Re-joining the Family: Progressive Judaism in Poland

 

image: Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, envoy of the World/European Union for Progressive Judaism to Beit Polska, the Union of Progressive Jews in Poland, Beit Warszawa, 2011.
Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, envoy of the World/European Union for Progressive Judaism to Beit Polska, the Union of Progressive Jews in Poland, Beit Warszawa, 2011.

In 1979, as an executive in the public relations department of national United Jewish Appeal (UJA), I was asked to organize and lead a mission of editors and publishers of American Jewish newspapers on a trip to Poland, Bulgaria, Rumania and Israel. The name of the trip was “From Destruction to Redemption”. In Poland, we would visit the one remaining synagogue in Warsaw, where once there were 300 synagogues and shteibelackh (small synagogues) sprinkled throughout the city; the Rappaport memorial sculpture to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; Mila 18, where Jews were assembled for transport to the concentration camp; the Jewish Historical Institute, which houses remnant identity cards and documents of Jewish communities in Poland and other lands destroyed in the Holocaust; and, of course, Auschwitz-Birkenau, the death camp where “Arbeit Macht Frei  (work makes man free) stands above the gate welcoming its Jewish victims.

None of the writers (myself included) had been in Poland before. As we were 18 in number, we called ourselves the chai group*. For all of us, our trip to the geographic center of the Holocaust was surely one of the most emotional and devastating experiences of our lives. Subsequently, we all wrote articles about our visit. I remember one sentence from my own article. We did not see one Jewish child in Poland. 

Because of that profound experience 34 years ago, it is particularly gratifying for me to publish this article by Rabbi Haim Beliak about his work in Poland revitalizing Jewish communities and synagogues. JM

Poland is the birthplace or origin of many of North America’s Jews. Some scholars even believe that 70-80% of American Jews have roots in Poland. Certainly, we know that the great intellectual and religious movements of Zionism and Hassidism flourished on Polish soil. In fact, Polish lands were once a place where Jews survived and even prospered. Of course, this was all pre-Holocaust.

Today, most Jewish tourists to Poland come on memorial visits to cemeteries, to former shtetls (small Jewish villages) empty of Jewish residents, to the streets where the Warsaw Ghetto once stood or to Auschwitz to see the barracks, and crematoria and say Kaddish (prayer for the dead). These visitors are only vaguely aware that there are more than just memorials in Poland. I am writing this article to report that there is a miraculous and heartwarming revival of Jewish life now underway.

The surprising story of individual Jews and small communities, who are finding their way back to Judaism in the geographic heart of the Holocaust, is a testament to Jewish survival and Jewish spiritual endurance. Hopefully, in the future, visitors will not only visit sites connected to the Holocaust, but will visit a small but determined Jewish community just now emerging.

image: Severyn Ashkenazy (Photo courtesy of Mr. Ashkenazy)
Severyn Ashkenazy (Photo courtesy of Mr. Ashkenazy)

 

Let me start at the beginning.

In 1995, a loosely organized progressive Jewish congregation called Beit Warszawa was founded by Severyn Ashkenazy, 76, a Polish born Holocaust survivor and successful businessman, who returned to Poland in 1993 to reclaim family property. On his arrival, he sought to meet members of the Jewish community, only to be told that there were very few Jews remaining in Poland and that they were either elderly survivors who were dying or young Poles who were leaving the country. It seemed that there would be no next generation of Jews in the country.

But Ashkenazy persisted.

For the first few years after his arrival, he focused his efforts on providing a nourishing Sabbath dinner with a Jewish cultural program for those Jews who self-identified and would show up for the evening. Initially, attendees admitted to only a passing curiosity about Judaism and Jewish culture. In time, however, many admitted that they were not merely curiosity seekers, or what I like to call Jewish cultural anthropologists, but that they yearned to return to their Jewish roots. Eventually, out of the Sabbath dinner and program a bone fide Jewish congregation and gathering place was born.

Currently, the congregation is led by Israeli born Rabbi Gil Nativ who came to Warsaw with his wife Ziva in August 2012 to serve as the rabbi of Beit Warszawa. Rabbi Nativ was ordained by the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, a Reform seminary. Today Beit Warszawa sponsors Sabbath services, Hebrew classes, a children’s Sabbath school, a summer day camp, holiday and Jewish learning and cultural events and conversion classes.

image: Worshippers at Beit Bialystok break off pieces of challah after Friday night worship (Photo by Andrzej G-rska)
Worshippers at Beit Bialystok break off pieces of challah after Friday night worship (Photo by Andrzej G-rska)

 

In 2005, Ashkenazy founded a US nonprofit organization, Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland, to raise funds to support what was becoming a growing Jewish community. Three years later, in 2008, Ashkenazy founded Beit Polska (House of Poland) to minister to the Jewish population of Warsaw as well as to encourage the formation and support of other Jewish congregations elsewhere in the country. Since its inception, Beit Polska has become the umbrella organization for all progressive Jewish communities in Poland and has trained, together with the Friends of Jewish Renewal, 15 lay cantors and five teachers who teach an Introduction to Judaism course. Lay cantors are taught by Cantor Mimi Shefer, a professional singer and cantor who lives in Berlin.

