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Jewish Journal

Seder Helps Poland Jews Reclaim Roots

by Beverly Levitt

April 17, 2003 | 8:00 pm

Three years ago, Los Angeles entrepreneur Severyn Ashkenazy gathered in Warsaw, Poland, a small group of American and Polish Jews, all of whom had fled their native land during the Holocaust, and hosted the first Passover seder in that city since 1945.

They savored Ashkenazic delicacies of their homeland, and their festive meal was filled with song and camaraderie that symbolized rebirth of the Jewish community in Poland.

Before World War II, there were some 3 million Jews and 450 thriving synagogues in Poland. But in 1994, when Ashkenazy, a vibrant survivor in his 60s, went back to his native land for the first time since he was a child, he could only find a handful of ultra-Orthodox Jews.

It was springtime, Passover was coming and the city was ablaze with lilacs and cherry blossoms. Not only couldn't he find a place to celebrate the holiday, but most of the depleted Jewish population wouldn't admit to being Jewish -- they wanted nothing to do with the religion that had caused so much grief. (During the Holocaust, 90 percent of the Jews in Poland were killed.)

Then and there Ashkenazy decided that if there was a supportive, progressive Jewish community in Warsaw, these "quiet Jews" could reclaim their identity and make peace with their past.

And so he began Beit Warszawa (congregation of Warsaw). His first order of business: to host a Passover seder. It wasn't easy convincing people to attend.

"But we are a people who were constantly saved by miracles, so our group [three Poles and eight Americans] persevered," Ashkenazy told The Journal.

"The first Seder [in 2000] had just 20 people, eight Jews and a smattering of Poles, who weren't brought up Jewish and were unconscious of their roots," he said. "We also welcomed some curious Christians -- we were happy they were interested and encouraged them to participate."

The fledgling seder was held in a hotel; the room was near the garden.

"We ate our favorite foods, we sang, but most important, it was a place for people to feel safe being Jewish," Ashkenazy said. "Now we celebrate all the Jewish holidays and more and more people just appear. We're never sure of the numbers, but they just keep increasing."

Now in its third year, the congregation boasts 300 people, most of whom will be in attendance this Passover. Ashkenazy has recruited a number of Los Angeles leaders to visit and lead services. This year, Cantor Mindy Harris, ritual director of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, will officiate at the Beit Warszawa services. Ashkenazy's good friend, Rabbi David Baron of Temple Shalom for the Arts in Beverly Hills, also plans to lead services there soon.

Baron said he finds Ashkenazy's journey particularly prescient for Passover.

"God didn't just give Moses the power to part the sea and save his people. He told his disciple to have the Israelites go forward -- the first step of the faithful into the sea would save them," explained Baron, the author of "Moses on Management" (Simon & Schuster, 1999).

"It's the power of taking a leap of faith to stand up against a tyrant and declare your freedom," Baron said, noting that Ashkenazy also took a leap of faith.

Seeing the impact this experience made on his father, Ashkenazy's son Adrian, newly graduated from law school, wanted to contribute to the new congregation. He traveled with his father to Warsaw and decided to host the first Oneg Shabbat, and called it "one of the most meaningful acts" of his life.

At his father's house in Beverly Hills, the 28-year-old Ashkenazy spoke about the impact that one of the new congregants had made on him. While recruiting Polish Jews to join in the activities of the new congregation, he met with actor Andrzej Blumenfeld, who was most recently seen as the restaurant owner in the Academy Award-winning film, "The Pianist."

"We met for drinks," Adrian Ashkenazy said. "I mentioned that I was hosting an Oneg Shabbat. He immediately shut down. 'I'm not interested,' he said adamantly. 'Not me. Not my kids. I don't want anything to do with it.'"

Two years later, Adrian Ashkenazy showed up at the Beit Warszawa Rosh Hashana service.

"The first person I saw was Andrzej, with his children, having a wonderful time," he said. "He told me that while filming 'The Pianist,' in one scene, he and Adrien Brody hid under the floorboards of the restaurant to escape being found by the Nazis."

Adrian Ashkenazy said Blumenfeld told him, "'It forced me to come to terms with my fear of becoming Jewish. I realized the man in the film was me, a Polish Jew, although I had not even said that out loud for years. I had kept my religion buried.'"

"Soon after, Blumenfeld, as well as his son, openly declared themselves Jewish," Adrian Ashkenazy said.

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