A Journey of Discovery
By Magda Dorosz
I have sent 314 young Polish Jews to Israel on Birthright Israel since 2011, because the trip is among the most important Jewish experiences for young adults in Poland that impacts their future engagement.
Hillel in Poland is now the leading provider of that trip. Birthright for many of our participants is the first Jewish thing they do after discovering their Jewish roots. Some apply for the trip only months after they learn of their heritage.
A staggering 70% of young Polish Jews that I have sent on the trip grew up unaware of their Jewish roots, like me.
Often, our grandparents, who survived WWII and remained in Poland, needed to hide their identities, not only during the war but after, due to the Communist regime that was imposed on Poland from 1945 to 1989.
Today, when young Poles discover their Jewish roots, inevitably a family member or community member tells them about Birthright and the possibility of going to Israel. Then, they come to Hillel to register and for pre-trip meetings.
Once in Israel, young Polish participants discover that there are many others like them who did not grow up in the Jewish tradition, observe the rituals in their homes or know anything about the religion.
The time spent on the bus and during countless discussions is often the first time they can share their feelings and impressions about making such a profound discovery. In Israel, they learn a great deal of Jewish history which they were not exposed to before. There, many of our participants experience Shabbat for the first time in their lives.
When participants come back from the trip, they find their Jewish home at Hillel. After experiencing Shabbat for the first time in Jerusalem, they regularly attend Shabbat dinners in Warsaw and Krakow, just one of the ways they start expressing their newly formed Jewish identities. In fact, more than half of our Shabbat dinner attendees are Birthright alumni.
Before his trip in 2018, Michal never attended Jewish events. Now he is a frequent participant in Hillel’s programming, occasionally attends synagogue and even celebrated Rosh Hashanah last year for the first time.
“Birthright allowed me to understand that I can be Jewish even if I didn’t grow up in a Jewish home and that I and others like me can be part of the Jewish community,” Michal told me. “Since I came back, I have started participating in different events organized by Jewish organizations in Warsaw, and thanks to that I have started discovering my Jewish identity.”
Participants return willing to give back for their wonderful experience. In Poland, Birthright has become a springboard for volunteering in the community, and even an entree into employment in the Jewish communal world.
Karolina, another one of my students who went on Birthright in 2018, said, “I came back home being inspired to learn more, feeling empowered to keep discovering my Jewish roots and engaging with the local community. It was a deeply transformative and spiritual experience.”
Karolina is now not only a frequent participant in Hillel programming – from Shabbat dinners to holiday celebrations – but is also a regular attendee at a local synagogue and a core volunteer with Limmud in Poland.
And then there is Aleksander, who says that Birthright gave him the sense of belonging to a community he had been looking for. Aleksander, together with three other participants from Krakow and Warsaw, attended AJC Global Forum in Washington and a Hillel Global Shabbaton in June 2019. Now, Aleksander works with me in Hillel Warsaw, creating interesting programs and connection points to Judaism for his peers.
Another impact of Birthright in Poland I see is that the trip bonds young Poles to Israel. Many of our participants go back to Israel, either on holidays or formal programs, like the two Polish Birthright alumni taking part in a 248 – Global Community Action Network that met in Israel in December 2019 for a program bringing together young Jewish adults from Europe, Israel and the US.
After his 2015 trip Wojtek, a Hillel regular attendee, went back to Israel for a medical internship through Onward Israel. Another student, Weronika, who attended Birthright in 2017, is planning on returning to Israel for Masa and discovering the country from a different perspective.
Birthright for her, as for so many young Poles, was the beginning of a journey of discovering her Jewish identity and its meaning in her life. Today, as a study abroad student, Weronika seeks out the local Jewish community in every place she travels to, in order to deepen her Jewish connections and knowledge.
With the pandemic putting these trips on hold, it has underscored their importance once again. While Hillel Poland has successfully pivoted to online programs along with the rest of the Hillel Movement, nothing can replace the opportunity for our students to physically connect to the tastes, sights, smells and emotions brought forth on the trips. We look forward to facilitating the magic of Birthright for Polish Jewish young adults in the Summer of 2021, if conditions allow.
Birthright remains the first Jewish experience for many Polish participants, but not the last. For Polish Jews, these 10 days are the beginning of a lifelong adventure of self-discovery, community and meaning.
Magda Dorosz is the executive director of Hillel Warsaw, the first Polish branch of Hillel International, that provides educational and social activities for Jewish young adults who are looking for a meaning of their Jewish heritage and to help strengthen their Jewish identity.
Magda graduated from the University of Wroclaw and received an M.A. in public administration. She currently lives in Warsaw.
Magda Dorosz is a member of the ROI Community since 2013.