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Serving as a Rabbi in Poland

I RECENTLY HAD THE PRIVILEGE of spending the month of December serving as rabbi for Beit Warszawa, the first liberal/progressive Jewish congregation to be established in Warsaw since before World War II. Beit Warszawa came into being three years ago as an alternative to the “official” (Orthodox) Jewish community in Warsaw and is still in its organizational infancy, feeling its way towards being a congregation. Here are a few of my experiences and impressions after an amazing month.

Members of Beit Warszawa
Members of Beit Warszawa. Photo by Marna Sapsowitz.
Poland’s Jewish community is still living largely in the shadow of the Holocaust and suffering from what might be called “corporate post-traumatic stress” symptoms. People carry deep ambivalence and confusion about their Jewish identities. Some show fierce, in-yourface pride about their Jewishness; others are not “out” as Jews. Yet the Jews I met adamantly do not want the Holocaust to be the sole definer of their Jewish identities. They have few resources, however, to help them define their Jewishness in other ways.

No one seems to know how many Jews live in Poland today. Estimates range from three thousand to a hundred thousand. There’s a joke circulating: On the day the last Jew leaves Poland, three hundred Jews will show up at the airport to send him off.

We’ve all heard stories of Jewish babies in Poland being saved and raised by Christian families — of babies often thrust into bystanders’ arms as their parents were carted off to the extermination camps. No one knows how many of these children there were, but it’s beginning to look like there were more than anyone had thought. And it appears that the majority of the adoptive parents never told the children of their origins. In some cases, the information was withheld for very defensible, altruistic reasons: A child can’t disclose what she doesn’t know and thereby endanger herself and her whole adoptive family. Understandably, as time passed, it became harder to tell. Some adoptive parents were also concerned about potentially anti-Semitic neighbors. In other cases, it seems, the reasons were less altruistic: another soul had been baptized into the Church, and there was no reason to muddy the waters.

Fast forward sixty years. Those babies are now in their early sixties. Their parents are reaching the end of their lives and, for whatever reasons, are deciding, in significant numbers, not to take this secret to the grave. They are making deathbed confessions. Poland is full of shell-shocked Jews — or are they Jews? — who have just had this bombshell dropped in their laps. They don’t know what to make of the information, how to integrate it into their lives and self-concepts — and they have no one to speak to about it, to help them process it. There is a desperate need for skilled, compassionate, Polish-speaking counselors who can help them explore these identity issues — not only for them, but for their siblings, spouses, children and grandchildren. Some of these hidden Jews are not even “out” to their spouses! I met one man who had come to Shabbat services after sneaking out of his house without telling his (anti-Semitic) wife where he was going: to explore this “Jewish thing.”

How many members does Beit Warszawa have? No one really knows this, either. In North America, “membership” in a congregation is defined very clearly: You are a member if you fill out the appropriate forms and pay membership dues. In Poland, there is no such concept, no systems of dues, donations and fundraising. This can partly be attributed, I believe, to Poland’s recent history of forty years under communism. More salient, however, is the importance of the Catholic Church in Polish life. The Church is ubiquitous and very wealthy. If you go to church on Sunday, you may or may not put a few zlotych in the collection plate, but whether you do or don’t, you don’t worry about the church closing its doors or there not being a priest when you need one. With this backdrop, Polish Jews have no concept of paying dues to build a congregation and ensure its ongoing ability to “stay in business.”

Even if they did, many would be unable to afford to pay dues. Poland’s economy is not strong, and many people are unemployed. All predictions are that, now that Poland has entered the European Union, prices will go up and salaries will not. Jewish institutions in Poland are therefore largely dependent on the generosity of benefactors from the West and on philanthropic organizations based in the U.S. and Israel. This generosity is wonderful; without it, there would be no such institutions. But it has its drawbacks, too: Many Polish Jews have little investment in the synagogues they attend. They have a sense of entitlement that is not, in the long term, healthy.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and emigration became possible for those living behind the Iron Curtain, the major Jewish philanthropic organizations assumed that most Jews who were young and healthy enough would leave for the West or Israel. The organizations saw their role as providing badly needed social services to those Jews too sick or old to emigrate. The common belief was that when that population died off, there would no longer be any Jews to speak of in Eastern Europe. These organizations have done an excellent job of providing elderly Jews with kosher meals and medical and dental care and equipment. What they didn’t expect was that some young Jews would choose to stay in their birthplaces and explore their Jewish identities and build or rebuild the institutions that would nurture those identities. Funding organizations are still trying to adjust to the new reality. To do so, they have to reexamine their attitudes toward Poland.

