Beit Polska, the national umbrella organization of Progressive Jews in Poland, is engaged in efforts to build Jewish congregations in Poland. In most places, there has been virtually no Jewish life since 1968, when the Polish Communist Party expelled thousands of Jewish doctors, intellectuals, and professors, or in some instances, since 1939, when the Germans and Russians invaded the country. Beit Polska has succeeded in the creation of 10 communities of Jews where visitors are welcome to observe Jewish holidays, explore their possible Jewish roots, study Hebrew and Judaism, and/or seek information on the Jewish faith. The 10 communities are: the flagship community of Beit Warszawa (Warsaw), Beit Trojmiasto (Gdansk, Gdynia and Sopot), Beit Lodz, Beit Lublin, Beit Katowice, Beit Poznan, Beit Wroclaw, Beit Bialystok, Beit Konstancin and Beit Torun.
Some visitors suspect or know they have a Jewish family background; others are non-Jewish Poles who have a keen interest in Jewish life and history. A considerable number of these visitors stay to become stakeholders in Judaism through conversion. Although most communities are small by most congregational standards, the numbers continue to grow.
For many Jewish visitors to the city of Warsaw, the highlight of their trip to Poland is the celebration of Shabbat at Beit Warszawa, which is led by Rabbi Gil Nativ. It should be noted, however, that in Warsaw, the programs offered go far beyond Sabbath and holiday observance. There is a regular schedule of study opportunities for residents of Warsaw and study weekends for those who come from other communities. There are also conversion classes. In the growing number of regional congregations, besides the celebration of Shabbat and holidays, there are also opportunities for Jewish study.
During the last three years, Rabbi Nativ led a team of scholars who created the first Progressive Siddur (prayer book) in Poland since the 19th century.** In addition to the traditional Hebrew prayers, the Siddur includes a modern Polish translation and a transliteration to make it user-friendly for all those who wish to participate in religious services.
Zivah Nativ, Rabbi Nativ’s wife, has volunteered her time as a teacher of Hebrew, originated a children’s program (Shabbat Yachad – Sabbath Together), and taught Torah trope to enable students to read from the Torah. The Israeli couple is beloved by all and their contributions have gone beyond the academic as they have taught Israeli folk dancing, challah baking, and other activities with Jewish content.
Contrary to comments by some cynics, Beit Polska is neither a tourist attraction nor a memorial project. Its goal is to foster Jewish life in Poland. That means the training of leaders, the teaching of Judaism, and making the celebration of Jewish life accessible to anyone who desires it.
Some Recent News: Beit Polska/Beit Warszawa
Recently, Beit Warszawa was blessed with the visit of 88-year-old Cantor David Wisnia, who as a child prodigy sang in Warsaw’s largest synagogue, the Tlumazcki Synagogue. As part of Beit Polska’s program for training prayer leaders, Cantor Wisnia and his grandson Avi taught them synagogue melodies. (We currently have nine prayer leaders serving our communities.)
Later, Iza Rivkah Foremniak, a program coordinator for Beith Polska, interviewed Cantor Wisnia. Cantor Wisnia was visibly moved by the presence of young people in the synagogue and said he now feels hopeful about the Jewish future in Poland. Ms. Foremniak, in turn, was overwhelmed by Cantor Wisnia’s presence and cried when she heard him sing melodies, which reminded her of the Holocaust and the loss of Jewish life.
Cantor Wisnia’s clear, modern Hebrew was reminiscent of the Hebrew taught in the Javneh school system in pre-World War II Poland, where there was an active progressive Jewish movement at that time. Contrary to what some may think, Poland was not simply an enclave of orthodox Jewry but had the full spectrum of Jewish religious observance. In fact, there are estimates of up to 40 Postempowy (progressive) Jewish congregations in Poland before the invasions of 1939.
Beit Polska Teachers/Leaders and Their Unique Challenges
Beit Polska is blessed to have several inspiring young leaders serving the communities. Most of them are young native Poles or Polish speakers who have come from abroad to volunteer for Beit Polska. Those who choose to work and teach in our emerging Jewish communities are highly motivated and deeply committed. The challenge they face includes navigating the complexity of Jewish history in Poland within the context of the current Polish cultural reality and what that may mean for them personally.
It is helpful to note that World War II and the Communist takeover of Poland continued the oppression of both surviving Jews as well as Poles until the Soviets withdrew from Poland in 1989. Under the Soviet system, the official educational curriculum did not deal with the fate of Jews during World War II. And little was said about the suffering of Poles during the occupations by Germans and Russians. The Russians were portrayed as liberators rather than as occupiers.
