By: Courtney Cardin, Bradley Caro Cook, Magda Dorosz, Eyal Halamish, Yona Abeddour, Sam Heller, Sandra Jerusalmi, Michal Kabatznik, Meggan Levene, Shimon G. Levy, Nicolas Nemni, and Vital Zinger
In July 2019, a delegation of Schusterman ROI community members embarked upon a Journey through Poland. This is what we want the world to know.
There is, perhaps, no greater example of resilient diaspora Jewish life than Polish Jewry. For centuries, Poland was a battleground where forces from the east and west would clash in their quest for power and domination. For centuries, Polish lands were carved up and divided amongst the most powerful forces in the east and west. Both Jewish and non-Jewish Poles were caught in the middle of the key battleground of Europe for centuries, with little opportunity to define their own narrative. Yet, Poland, and Jewish life in Poland endured.
Today, Poland is a beacon for Jewish life and renewal. As Jewish institutions in North America, and around the world, struggle to engage the next generation of Jews, Polish Jewry is experiencing a resurgence and unparalleled growth among millennial Europeans who are redefining what it means to be Jewish in 21st century Europe.
Meeting the Polish Jewish community of today completely shifted my perspective on Poland. Meeting individuals and getting to know Jewish communal organizations that are active today showed that life survives – Jewish life survives. There seems to be an inexplicable pull towards Judaism, which draws people in, and makes them want to learn more about the heritage and culture. I now feel it is my responsibility to help share the message of the Polish Jewish community. Poland is not the ‘graveyard of the Jews,’ but rather a vibrant and growing Jewish community that just wants to be connected to us – the greater Jewish world.
The history of Jews in Poland is long, winding, and enduring. Rather than question the logic of those (re)building Jewish life in Poland, Jewish communities around the world should all take a step back and learn about all of the innovative, inclusive ways Polish Jews are building a new, modern, vibrant Jewish life in Europe. There is much that Jewish communities around the world can learn from the communities in Krakow and Warsaw. Their successful efforts to make Judaism and Jewish life accessible to the next generation of Jews and the wider community, both Jewish and non-Jewish alike, is second to none.
8 Things to Know About Polish Jewry
1. Jews have lived in Poland for over 1,000 years.
“Polish Jewry is alive, after 1,000 years in the state, and 30 years reliving. Polish Jewish history is more than the Shoah and is worth knowing and experiencing.”
Jews have resided in Poland for over 1,000 years. The Shoah occurred during six of those years, from 1939-1945. Please, don’t ask us “how do we dare go on living in Poland.” Our families were here for over a millennium – centuries of generations of Jewish families lived and thrived in Poland. Poland is our home; it’s where we grew up and have our roots. Poland is home.
2. Jewish life was silenced until 1989.
The rebirth of Polish Jewish life really only began to take shape 30 years ago with the fall of Communism. World Jewry often sees the end of the Shoah and the establishment of the state of Israel as a time when Jews of the world were finally free to openly practice Judaism. Yet, this was a privilege that was not afforded to the Jews of Poland.
After the end of World War II, Poland was still under communist rule; it was illegal to practice religion. Only after the fall of communism, Polish Jews were able to explore and investigate pre-war, war, and post-wartime family experiences, which allowed Polish people to start looking into their Jewish roots and bringing Jewish life back.
“Having dinners and meeting local Jews at the JCCs in Warsaw and Krakow changed my perspective on Jewish life in Poland. They have social clubs for all types, from the card club for Holocaust survivors, to meetings for students and young professionals, organized by Hillel.”
3. Every year, hundreds of Polish people discover someone in their family was Jewish.
About 70% of students, who come to the Hillel in Poland, grew up not knowing about their Jewish roots. That creates a unique challenge for us working to cultivate Jewish identity and life in Poland. We are responsible for teaching young Poles, who are discovering their Jewish roots, every single thing about Jewish life. It is up to us to make Jewish life accessible for the daily lives of young Poles. We create programming and events to show that practicing Judaism can be very up-to-date and adopted as part of their daily lives. We are helping them recreate what was forbidden for their grandparents, and unknown or inaccessible to their parents.
4. Poland is NOT defined by rampant anti–Semitism.
Before participating in the Schusterman ROI delegation, many of us had concerns that anti-Semitism would be thick and apparent. That is not the case. There is a fine balance that is being struck by both the current nationalist government and societal sub layers carrying age old preconceived notions about Jews. It is countered daily by activists across the spectrum that present a more unified, inclusive and educational front. This balance is an ongoing work in progress.
5. Jewish leaders in Poland are pushing for cultural and social change.
The Jewish community is building bridges and strengthening relationships between Jews and non-Jews in Poland. They are supporting progressive activism, marching for LGBTQ rights, and standing in solidarity with other marginalized communities. They are working with the non-Jewish community to support the biggest Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow organized by non-Jews and also organizing FestivALT – the alternative festival that celebrates the exploration of Jewish identity in modern Poland through art and culture.
Learning about the history of the Shoah is essential and is part of Jewish identity. However, it means nothing without the context of current Jewish life – wherever it exists in the world. We need to look back to learn from the past, but we should not look at the decimation of Jewish communities without also examining what the descendants of those communities are doing today to share their Jewish life and strengthen Jewish values. We must remember that our story, the history and the future of the Jewish people, is still being written.
