This past year, I had the opportunity to take a four-month sabbatical, spending two months in Israel and two months in Warsaw, Poland. In sharing the plans about our upcoming trip with friends and members of the congregation, almost everyone had the same question: Why Poland?
It was obvious why a rabbi and his wife would spend time in Israel (especially since our son was studying in the Sachler Medical School program at Tel Aviv University). But why would any Jew in his or her right mind choose to spend any time in Poland, let alone two months. The Poles, after all, were notoriously anti-Semitic, not just during the war, but after the war as well.
“Are there Jews still living in Poland?” some asked.
We learned that there are indeed Jews still living in Poland who are passionate about Judaism. It is currently estimated that there are 5000-10,000 Jews living in Poland, but the number of individuals with Jewish ancestry is clearly much larger. And many adults are discovering their Jewish ancestry, which their families suppressed, and embracing their Jewish roots.
My wife Barbara and I agreed to teach adult students in the Shatz program at Beit Warsawa, a Reform congregation in Warsaw. These students are learning to become sh’lichei tzibur, lay worship leaders, for their synagogue and groups of Jews interested in Judaism in other cities in Poland. We worked with two classes: Second-year students who had completed their studies of Shabbat liturgy and nusach (liturgical melodies) and were now studying the High Holy Day liturgy, and first-year students, many of whom were just beginning to learn the alef-bet.
The second-year students were a particularly impressive group: One is working on his Ph.D. in post-Holocaust theology at University of Lublin; another recently began her studies as a rabbinic student at the Jewish Theological Seminary; and a third was accepted into the cantorial studies program at Abraham Geiger College in Germany.
But as impressive as their academic credentials were, the stories of their discovery of their Jewish roots and their journeys to reclaim those roots were even more incredible. The Polish Jewish community was not only decimated during the Holocaust, but any attempts to revive Judaism were repressed during the subsequent 40-plus years of Communist rule. And there are still many Jews who do not openly share that they are Jewish, even with co-workers or friends.
Yet, we heard moving stories of those embracing their Jewish roots. One student told of going through her parents’ belongings after they died and finding a menorah, a kiddush cup, and other Jewish ritual objects. Another told how his family insisted they were not Jewish despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Most of these students had little Jewish knowledge and many were not Jewish according to halachah, so their journeys have included Judaism and Hebrew classes leading toward conversion. Their passion for Judaism and Jewish learning is unmatched. Because Beit Warsawa suddenly found itself without a rabbi at the end of last January, Barbara and I stepped in to teach the Step-by-Step classes in February, March and April. The students were eager to learn how to bake challah and make Passover treats, as well as learn the historical backgrounds of the holidays.
In addition, I stepped in to lead Shabbat services along with the second-year Shatz students. The congregation, which usually numbered about 40 to 50 on Fridays unless there was a visiting group, sung the Hebrew prayers with gusto, even though many of those who attended were not Jewish and could not read Hebrew. The services were followed by a catered Shabbat dinner. A smaller group gathered each Saturday morning for services and, after a Shabbat lunch, for Torah study. It was inspiring to see the students light up as they understood the relevance of the Torah portions to their lives.
There is clearly a revival of Jewish life in Poland. This revival is reflected in the annual Jewish festival in Krakow that draws tens of thousands each year, many of them non-Jews. But it is also reflected in congregations such as Beit Warsawa, which are emerging in Warsaw and other cities as individuals discover and begin to explore their Jewish roots. And it is reflected in the eight women who recently completed their return to Judaism by going before a Bet Din in Krakow and then immersing in Poland’s only mikvah.
We returned from Poland inspired by what we saw and encouraged about the future of Judaism in Poland. You can read more about Beit Warsawa at its English language website: http://www.beit.org.pl.