In Poland, community carries us through challenging times

Judaism is not a religion and tradition you practice alone. We need a minyan, for instance, for some of the most basic practices of our religion. That requirement of a community to be able to perform certain religious obligations is what strengthens us in both peaceful and challenging times. It is empowering to know that there are others around you who will bring comfort to you.

When we first built Hillel Poland almost eight years ago, we hoped it would be a place to experience Jewish life in all its beauty. We sought to create a place to allow Jewish young adults to discover what their identity meant for them; a place they could ask questions, sometimes find answers and, most of all, meet others on their own self-discovery journeys.  

“It is nice to finally feel you are not the only young Jew,” Ela, a student, shared with me. “At Hillel, I finally felt like an actual part of the community. I really enjoy my time spent there because it allows me to connect deeper not only with the local Jewish community but also with the community in Poland and abroad. Hillel is the place where I found friends who understand me.”

It’s a place I wish I had as I discovered more about my own Jewish identity when I found myself with more questions than answers, and didn’t know whom I could ask.

And it’s a place that has become more important than ever in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war. 

Amid the ensuing rise of global antisemitism, Jewish people around the world are increasingly isolated. Polish Jewish young adults are being singled out in their social groups because of their Jewish identity. Some report losing friends. 

For many young adults in Poland, this is the first time they are personally experiencing antisemitism, online and offline, as they have become the targets of the outpouring of hate towards Jews since the start of the war. 

So, last month, Hillel Poland invited more than 70 Jewish young adults from Poland and Ukraine, accompanied by others currently living in Poland, for a weekend-long Shabbaton and celebration of Jewish life. 

Over the course of the weekend, we came together as a community, prayed for peace and built connections as we learned about our Jewish identities and shared about how the long-reaching impact of the war is affecting our lives in Poland.

When we look at our tradition, we can learn from the teachings in Megillat Esther. When Jews are faced with a crisis and risk being wiped out, Esther tells Mordechai to gather together all the Jews, “Lech kenos et kol haYehudim. Then and today, when we are together, we are stronger.

Image from a recent Hillel Poland gathering. Photo by Magda Dorosz

When we opened our doors in 2016 to bring together, teach and empower young Jews in Poland to dive deeper into their self-discovery journeys and celebrate their Jewish identity, we didn’t anticipate needing to welcome and provide relief for the refugees from war-torn Ukraine who fled to Poland. But that’s what we did. Our community is stronger for it. 

At the time, we thought the war in Ukraine would be the worst crisis we’d have to help our students navigate. Then the unthinkable happened on Oct. 7 as Hamas attacked Israel, killing the most Jews in a single day since the Holocaust.

When there were no words to describe what the Jewish community felt or what we feared, we came together as a community to support each other, lean on one another and be together in our pain and fear. 

Like communities around the world, together we took action by organizing protests and marches in support of Israel and calling for the release of the hostages. The pain of Israel under attack is felt very strongly and tangibly by communities around the world, including throughout the Jewish community of Poland. 

Over the years, Hillel became that place where young Jewish adults come to spend Shabbat dinner with friends they wouldn’t have known otherwise. We gather at one table where people from different walks of life and different levels of Jewish knowledge and observance, yet the feeling of very deep understanding and connection among everyone is always evident. Now, in the wake of Oct. 7, we’re also a place that provides respite amid an increasingly angry and isolating world. 

What gave us strength during this painful time is the tight-knit community that we’ve been continuously strengthening all these years. In times like this, it’s also the efforts to continue to strengthen our communities and provide Jewish students and young adults safe spaces for self-discovery that need support and investment.  

Magda Dorosz is the executive director of Hillel Poland, which serves hundreds of Jewish young adults between the ages of 18 and 30 throughout the country.