The current chair of Beit Polska is Piotr Stasiak, a physicist turned businessman turned Jewish community leader. In the last two years, the number of Progressive congregations/havurot in Poland has grown from one to seven. In addition to Beit Warszawa, they are: BeitPoznan, Beit Gdansk, Beit Plock, and the newest addition, Beit Bialystok, founded in August, 2012. I know that some of these city names are known not only for the vibrant Jewish communities that once inhabited these places, but for the ghettos that were built in their midst during the Holocaust. We also know that large numbers of Jews died in each of them or were deported to the concentration camps. The revival of Jewish life in these places adds to the miracle of their existence.

My own involvement in Poland began in 2008 when I spent several months in Warsaw as a sabbatical replacement for Rabbi Burt Schuman, who played a key role in the development of Beit Warszawa. I found the experience of supporting a Jewish religious and communal revival in Poland truly gratifying and determined to stay involved. I returned to Poland in 2011 and 2012, spending about ten months there altogether.

I was sponsored by a one-time grant from the World Union for Progressive Judaism and the European Union for Progressive Judaism. Today I serve as executive director of Beit Polska and spend six months a year there as a volunteer. My mandate is to continue to nurture existing congregations and to look for opportunities to create new ones.

When I am not physically present in Poland, I keep in touch on a daily basis with leaders of all seven communities. My usual schedule is rising at 4 am California time (which is 1 pm in Poland) and working until 12 noon. My “off hours” are spent trying to find funding to support the revival. To say that my work in Poland has become my life’s mission would be an understatement.

image: Prayer leaders Anna Jagielska-Riveiro and Piotr Kondrat at graduation ceremonies in July 2011 at Beit Warszawa
Prayer leaders Anna Jagielska-Riveiro and Piotr Kondrat at graduation ceremonies in July 2011 at Beit Warszawa

 

Response to Revival

The response of many members of the organized Jewish community to the phenomena of individuals re-claiming their Jewish identity has often been confused, dismissive, and skeptical. Some organizations have tried to capitalize on this phenomenon by seeking to regain public Jewish property. Others saw an opportunity to connect with the burgeoning Jewish community and to foster an old world, 19th century form of Judaism. This does not appear to be representative of what Jews in Poland are looking for today.

When I talk to North American congregations about the work of building a Progressive Jewish community in Poland, I often encounter a range of responses. Some individuals cannot get beyond their unresolved mourning and grief. Others are skeptical and full of questions. (Why didn’t they move to Israel? What is their motive for connecting to Judaism? Why did their grand-parents convert to another religion? Why did their grand-parents support communism?  They are simply seeking some advantage! ) Often, anger and ignorance combine to create a wall of disassociation and rejection toward the very people we should be embracing! The happy news of reuniting with lost brothers and sisters is sometimes met with hostility and suspicion. Thank goodness there are those who recognize the miracle of return and want to help these congregations flourish.

Today

Step-by-Step Program

Two step-by-step programs are currently being run in Warsaw. One is a ten-month weekly class of 28 sessions that integrates Sabbath and weekend learning opportunities. The classes are taught in Polish and are the equivalent of An Introduction to Judaism course.

The second program, also taught in Polish, is given monthly during a series of intensive weekends and is geared more for residents of other communities in Poland, who travel to Warsaw to learn and to be with other Jews.

Motivation is obviously high for those students who must travel great distances to attend. Graduates of these two Step-by-Step programs also participate in local Sabbath discussion groups in their respective communities. Teachers include Joanna Auron, artist and cultural historian from Bialystok; Piotr Mirski, a graduate student in Lublin, who is also a musician, and Ola Blecharczk, a graduate student in Poznan.

Students who complete this program have been em -powered to form their own communities/havurot/congregations. It has been exciting to see the individual and community growth that has resulted.

Prayer leaders Anna Jagielska-Riveiro and Piotr Kondrat at
graduation ceremonies in July 2011 at Beit Warszawa
(Photo by Andrzej G-rska)

In August, 2012, Rabbi Beliak met Joanna Auron, who came to Warsaw from Bialystok to interview for the Step-by-Step program described above. She was well informed about Judaism. After Rabbi Beliak and Piotr Stasiak talked with her, they decided to help her develop a local Progressive (Reform and Conservative) community in Bialystok. Here are some comments from Joanna Auron: “I am so very grateful that we were offered this chance at being Jews together. The Judaism Step-by-Step course and the Shabbatot we hold – thanks to Beit Polska’s support of Beit Bialystok – are the first time since the 1950s that Bialystok Jews have been able to study and pray together in a semi-public and openly religious setting. 50 years of silence. And now – Jewish songs, Jewish voices raised in prayer. Imagine.

NOW WHAT?

Although funding from our initial benefactors continues, it is insufficient for the growing needs of the congregations. Recently I applied to Kulanu for a grant to support our newest congregation in Bialystok.

While Kulanu has spread its remarkable efforts throughout the world, in Africa, Asia, South and Central America, Europe and Southwestern United States, rebuilding Jewish life in Poland, a place of such historic Jewish importance, fits Kulanu’s mandate of supporting isolated and emerging Jewish communities around the world. The small Jewish communities of Poland are isolated, even geographically from each other, and emerging, just as are communities in more “exotic” locations. Kulanu responded with a small grant for our newest Bialystok Congregation.

As we look to the future, we are wondering how we will find the funds we will need to sustain this incredible renaissance. One wish is that rabbis and teachers will come to Poland from other countries and donate their time, so we can train local teachers to continue this revival. Perhaps Jewish congregations from around the world will partner with individual congregations here to help them grow and to become self-sustaining. We are looking for ideas, partners, funds. If you can help us in what I see as a holy mission, please contact Judy Manelis at Kulanu.