Authenticity in Jewish Poland

Ec Chaim Synagoga, Warszawa via Facebook.

By Madison Jackson

Living in Warsaw, Poland in summer 2018 I encountered a dilemma. My heart told me to go to Shabbat services at the historic Nozyk synagogue – this, after all, being the only surviving synagogue in Warsaw from Pre-World War II, it had to be the most authentic version of Polish synagogue life. Therefore, my first Friday night in Warsaw, I did exactly that. Having no idea what to expect, I walked through the back doors of the yellow walled synagogue and entered the women’s balcony. On the bookshelf near the doorway were piles of siddurs. Picking one up, I flipped through the pages and stared in delight at the Polish translation next to the Hebrew prayers.

Yet, as someone who grew up in egalitarian prayer spaces, read Torah even though I am a woman, and always sat with who I wanted during Jewish services regardless of someone’s gender, I felt uncomfortable, almost wrong, sitting in a non-egalitarian prayer space out of choice. I reminded myself that my Judaism was not everyone’s Judaism. The importance of being there was to see the reviving, thriving, authentic Jewish life in Warsaw, and to recognize that having Judaism at all in a place where people tried to destroy Judaism, was something to celebrate. This was the only Judaism that Warsaw Jews had ever known and it was not my responsibility to tell them how to practice Judaism in their country.

While participating in a Jewish summer camp in Hungary a few years prior to my summer in Warsaw, I had learned that Orthodox Judaism is often the only type of Judaism European communities have. However, just a couple years later, this was slowly changing. While there are definitely still plenty of European cities in which the only Jewish option is what Americans would consider Orthodox, a trend of Progressive Judaism is also making its way across the continent.

It turned out that Nozyk Synagogue’s services are a version of Jewish life in Poland but certainly not the only version. Services at the Nozyk Synagogue were packed – mostly with tourists using their cell phones and wearing ripped jeans and sweatshirts. Teenagers of all ages peered over the balcony watching people dance and sing. It was near impossible to hear what was going on over the constant whispering and talking of the tourists around me. Very few people were holding a siddur. Announcements were made in English. I was slightly disappointed. I had come all the way to Europe to experience Jewish life, and this is what I found?

A few weeks later I tried my luck at a much newer synagogue in Warsaw called Ec Chaim. A progressive, fully egalitarian synagogue, I instantly felt more at home – and around me, I heard nothing but Polish conversation. I sat where I wanted in the small room which had posters of Jewish symbols hung up as decorations. There was no mechitza; the room was filled with about 40 people of all ages, from small children, to teenagers and parents, to elderly adults. Many of the tunes I recognized, a few others I gladly learned as they went. The entire sermon was in Polish and although I did not understand a word, I could not have been happier looking around and seeing Polish Jews nodding. When services ended, everyone shook every single person’s hand saying “Shabbat Shalom.”

I felt guilty for not liking the services at Nozyk Synagogue after years of preaching that we must respect the “Orthodox style” Judaism of Europeans, because at least it was Judaism. We should always respect Jewish practices different than our own – but there was nothing wrong with me preferring the services and the camaraderie at Ec Chaim – I hadn’t told a European Jewish community what to do, I hadn’t said “you need to start a progressive Jewish community.” Warsaw Jews had decided that they wanted a more progressive prayer space, they wanted to sit with their families during services and they wanted to learn the Jewish traditions that had been lost and were now returning to their homes, such as reading Torah, regardless of their gender. They had come to this discovery on their own, and it was something they felt had a need in their community. In doing so, they created a Jewish space that felt to me more authentically Polish – since it was not a building that had been around pre-war, it was not a spectacle of tourists.

Just because I believe in supporting Jewish life in Europe no matter what form it takes, doesn’t mean I have to dislike progressive forms of Judaism that are popping up all over Europe. Sure, it’s something I’m more familiar to from home, but it’s also so different in the way that European Jews have made it their own. There are places in Europe where Progressive Judaism does not exist – and that is okay. Visiting historic European synagogues is so important and it is very meaningful to see how these synagogues which survived the war looked, learn what they meant to the local communities, and connect to our Jewish roots. But, if experiencing what it means to be a Jew in Europe today is something you are interested in then I would suggest also scouting out those small Jewish minyans, the un-institutionalized Jewish groups, and seeing what a contemporary Jewish European experience, in all its forms, is like.

Madison Jackson is a graduate of Binghamton University where she received a double BA in Judaic Studies and English. She currently works full time as the Jewish Life and Culture Program Associate at the Mandel Jewish Community Center of Cleveland, and writes monthly blog posts for KAHAL Your Jewish Home Abroad.