6. Poland has a dedicated & inclusive Chief Rabbi.
Rabbi Michael Schudrich is dedicated to the entire multi-faceted Jewish community of Poland. For the past 27 years he has served Poland’s Jewish community and has served as chief rabbi for the past 15 years. As an Orthodox Rabbi it is remarkable that his progressive outreach and inclusive efforts resonate with the varied “Jewishness” standards. When he spoke, he beamed with pride about the social justice leaders in his community and the community’s success in supporting and nurturing the next generation of actively engaged Jews.
7. Due diligence in philanthropy.
With the tragedy of the Holocaust, there is much to fund support from cemeteries, to museums, survivors, to the resurgence of Jewish life. Unfortunately, there are those that take advantage of this opportunity successfully soliciting diaspora foundations and funders, and the funds don’t reach the beneficiaries. While there are numerous philanthropic opportunities in Poland, it is advisable to ensure the cause is vetted by the Chief Rabbi of Poland.
8. Poland is surprisingly accessible.
Vital Zinger, a member of the ROI community and disability advocate rolled through the streets of Poland on her wheelchair. She found that while typically historic cities are challenging to navigate due to cobblestone streets, wheelchair users in Poland can still enjoy the cities thanks to alternative accessible walking routes and accessible public transportation. Moreover, she found that the Poles have high awareness and willingness to help even when physical accessibility is lacking. This made traveling much more pleasant and easy, It also is a positive sign that physical accessibility will continue to improve into the future.
Part of advocating for change is both making change, but also embracing experiences that change us, and then being a social amplifier of awareness to repair the world.
As such, members of the ROI Community and our delegation to Poland has already seeded three action initiatives.
- A forthcoming social media awareness campaign sharing the stories of a thriving Jewish Poland.
- A global Mimouna initiative that came into fruition in Poland to show the diversity of Jews, rich cultural heritage and coexistence between Muslims and Jews
- Planning a ROI return to Poland in 2021 to attend the Festival/FestivALT and a Ride for the Living team.
Visit Poland and explore the past, and meet local Jews – it is important to see sights but as important is meeting a local person who lives that history. We left with more questions than answers and a clearer sense of what Poland is, was and will be. The future is bright!
Yona Abeddour is a doctoral student at Ben Gurion University in Beersheva and Sciences Po Bordeaux. His research examines the mechanisms of identity formation among Moroccan Jewish families in France and Israel.
Courtney Cardin is an attorney and progressive advocate working at the intersection of law, policy, politics, and finance to build a more inclusive, holistic economic ecosystem. Courtney works with impact investors, fund managers, and social enterprises to design, implement, and assess impact measurement frameworks, policy campaigns, and strategic plans for investing in solutions to complex economic, environmental, and social challenges.
Bradley Caro Cook, Ed.D.has a 20 year history of developing and implementing cross-sector simple-solutions to complex social problems. He is the CEO of Growth Exponential which is pioneering growth-hacking methodologies for Jewish engagement, co-founder of Career Up Now, and the director of the City of Beverly Hills’ Entrepreneurship Incubator and coding bootcamp.
Magda Dorosz is the Executive Director of Hillel Warsaw and works with students and young professionals in Poland to introduce them to Jewish culture, tradition and religion. She is building a community of Jewishly engaged young adults.
Eyal Halamish is an entrepreneur, activist and executive leadership coach raised living in Melbourne, Australia. Eyal has built and worked with a number of businesses which sit at the intersection of government, technology and policy. He has worked with entrepreneurs across the US, UK, Australia and SE Asia to take their businesses from startup to investment.
Sam Heller organizes hearing missions for orphans and impoverished children in Baja and in Israel. In recent years, he participated as a NewGround cohort working to advocate Muslim/Jewish coexistence and is involved with JNFuture. He is a media relations professional graduating from UCLA with a degree in history.
Sandra Jerusalmi is a Jewish activist based in France. She works for the Alliance Israelite universelle as coordinator of Jewish studies programs, and is a Moishe House resident in Paris.
Michal Kabatznik is a Tel Aviv-based social entrepreneur with a passion for creating lasting social change. Her company Milestone Labs focuses on social innovation with sustainable impact and creating scalable solutions to the world’s unmet needs.
Meggan Levene is an elected official in Massachusetts. She is a descendant of a family that traces its routes to South Eastern Poland (formerly Galicia). Meggan is the first member of her immediate family to return to Poland.
Captain (Res.) Shimon G. Levy was born and raised in Israel and currently resides in Detroit, MI. Shimon is a serial brick and mortar entrepreneur, with a passion for Israel, global Jewry, building community and big ideas with big impact.
Nicolas Nemni was born and raised in Milano, Italy with an Orthodox education. He studied finance at Bocconi University and George Washington University during which he focused on real estate. He currently works in the Video Game industry, connecting gamers all over the world to transform their passion into a job.
Vital Zinger is a social activist and entrepreneur who advocates for people with disabilities, and a world medalist in Paralympic Latin dance. She is a passionate changemaker and a mentor, and an inspirational public speaker for inclusion,accessibility, self fulfillment and empowerment.
About the Schusterman ROI Community
ROI Community is an international network of over 1,300 Jewish activists, entrepreneurs and innovators in their 20s and 30s who are enhancing Jewish engagement and fostering positive social change globally.