A Responsible Moment: Poland, Europe and the Jewish Future

by Seth Cohen

Imagine a Jewish community rich in learning, vibrant in culture and diverse in perspectives on spirituality and belief. Imagine a Jewish community that serves as a center of innovation being led by scholars, spiritual leaders and educators, as well as young adventurers pushing the boundaries of enlightenment and activism. Imagine a Jewish community renowned for its contributions to culture (both high and low) that includes giants of arts and language admired throughout the world.

That community actually exists, perhaps in the most surprising of places: Poland, both past and present. And as we all imagine more interconnected, inclusive and innovative Jewish communities throughout the world, I would suggest we look to Poland as a community teeming with potential.

Indeed, we often think of Poland not for its rich and vibrant Jewish history, but sadly for the incomprehensible destruction of the Jewish community by the Nazis. Rather than the history of Lublin yeshivot, we know the history of the Lublin Plan and of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and we forget the achievements of the luminaries under the weight of the atrocities inflicted by the perpetrators. But while Poland is, without question, still a very challenging environment for Jews, the truth is that it has an epic history as one of the great golden eras of the global Jewish community.

This fact couldn’t have been more evident during my recent visit there. While the main purpose was to join our friends from the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture for their hosting of the 25th Nahum Goldmann Fellowship, I also witnessed the incredible reemergence of Jewish life in Warsaw and Krakow. The evidence for this is not merely anecdotal; a recent study by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research has confirmed the conclusion that “the positive impact of Jewish revival on Polish society at large, and the positive reaction it largely elicits, should not be considered just a windfall, but should indeed be actively pursued.”

What is the engine of change for this revival? Like other countries throughout Central and Eastern Europe, Poland is a place where young adults are stepping into the arena to build a Jewish future in their own image.

Wherever you look, it is inspiring to see a new generation ready to take the reins of leadership in Poland and to reclaim their country’s past as they engage in building its future. To name but a few examples: Jonathan Ornstein, the director of the Krakow JCC, has been building a community center for ideas of arts, culture, education and community. Magda Koralewska and Rabbi Tanya Segal are pursuing an idea to reclaim (and renovate) a historic Beit Midrash as a new center of spirituality and creativity in the heart of Krakow. Karina Sokolowska (of the JDC in Warsaw), Anna Makowka (a young leader in Krakow) and the dynamic Chief Rabbi Michael Shudrich are creating communities of engagement and collective responsibility in Poland. And young entrepreneurs like Klaudia Klimek are helping to build new organizations, such as Jewrnalism, that connect Poland to other global Jewish communities.

Poland is not unique in this regard, and the current leadership of many European Jewish communities recognizes this and are concerned that their institutions are struggling to adapt to the newly engaged passions of their young adults. In fact, the Second Survey of European Jewish Leaders and Opinion Formers (released by the JDC International Centre for Community Development in April) identified that the highest priority for European communities is including young leadership in decision-making bodies. Additionally, the same study showed that 67 percent of respondents identified “alienation from Jewish community life” as the biggest threat to Jewish life in Europe.

When young adults aren’t able to feel connected to existing institutions, they either drop out of community altogether or create their own networks of engagement, connecting with one another in-person and online, sharing passions, frustrations, projects and visions for their communities. The question then becomes, what values, ideas and impact will flow through these new networks and how will they be connected to the organized Jewish community?

Our work at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and more broadly across the Schusterman Philanthropic Network, has always had an eye on these young adults who are rich in Jewish values, filled with innovative ideas and eager to transform their passion into impact. Many are members of the ROI Community, an initiative envisioned by Lynn Schusterman to better connect these individuals and help them tap into each other’s resources, knowledge and networks to engage even more young adults throughout the world.

While the concept of “peoplehood” is debated in boardrooms and universities, these young adults are leveraging their personal and collective social networks to create meaningful Jewish experiences for themselves and their peers. Over the last year, we have become even more focused on the need to help weave networks of young adults closer together within and among their respective communities, as well as across the world. That is one reason my recent trip to Poland was so refreshing – rather than looking only for memorials to the past, the young adults we met were looking for reinforcements to help them build networked communities of the future that are more inclusive, innovative, collectively responsible, Jewishly literate and positively connected to Israel. As one said to me, they don’t want us to come to Poland just to mourn its past, they want us to come help network its future.

But in order for that future to happen, in Poland or elsewhere, it will take more than cheerleading and the application of buzzwords like networks and social capital. We all need to embrace one of the great imperatives of our time: to actively help young adults, many of whom are inspired by their experience on Taglit Birthright trips, transform their engagement into impact. This isn’t an easy task, especially in a country and on a continent that doesn’t have an easy recent past.

As one of my guides, Anna Sommer Schneider, said to me as we gazed from the edge of one of Polish history’s darkest fields while pondering its bright future: “However you want to perceive the past, we are at an important and responsible moment; how will we meet it?”

The time is now to embrace that question, to bring our collective knowledge, human, relationship and financial capital to help young adults in Poland, in Europe and in countries around the world seize the future.

Make no mistake: these young adults are waiting for an answer …. from all of us.

Seth Cohen is the Director of Network Initiatives for the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. CLSFF is part of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Philanthropic Network, a global network of philanthropic initiatives focused on igniting the power in young people to create change for themselves, in the Jewish community and across the broader world. CLSPN also includes the Schusterman Foundation-Israel (SFI), ROI Community (ROI) and REALITY.