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Avi Baumol

Coming Home: From the ‘Alter Haym’ to My Biblical Homeland!

Sitting with Polish Jewish youth before my first Rosh Hashanah in Krakow. (courtesy)

At one point in the biblical story of Jacob, he has a realization — a prophecy — an understanding that his time in Aram has come to an end. What in his mind was supposed to have lasted only seven years, had suddenly stretched to over twenty in the blink of an eye.  His time there was well spent, transforming him from a lone man on the run to a husband to four, a father of 12, a wealthy leader of his own tribe…but this was not the end of his story, he had unfinished business in his homeland, and it was time to return.

Although it could be difficult for his wives and children to leave the only home they ever knew and there was danger awaiting them back in Canaan, Jacob knew that the greater good for him and his family would prevail if he heeded to the divine command—‘shuv el eretz avotecha ulemoladetecha’ (Return to the land of your fathers and your birthplace).

My Grandfather, Rabbi Joseph Baumol walking alongside Rabbi Meir Shapira, in Poland. (courtesy)

Millennia later, my grandfather, Rabbi Baumol, had a similar experience. Having lost most of his family in the Holocaust, he married, had children and built a prominent life for himself in New York as a pulpit rabbi and principal of Crown Heights Yeshiva. But that was not the end of his story either.  In 1968 he and my grandmother made the decision to “go home,” make aliyah, and live the remainder of their lives in Jerusalem.  I was born a few years later and for me all I ever knew was that my grandfather lived in Israel, and he was perpetually tan and always smiling and relaxed. We would walk the streets of Jerusalem and he would revel in the feeling of being enveloped by the holiness of the land, the history, and the unfolding of Jewish history before his very eyes. It was inspiring.

Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, CEO Jonathan Ornstein and myself. (courtesy)

Twenty-eight years ago, I was living the same dream, having made aliyah to Efrat with my family. Over the years I worked in many capacities as a rabbi and teacher both on shlichut in Vancouver, Canada and around Israel. One day I was contacted by the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Rabbi Michael Schudrich (through Rabbi Birnbaum, director of the Amiel Institute) who offered me the position of the rabbi of Krakow, Poland. I was shocked that there was still Jewish life in Krakow but Rabbi Schudrich, and then Jonathan Ornstein, CEO of the JCC, assured me that if I came, I would not only find Jewish life, but also enhance it, and become part of a miracle of revival.

My wife, Hadley, myself and our beloved member Pani Zosia in Krakow. (courtesy)

Though we were skeptical, my wife and I felt it was worth seeing with our own eyes whether there was potential for me to engage in a commuting existence, splitting my time between home and ‘der alter haym’ (the land of my grandparents). We arrived and were blown away by the warmth of the community and the thirst for Judaism which permeated the JCC.

Making Havdalah in the JCC, with Olga by my side. Courtesy, JCC

On my first day I met a young Polish woman, Olga, who said to me, ‘Rabbi, I found out I was Jewish a few years ago, but I don’t know what it means to live as a Jew. Can you teach me?’ I was hooked. She would be the first but not the last to share that revelation.

We decided that although it would be hard for me to live apart from my wife and kids for two weeks a month, it was worth it for a year to see if I could put my imprimatur on Jewish life in Poland.

Sharing the blessing on the Challah with the kids from Frajda kindergarten (courtesy)

Every day at the JCC was a new adventure, a veritable ‘time machine’ of Jewish experiences. I would sit and sing Yiddish songs with Holocaust survivors and then go to the kindergarten and teach Shabbat songs with children whose parents had only recently discovered their Jewish roots; I would speak with a group of Christians about the history of Jews in Poland and give a class to Jewish students about the festivals. Every day would bring the opportunity to restore a bit of the Jewish Krakow of old and pave the way for a brighter future.

A lecture to 50 non-Jews during the Jewish Culture Festival (courtesy)

I made lifelong friends, spoke to over 50,000 (!) visitors, lit Hanukkah candles at the president’s house, met with dignitaries including two chief rabbis, the pope, presidents of countries and members of Congress, and managed to write six books in three different languages (two in Polish; three in English; and one in Ukrainian for the many refugees who found themselves in Krakow).

Shabbat dinner for 700 Jews including many who found their way back to Judaism in the last decades. (courtesy)

Ultimately, I have played my part in exactly what Jonathan and Rabbi Schudrich had planned—reviving Jewish life in a most unlikely city, an hour away from Auschwitz. I owe a great debt of gratitude to both of them for facilitating my journey, enabling me to become inspired and hopefully inspire others.

And suddenly…ELEVEN years have since passed! And so, like Jacob our forefather, and Zayde my grandfather, the time has come for me, too, to start a new chapter in my story and come home.

Home. (courtesy)

Why now? Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (a 12th century Spanish rabbi and Jewish poet) said it best, ‘libi beMizrach’ (my heart is in the East). It has been especially difficult to leave my home, my family and my nation during this war against Hamas, which has made me even more committed to my Homeland and my Nation of Israel. Despite the terror, despite the horrible losses we have endured my love for the land has not abated; just the opposite, I experience an inexplicable serenity in my hometown of Efrat as I look out on the Jerusalem skyline. I sense that all my time should be devoted to building life here, being a good husband, father and grandfather, and participating in the story of the Jewish people.

This week’s parasha, Bechukotai, begins with a condition: ‘If you follow in God’s commands’…then a litany of blessings will come your way. One of the blessings concerns the gift of ‘dwelling on the land in safety and security’—‘vishavtem lavetach beartzechem’. Many medieval commentators quote the Sifra which states that a Jew may dwell everywhere in this world, but only in Israel will that experience be one of ‘betach’, surety, certainty, confidence, conviction. They shoot bombs at us – we still believe in ‘betach’; they commit atrocities – we strengthen our resolve; they try to intimidate us – that may work in any other place in the world, but not in Israel, our home.

With a heavy heart I am leaving an incredible, growing, Jewish community, but with a confidence of ‘betach’, with anticipation for new challenges, new experiences and the same enveloping holiness my grandfather felt — I am coming home.

Join me!

About the Author
Rabbi Avi Baumol is serving the Jewish community of Krakow as it undergoes a revitalization as part of a resurgence of Jewish awareness in Poland. He graduated Yeshiva University and Bernard Revel Graduate School with an MA in Medieval JH. He is a musmach of RIETS and studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shevut. He served as a rabbi in Vancouver British Columbia for five years. Rabbi Baumol is the author of "The Poetry of Prayer" Gefen Publishing, 2010, and author of "Komentarz to Tory" (Polish), a Modern Orthodox Commentary on the Torah. He also co-authored a book on Torah with his daughter, Techelet called 'Torat Bitecha'. As well, he is the Editor of the book of Psalms for The Israel Bible--https://theisraelbible.com/bible/psalms. In summer 2019 Rabbi Baumol published "In My Grandfather's Footsteps: A Rabbi's Notes from the Frontlines of Poland's Jewish Revival".
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