June 7, 2007
Poland and the Jews:
Is it time to stop hating the country when positive changes are transforming it?
Web extras: Videos illuminate the paradoxical lives of today's Polish jews
(Page 2 - Previous Page)American Reform Rabbi Burt Schuman, 59, who arrived in July 2006 and who is the congregation's first full-time rabbi, gives the drash in Polish, a language he is quickly learning, and then English. Afterward, many of the congregants join together for a communal Shabbat dinner.
The synagogue, now a member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, was founded in 1999 with just a few people by Holocaust survivor Severyn Ashkenazy, 71, who divides his time between Warsaw and Los Angeles. It now boasts more than 200 members.
"It is live, passionate and progressive Judaism," said Schuman.
There are other synagogues, as well.
In Warsaw, Poland's chief rabbi, American-born Michael Schudrich, 51, heads the 500-member Orthodox Nozyk Synagogue, which offers Friday night and Saturday morning services, daily minyans, classes and cultural events.
In Lodz, Symcha Keller, 45, a Polish-born cantor who lived in Israel and the United States from 1987 to 1993, conducts traditional Shabbat services and a daily minyan in the town's Jewish community center.
Chabad also now has a presence in Poland, with synagogues in Warsaw and Krakow.
As for how many Jews now live in Poland, no one can say exactly.
The first problem is, who is a Jew? Is it someone counted according to the law of return, which identifies anyone with one or more Jewish grandparents as ethnically Jewish? Or should each Jew be counted according to halacha, or Jewish law, in which case the mother must be Jewish?
To date, about 5,000 self-identified Jews have registered with one of the two official Jewish organizations, the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland or the Social and Cultural Association of Polish Jews, both successors to established prewar groups. But Jewish community leaders believe the real number is 30,000 or even higher. One reason is that many people are still discovering they have Jewish roots, with the typical scenario being a deathbed confession of a parent or grandparent.
Another issue in creating an accurate count is that many people are reluctant to admit they are Jewish. After all, and what is difficult for American Jews to fully grasp, is that from 1939 to 1989, through Nazi occupation and communist rule, it wasn't safe to be Jewish.
In Nazi-occupied Poland, being Jewish constituted a death sentence. And in communist Poland, a virulent wave of state-sponsored anti-Semitism in 1956 forced an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 members of the country's largely assimilated Jewish population to emigrate. In 1968, another outbreak of anti-Semitism pushed out approximately 13,000 more Jews.
Thus, in Poland today, according to Beit Warszawa's Schuman, "Nobody takes their Jewish identity for granted."
Some people have always known they were Jewish. That was the case with Monika Krajewski, an artist and teacher at the Lauder-Morasha School. During the 1970s, she and her husband, Stanislaw, then in their 20s, started studying in secret with a small group of friends, calling themselves the Jewish Flying University.
"We started learning; we didn't even know the names of the holidays," she said, explaining that their only resource was a copy of "The First Jewish Catalogue," published in 1973. Now she and her husband, a writer and professor at Warsaw University, are members of Nozyk Synagogue.
Others learn later. Malgorzata (Gosia) Szymanska, for example, was 12 when she asked her father why he always perked up when news of Israel came on television.
At the time, she didn't understand what being Jewish meant.
Now 26, Szymanska received a joint master's degree in Jewish communal service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and public administration at USC in 2006 and has been working this past year as a project manager at American Jewish Committee's Los Angeles office. She returns to Poland this month to become Beit Warszawa's first full-time administrator.
But it's not only Jews who are rediscovering their past. Non-Jewish Poles have become aware of the 800 to 1,000 years of Poland's rich Jewish history only since the collapse of communism in 1989. They are coming to understand that Polish history and Jewish history are integrally intertwined. And they are wondering how a small minority of Jews could have had such a huge influence on their country, sometimes referring to the absence of Jews as Poland's "phantom limb."
Polish universities -- including Krakow's Jagiellonian University, Warsaw University and Wroclaw University -- now offer full Jewish studies programs.
And places such as Brama Grodzka (Grodzka Gate), the archway once linking the Christian and now-extinct Jewish sections of Lublin and currently a cultural center, are dedicated to preserving whatever can be salvaged from the Jewish past, including photographs and oral histories, and to educating people through exhibits, theater performances and lectures.
Artist Tomasz Pietrasiewicz, 50, who is not Jewish and who founded Brama Grodzka 15 years ago, explained, "I was born a second time at Grodzka Gate in 1992."
Zuzanna Radzik, 24, a devout Catholic who served as a guide on the trip, has been involved in Catholic-Jewish dialogue since high school. In 2001, when she was 18, she mounted a campaign against a bookstore renting space in the basement of All Saints Catholic Church in Warsaw when she discovered it was selling anti-Semitic literature. She circulated a petition and tried to meet with various church officials, drawing widespread attention to the situation, but it was eventually a new parish priest who succeeded in ordering the bookstore closed in December 2006.
Radzik received a master's degree in Catholic theology from the Pontifical Faculty of Theology in Warsaw. She has been accepted at Hebrew University for the fall term, and if funding comes through, will pursue a second master's degree in religious studies.