Hillel Makes History in Warsaw, Poland

great-synagogue-warsawBy Rabbi Yossie Goldman

The ‘Blue skyscraper’ on Tlomackie Street is an imposing high rise office building that dominates the skyline of Warsaw, Poland. It was built in 1980 on the ruins of the Great Synagogue of Warsaw, one of the greatest buildings built in Poland in the 19th century and, at the time of its opening, the largest synagogue in the world.

The synagogue was opened on September 26, 1878 on Rosh Hashanah. It was personally blown up by SS-Gruppenführer Jürgen Stroop on May 16th, 1943, which was the last act of destruction of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw by the Nazis.

One hundred thirty eight years after the Jews of Warsaw welcomed their first Rosh Hashanah in the Great Synagogue, and 73 years after the synagogue was destroyed, the prayer Avinu Malkenu was once again heard on Tiomackie Street. It is here, on the ground floor of the Blue skyscraper, that Hillel Warsaw opened its doors for Jewish students and young adults to bring in the New Year together.

Founded in 1923, Hillel has been enriching the lives of Jewish students and young adults for more than 90 years. Today, Hillel is present on more than 550 colleges and universities in North America, and in 34 cities in 15 countries throughout the world.

On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, building on the groundbreaking work done over the past 25+ years by Polish Jewish student and youth organizations, PUSZ and ZOOM, Hillel Warsaw for the first time invited students and young adults for their Rosh Hashanah programing and to experience a service that was specifically created for them. The chanting and readings were led by students who were trained by Hillel International staff using a creative Machzor that included the traditional prayers, stories and songs. Following Rosh Hashanah, Hillel organized a boat ride down the Vistula River for Jewish young adults to do Tashlich and learn with Jewish scholars about Torah teachings on environmentalism.

It was an uplifting experience for all, and especially for the many participants who were celebrating Rosh Hashanah for the first time ever.

Poland’s Jewish history is a tortured one. In 1939 there were 3.5 million Jews in Poland. Five years later, ninety percent of them were murdered. Most of the survivors who returned to Poland were afraid to reveal to their children and grandchildren that they are Jewish. Only recently have many of these young people discovered their Jewish roots. Now they are eager to reconnect with their people and heritage. Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the chief Rabbi of Poland said “Hillel is central to the rebirth of Jewish life in Poland and to its future.”

Last April, the Hillel International delegation led by President and CEO Eric D. Fingerhut and Sidney Pertnoy, previous chair of the Hillel International board of directors, joined with local dignitaries and Jewish leaders to dedicate our new Hillel center in Warsaw. It is led by a dynamic local young person, Magda Dorosz, and funded by an anonymous New York philanthropist and the Taube and Koret Foundations. Now, as Hillel Warsaw continues to flourish, we are making plans to support our work in a second city in Poland, Krakow.

Where the Great Synagogue of Warsaw once stood, young people once again prayed and celebrated the Jewish New Year. It was with pride and thanksgiving that they concluded the service with the words of Hatikva and Am Yisrael Chai!

Rabbi Yossie Goldman is Hillel International director of global expansion.