Conversations on Jewish Identity: What We Might Learn from Poland

Celebrating Jewish life at a Sukkah, JCC Warsaw.
A Sukkah at the JCC Warsaw, a celebration of Polish Jewish life today

By Rabbi Elyse Winick

A recent trip to Poland, under the auspices of Hillel International and the Taube Foundation, has given substance and texture to questions I have long had about Jewish Identity education. It may even have provided fertile ground for beginning to find the answers.

That most of the Jewish heritage travel to Eastern Europe, and to Poland in particular, has focused on the tragedies of the Shoah is not at all surprising. The Holocaust tore the Jewish community from its mooring, in addition to tearing the fabric of so many individual families and lives. Here in North America we have long been guided by the narrative of that tragedy in the development of post-war educational models. Our quest for continuity, for combatting intermarriage, for staunching the hemorrhage of assimilation, all of these nest in the shadow of what was lost.

At the same time, despite our intensive and extensive efforts to the contrary, affiliation drops, intermarriage rises and the interest in community frays. Our institutions have grown weaker and it is increasingly difficult to know whether their diminished relevance lies in a failure to change with the times or a reduction in the population which desires to be served.

Enter Poland. There, growing from the venerated rubble, a new Jewish community arises. At Shabbat lunch at the JCC of Krakow, three young Poles described discovering their Jewish roots and their subsequent quests for transformation. One young woman, a PhD student at Jagellonian University (she is writing her thesis on the image of Adolf Hitler in pop culture), turned to me on her departure. “Thank you for not asking me any questions about the Holocaust,” she said. “Usually it’s the second thing people ask about. But my life as a Jew isn’t defined by the Holocaust.”

The Jewish community in Poland is small. Or perhaps better stated, the identified Jewish community is small. Prior to World War II, 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland. Today that number is reduced to tens of thousands, some of whom don’t even know the past and the heritage which has been hidden from them. It would be difficult to describe this community without referencing the Holocaust – but describing and defining are two different things. Jews lived in Poland for 800 culturally rich and thriving years before the Shoah. To focus exclusively on their destruction in building identity is to ignore the inherent value of those 800 years. We mourn what is lost, without question, but the content and the substance of what was lost is at least as important as the loss itself.

Today Polish Jews celebrate the community they are creating with the glow of those 800 years as a backdrop. There is no hiding from the Holocaust or denying its importance – but it is woven into the fabric of community, rather than throbbing from its center.

Might we have erred? Could it be that the framing of Jewish identity in the shadow of the Holocaust for 70 years has resulted in the loss of the very Jews we tried to retain by telling them that it was their responsibility to remain engaged because of the 6 million who perished?

Standing at the Umschlagplatz, the deportation point for the Warsaw Ghetto, we listened to an Israeli guide hammer into his charges the need to pick up the mantle left behind by every deportee. I wondered: “If I were 15, would that make me feel like my Judaism only existed for someone else’s sake, not for mine?”

We must teach about the Holocaust. We must give life to the memories of those who have perished. We must face the reality of the devastation, in Poland and elsewhere. And we must celebrate more than just the fact that Judaism has survived. To celebrate survival defines your identity by loss. We must celebrate Jewish life and practice because it is elevating, transformative and filled with joy.

An identity based on joy, rather than guilt. That strikes me as a magnetic formula for a rich, vibrant and growing Jewish community.

Rabbi Elyse Winick is Jewish Chaplain at Brandeis University.