A number of my friends asked me about March of the Living, a program that brings Jewish teens from all over the world to Poland right around Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). They tour the camps, follow the route of the death march from Auschwitz to Birkenau, and continue on to Israel for the celebrations of Yom Haatzmaut (Israel Independence Day). Other teen groups (United Synagogue Youth Pilgrimage, for instance) follow similar routes with similar agendas. For many teens, it’s an incredible Jewish identity-building experience that they remember all their lives.

Polish Jews hate it. They perceive that what is conveyed to these kids is that Poland is one big Jewish cemetery and that there are no living Jews here — and that, by extension, the only Jewish future is in Israel; that Jews elsewhere (Europe? the entire Diaspora?) have no future. Polish Jews want Jews from around the world to know that there are Jews in Poland! They report that their invitations to visiting grops of Jewish teenagers to join them in celebrating Shabbat are repeatedly declined. They wonder why the group organizers aren’t interested in living Polish Jews, only dead ones.

There are few remnants of pre-World War II Warsaw remaining. It was important to me to see one of the few remaining parts of the Ghetto wall. They are difficult to find, not clearly marked. One that is most accessible is in an apartment building courtyard; you need to get someone who lives there or happens to be passing through the locked gate to let you in. The ghetto wall remnant is a short stretch of an old, worn, reddish brick wall, with a little alcove where there are six or seven old memorial candles that people have left and a plaque placed by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The place felt deeply sad and holy. I felt a much deeper emotional resonance with it than I’ve ever had with the Wall in Jerusalem. I wonder what it would be like to have your living room window — the one where you place your Christmas tree — look out on this wall; I wonder if anyone living behind any of those windows ever even gives it a thought.

Christmas in Warsaw involved the most stretching I did there. Magdalena is a student of religion, devoutly Catholic, very smart and thoughtful, who is very interested in Judaism. She had come to my classes and services at Beit Warszawa and had timidly invited me to her family’s Second Day of Christmas celebration (Christmas in Poland is a two-day holiday).

Magdalena is one of 13 children (six birth, seven foster), and I think most of them were there (except for Justina, who was in hospital, in labor, with what turned out to be a daughter after three boys), along with spouses, nieces and nephews, grandchildren, two grandmothers, and a few friends. There I was, in the heart of her very Catholic family, at a Christmas feast. I had no idea of what all these people all around me thought about me, about Judaism, about Jews, about the fact that Magdalena had brought a rabbi (a woman!) home for Christmas dinner.

The previous week, as we had given out the cheap tin chanukiyot (menorahs) and candles at Beit Warszawa, Magdalena had asked if she could have one. Now, she asked me if I’d be willing to light the menorah and explain to her family about Hanukkah. What??!! I had to make a quick decision. I was not at all comfortable with lighting the menorah surrounded by all this Christmas atmosphere, but the opportunity to demystify Judaism won out over the need to protect it against syncretism. So I told them the Hanukkah story. They listened with rapt attention (or maybe just polite attention, but they faked it well). Magdalena translated. I sang the blessings and lit the candles (it was, by that time, just about sunset). I thought I would agonize about having done it, but it felt very right (I can’t believe I'm saying this) to watch the menorah candles burning in that room. While they did, the lights were turned off, almost everyone held a votive candle, and they sang Polish Christmas carols, none of which I’d ever heard. I found them exquisitely beautiful; perhaps it helped that I couldn't understand the words.

During my second Shabbat in Warsaw, I had back-to-back, thought-provoking conversations with two regular attendees at Beit Warszawa. They both said, essentially, “We don't know anything about liberal Judaism here. We need you to tell us what to do.”

I firmly believe that there is a need for a liberal/progressive Jewish alternative in Poland. I am thrilled to be a resource, a teacher, a sug-gestionmaker — but I am wary of a sort of American Jewish colonialism/imperialism being brought to or imposed upon Poland’s Jewish community in a patronizing way just because there is a vacuum to fill. The challenge is how to strike the right balance — to provide the background, learning, and experience that can help facilitate the rebirth of an organic, Polish, liberal/progressive Judaism responsive to the needs of that community. (There is, of course, the ever-hovering painful irony that Poland was the place from which Torah went forth until not so long ago.)

Beit Warszawa’s leadership believes that having a rabbi would be an important next milestone in their growth. They haven’t yet figured out how to fund such a position. Of course, ideally, there should be (Polish-speaking) leadership coming out of the community itself; but they expect the possibility of a Polish liberal rabbi to be some years away.

I returned home with much to think about, and with hopes of returning.

Type: RT Article