When memories and memorials were permitted expression after 1989, many younger Poles were curious about Jews but did not understand the prominent role of Jews in the culture and history of Poland. They knew about the Holocaust, but most of them had not fully explored its implications for the country and for themselves personally.
Three Young Leaders
Piotr Mirski was already in the process of becoming a member of the Jewish community when I met him in 2010. He was a student in Biet Polska’s Introduction to Judaism class, which we call Step by Step. The name was chosen because it can lead to conversion for those who complete the program. Subsequently, he completed his conversion and then joined our first training program for prayer leaders.
Mirski, who is a musician and composer in addition to being an aspiring intellectual, is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary thought at the University of Lublin. During the last four years, he has fostered a Jewish community in Lublin and has traveled the country leading services and introducing Jewish culture.
Miriam Klimova is originally from Ukraine. Last year Miriam completed the Beit Polska training program for lay cantors. Her class is continuing to study Jewish life cycle services in order to lead weddings, britot (circumcisions), and funerals. At the same time, she is studying at The School of Hebrew Philology (Wyzsza Szkola Filologii Hebrajskiej) in Torun, Poland.
Miriam grew up in the Progressive Movement in Ukraine, where she was an elementary school teacher. As a student in Torun, Miriam has begun to develop a community that gathers for weekly Sabbath services.
Dariusz Szajnert was born in Lodz but grew up in Belgium, Chicago and North Carolina. Three summers ago, Dariusz served as a Beit Polska volunteer organizer in the city of Lodz. This year, he has worked as a teacher and organizer based in Poznan. For the past eight months, he volunteered in Torun, Gdansk, Katowice, Lublin, Warsaw, and Wroclaw, in addition to Poznan.
Before coming to Poland to volunteer, Dariusz taught Jewish history at the American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, North Carolina for five years and completed a degree in social work. In addition to teaching and organizing, Dariusz has provided a surprising skill as a videographer and film editor.
Beit Trojmiasto: a Success Story
Beit Trojmiasto is one of our ten Jewish communities. It is made up of Jewish groups from three geographically close cities Gdansk (19th century Danzig), Gdynia, and Sopot. The remarkable growth of this special community is due to the determination of a few individuals who embraced their Jewish heritage with special gusto, and, over a two-year period, traveled back and forth to Warsaw on a weekly basis (five hours each way) to study Judaism at Beit Warszaw. Their goal was to reconnect with their Jewish heritage and to prepare for their conversions. With the help of Rabbi Nativ, their efforts were successful and the Beit Din of the Progressive Movement (EUPJ) confirmed their Jewish status. Today the three communities have joined together to form a vibrant and exciting Jewish enclave.
When the community reached two and a half “minyanim”(one minyan represents the 10 Jews needed for communal prayer), the group applied to the city of Gdansk for a place to hold their services. They had long outgrown the cramped private apartments they were using. In December, the group was notified that their request had been granted.
Although the apartment was in poor condition and in need of paint, repairs, a working heating system and electricity hook up, the enthusiastic members of Beit Trojmiasto gathered on Chanukah, bundled up against the frigid Polish winter in their candle-lit room, and sang Hanukah songs and lit the holiday lights. Plans for a formal dedication of the synagogue are underway.
In a few short years and with a shoestring budget, Beit Polska has challenged the conventional wisdom about the future of Jewish life in Poland. We have accomplished this with the help of many volunteers both Jewish and non-Jewish who support our work and volunteer in our communities. Yes, the once vibrant rich Jewish life in Poland is no more, the majority of its Jewish population lost. But we have an opportunity to build on the ashes of this legacy. There are people who want to know about Judaism, embrace Judaism, celebrate Judaism. And many Poles are eager to accommodate and foster Jewish life.
*See KulanuNews Spring, 2013: Rejoining the Family, Progressive Judaism in Poland
Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak is Executive Director of Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland Arun Viswanath, 24, a 2013 graduate of Harvard University, spent nine months teaching English in India last year. Currently, he lives in New Jersey, where he works as an efficiency consultant in supply-chain management. His father, Meylekh Viswanath, was born in India and returns frequently to visit family and to help strengthen local Jewish communities.
*KULANU has been an enthusiastic supporter of Beit Polska programs. One grant was given in January 2013 in support of Beit Bialystok. A second grant was given in October 2014 to support the publication of the Polish-Hebrew prayer book.