Jewish Community Building in Warsaw of 5778


[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 20“The JCCs as Gateways to Jewish Peoplehood” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Agata Rakowiecka

Jews and Poland – the two words connect in various contexts, but usually carry the complexity of history and today’s historical narratives. These two words in one sentence still bring the associations of the past, heritage, antisemitism, antipolonism, Holocaust or difficult dialogue.

There is, however, Jewish life reemerging from this body after decades of being in a coma. Without denying the complex past or the problems of contradicting historical narratives. Without forgetting but also without pretending we can continue what was lost. We, the Jews of Poland are redefining what it means to be Jewish in our homeland, which used to be diverse for centuries and now has an unnaturally small number of minorities. We are rethinking ourselves in the new reality, in a country, where Jews decide to consciously join the J club. After being deprived from our right to be Jewish, not because of the assimilation, but because of fear and terror, today’s Jews of Poland are reclaiming their right to express Jewishly and to be part of the Jewish peoplehood. Without family continuity, often without the basic knowledge of Jewish traditions taken from home, there is a growing Jewish community.

Warsaw, which has the biggest Jewish population in the country, had to wait until 2013 for its JCC to be open, as an initiative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Taube Family Foundation. The Jewish Community Center of Warsaw, which first operated “without walls” and later moved to its premises in the city center. This was a long-awaited platform of dialogue for different groups in Jewish Warsaw, most of which emerged and started forming during the two decades since the fall of Communism in 1989. It also became a place for those who are looking for a Jewish space, which would not require a particularly defined way of being Jewish. It is an open, diverse and friendly institution, in which the journey of looking for one’s identity and relevant connections to the wider Jewish world are respected and not imposed. The JCC operates in a reality of different synagogues and religious congregations, and formal Jewish education institutions. Included are also communal organizations that legally and politically represent the Community as well as multiple organizations that deal with commemorations, history and Jewish heritage. This reality allows our JCC to fill the blank spaces, to deal with the everyday life and interests of the local Jews, to attract the unaffiliated and to experiment. This rich context gives us the luxury of informality and flexibility. It allows the openness to the voices of the community, to its changing needs and its specific character.

Diversity is the beauty of the Jewish world. Instead of a common narrative, there is a constant disagreement. In Warsaw, very much a part of this divided world, the JCC has taken a role of finding the common ground, of building bridges, of connecting. To show the variety of options and always leave the pages to be filled by those whom are not yet taken into consideration or represented. The mission of each JCC in the world should be reflecting the needs of the community it serves. As each community has its own specifics, there are certain differences among different JCCs, which brings us back to the diversity as a value in the Jewish world as a whole.

As Jewish educators, Jewish professionals and Jewish leaders sometimes we see our role as shapers of the reality. We think that we have a power over our students and communities and should use this power to fulfill a bigger mission of including them into a wider, defined system. I like to think about my own and my staff’s role from a different angle. We are serving the Community. We create and provide channels for the community to speak. This is the only way we can truly belong to the community and strengthen it. Instead of building concepts for the reality we focus on examining it.

Interfaith families are a big part of our community. Instead of thinking whether interfaith is a threat or a chance – let’s just accept it as the reality. As long as there are Jews who want to cultivate their Jewish identity and include their family regardless of their roots – it strengthens Jewish communities. Let’s focus on today – on what we can influence. We can choose whether to include those who are willing to give themselves to the community and discuss the implications of that decision. The alternative is to be stuck in a utopian illusion that there is a magic solution and one way to define and “save“ the Jewish genes.

In the age of a global crisis of Jewish identity, when the young Jewish generation in America is losing its ties to the community, when the question of being Jewish as an Israeli is challenging more than ever – building Jewish identity based on authentic, positive, genuine grounds is the only survival strategy. The diverse ideas for community building, which reflect the differences between Jews, are in fact all nurturing the general Jewish peoplehood. “Jewish peoplehood” is as difficult to define as a “Jew.” But it definitely is not a monolith, but rather all of us feeling that we are part of it in different ways and through different approaches. Not necessarily agreeing with each other.

Having different concepts on what and who we are. But even without the “one voice” we are on the move. We change, which is synonymous to being alive, and this way we promise a future for the next generations.

Agata Rakowiecka is the CEO of the Warsaw JCC. She studied Polish Philology and Speech Language Therapy at the University of Warsaw and graduated from the Melton Program at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.