A Vibrant Jewish Community Reemerges in Poland
New Generation Seeks to Connect with its Jewish Identity
On a gray, rainy day this spring, a group of North American Jews gathered in front of the giant dome that serves as a memorial at the Majdanek death camp in Lublin, Poland. They stared in awe at the mausoleum, which contains some of the ashes of the tens of thousands of Jews that perished at Majdanek during the Holocaust.
“It was horrific and painful and awful,” said Lauren Lebovitz, who was part of The Jewish Federations of North America’s National Young Leadership Cabinet Alumni Mission to Poland. “Nobody could have prepared us for that moment, seeing how intact the camp was, and how it stood as a monument to all that happened there.”
Today in Poland, a vibrant Jewish community is reemerging, as a new generation seeks to connect with its Jewish identity, lost for decades to the Holocaust. That rebirth was evident during last month’s Cabinet Alumni mission, which offered a unique perspective on a country laden with a complicated past, but blessed with an opportunity to establish a flourishing future for Polish Jews.
Following the mission theme, “From the Darkness into the Light,” the trip began in Krakow, where the group was joined by scholar and Israeli MK Nachman Shai, as well as Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland. Participants saw historic Jewish landmarks, including the Old Jewish Quarter and Lublin Yeshiva, and toured the Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek concentration camps. Later in the week, they visited Wloclawek, the hometown of Shai’s parents, and walked through the Warsaw Ghetto.
To contrast the country’s sobering Jewish history, the mission also explored the rising Jewish community of Poland’s present. Participants met with Jewish leaders such as Zvi Rav-Ner, Israeli Ambassador to Poland, and Jonathan Ornstein, director of the new JCC in Krakow. The JCC has more than 700 members, and holds events that attract thousands of young Jews.
“It’s very exciting to see the reemergence of the Polish-Jewish community,” said Jon Deaner of New York, co-chair of the mission. “As we learned while visiting the new JCC in Krakow, every few days someone whose family had hid their Jewish identity for years walks through the door and announces they are Jewish and wants to reengage!”
Leslie Goldberg of New York, co-chair of the mission, added, “Jewish life in Poland is being revitalized. More and more people are accepting their Jewish roots and becoming part of the Jewish community. I look forward to returning to Poland in five or 10 years to see how much the community has grown and changed. I think really good things will continue to happen, and the trend of Jewish acceptance will continue to grow.”
Throughout the Polish tour, the mission also visited programs and organizations supported by Jewish Federations and our partner agencies, The Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Many of these programs focus on enhancing Jewish identity since Poland’s Jewish community has lost decades of religious and cultural engagement.
“Our biggest opportunity is helping the people of Poland feel secure in publicizing their Jewish Identity,” said Deaner. “We need to get more children to attend programs like Taglit-Birthright Israel and Szarvas, an international Jewish summer camp in Budapest. Educating the youth is an incredible place for Federations to make an impact.”
After returning from the mission, Lebovitz met with 120 ninth-graders, classmates of her daughter, in her hometown of Chattanooga. “I showed them our pictures, told them stories of our journey to Poland and spoke about the history of the atrocities perpetrated against our people. The girls asked questions, cried and thanked me so much for sharing,” she said.
“I believe in leading by example,” she added, of her decision to travel on this mission. “It’s so important to tell our children, but the kids also have to see you doing things. How are we going to keep involving the next generation?”