time.” Each year, I read dozens of campers’ blogs about the incredible moment of landing in Tel Aviv after a week touring Poland. “Now I finally understand Zionism,” one camper wrote this summer. Another commented: “Arriving in the Land of Israel as a free Jew in our own sovereign nation, something our ancestors only dreamed of for 2,000 years, filled me with tears of happiness and pride in being a Jew and a strong Zionist.”

I look forward to representing Ramah and Mercaz at next week’s World Zionist Congress and to reconnecting with the wonderful leaders of our Ramah Israel programs. I look forward to hugging my son and hearing about all that he is learning.

But for now I am in Poland, looking forward to reuniting with some friends and meeting the other participants in our Reshet Ramah Poland Journey for Adults, who have come here for various reasons. “My nephew came here on Ramah Seminar and can’t stop raving about the impact of this experience;” “My father was born in Poland and left pre-war and this will be his first trip back;” “So many of my relatives were killed in the Shoah and I must stand there to remember…”

And I look forward to learning so much from our tour leader, Moshe Gold, an incredible educator and Director of Ramah Israel Institute (short-term programs). I encourage you to follow our journey.

I travel now to Kraków, a beautiful city with magnificent cathedrals, lovely parks, and a rejuvenated Jewish quarter. Like all of Poland, it also has a horrific history from the Shoah. Tomorrow we will visit nearby Auschwitz and then celebrate Shabbat together, praying for a brighter future.

About the Author
Rabbi Mitchell Cohen assumed the leadership of the National Ramah Commission in 2003 after having served for 11 years as the director of Camp Ramah in Canada. Prior to 2003, he served as the founding principal of the Solomon Schechter High School in Westchester, New York. After graduating from Brown University, Rabbi Cohen attended the New York University School of Law, and was admitted to the New York Bar in 1984. He spent two years working as a corporate litigator and then enrolled in the Rabbinical School of The Jewish Theological Seminary, receiving his ordination in 1990.
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