The Importance of Eastern Europe’s Jewish Present

Why We Need to Expose Our Teens to Eastern Europe’s Jewish Present, and Not Just its Jewish Past
by Gavin Beinart-Smollan

David Jacobson’s recent piece Are We Guilty of Gross Prejudice Towards Poland? aptly challenges the negative ways in which the Jewish world views the Polish people. The piece deals primarily with the legacy of Jewish and non-Jewish relations in Poland itself – but what part do we, Western Jewry, play in Jewish life in Eastern Europe today? Are we just as guilty of misreading contemporary Eastern European Jews as we are of hastily judging their non-Jewish counterparts?

Prior to this summer, I had been on two organized tours of Poland: one as a participant and one as a counselor. The first, when I was 18, was as a student in a Bnei Akiva gap year program in Israel. We were accompanied by a professional tour guide, and dealt with the complex issues of faith in the Holocaust, collective memory and contemporary memorialization. We were told again and again throughout our preparation for the trip that one could not begin to understand the Holocaust without first understanding the rich Jewish life and the thousands of years of Jewish heritage that existed before the war. We learned of the Jewish people’s journey from destruction in the European gas chambers to redemption and new beginnings in the State of Israel. When it came to Jewish life after 1945 in Europe itself, however, the image we were given was of one small Orthodox congregation in Warsaw, and three old Jewish men in Krakow barely holding on to the remnants of a once-glorious Polish Judaism. Poland, the trip implied, is the graveyard of the Jewish people: spending money was forbidden and we were discouraged from having any dealings with ordinary Poles. The future of Jewish life, we were told, was in Israel, and perhaps, for a limited time, in our own Diaspora communities. Poland, by contrast, represented the Jewish past.

My second trip was in 2008 as a 20-year-old counselor for March of the Living Australia and New Zealand. The organization and the tour itself were run by a team of highly-trained Jewish educators equipped with graduate degrees in Holocaust and Jewish Studies and informed by the latest research on Polish Jewry. It was an academically rigorous environment in which participants were expected to come with a strong basis of knowledge and were exposed to all the challenging issues of 21st Century Holocaust memorialization. The attitude of MOTL to non-Jewish Poland was entirely different to that of Bnei Akiva: we learned of the Polish government’s support for Israel and of ordinary Poles’ growing interest in the country’s Jewish past. We even had the opportunity to meet a group of non-Jewish students from Jagiellonian University who were part of a Judaic Studies course. Poland is going somewhere, I thought to myself at the time. Poland is making an effort to redeem itself from its dark past.

Non-Jewish Poland, that is. Scant mention was made of the Jews that live in Poland today, and if they existed, we didn’t get to meet any of them, except on a coincidental basis. The MOTL trip didn’t have the same redemptive, Religious Zionist overtones of the Bnei Akiva one, but no mistake could be made: we flew from Poland to an Israel in the midst of Yom HaZikaron and Yom Haatzmaut. We commemorated the brave soldiers of the state, who died not as slaves in a concentration camp but as free men on the battlefield, and we celebrated the rebirth of the Jewish homeland out of the ashes of the Holocaust.

My perception of Eastern European Jewry took a 180-degree turn when I was accepted as a counselor for the Szarvas Fellowships earlier this summer. The Fellowships take a group of American teenagers to Camp Szarvas in Hungary. The camp, founded in 1990 after the fall of Communism, is supported by the JDC and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. It attracts over 1500 participants, the majority of them young Eastern European Jews, to three sessions over the summer.

When I stepped into the dining hall on the first day and was confronted with hundreds of Polish, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, Serbian, Croatian, Albanian (and American and Israeli) Jewish kids singing Hebrew songs at the top of their lungs, dancing to Hava Nagila and chanting Birkat HaMazon in unison, I felt like I had fallen down the rabbit hole. Where were the three old Jewish men of Krakow, the lonely remnant of Eastern European Jewry? Hadn’t everyone else been wiped out or otherwise assimilated into oblivion by 50-odd years of Nazism and Communism?

In the two weeks I was there I didn’t come across my three old men. Instead, I saw Jewish kids, teens and 20-somethings, just like the ones I know from home, celebrate and explore their Jewish identity together, educate and be educated, meet one another and generally have a great time painting, biking, swimming and canoeing like their summer-camping counterparts across the rest of the Jewish world. Szarvas serves as an incubator for Jewish life across the region: people grow up in the camp, moving from campers to counselors to unit heads to leaders in their respective communities, planning and running a whole host of new initiatives to involve young Jews in Jewish life.

As my time at Szarvas progressed, I asked myself over and over again: why had I never heard of this before? Why is the reality of Jewish life in Eastern Europe in 2012 so starkly different to what I had assumed and what I had been taught my whole life? The answer I came up with was simple and yet startling. The Eastern European Jews of today don’t fit nicely into the histories we have constructed for ourselves and for our children. We celebrate our Eastern European past, but only as far as it informs and justifies our Jewish lives in the present. Eastern European Jewry is a closed chapter; Judaism exists today in the ‘new world’ of Israel and the United States. And to the extent that a tour’s educational programming buys into the classic Zionist master narrative, it cannot engage with contemporary Eastern European Jewry. To put it bluntly, how can I make full use of the mass graves and concentration camps to warn my tour participants of the dangers of living in the Diaspora and the necessity of moving to (or at least supporting) the State of Israel if I then bus them over to the local JCC where young, healthy, very much alive Polish Jewish children are learning Bible stories and making Havdalah sets?

Even when we do engage with Eastern European Jewry, we tend to do so through Western eyes. We had organized a panel of the camp’s homegrown leadership to tell our American campers what it was like to grow up Jewish in Eastern Europe. When the kids had dispersed I started a discussion with some of the members of that leadership team on the ways in which we Western Jews view our Eastern brethren. They began to discuss a recent meeting they had participated in with an important Western visitor to the camp. [I am paraphrasing here:] “Did he find your story ‘touching’?”, one jokingly asked the other. “Oh, yes, he was very moved,” the second laughed. “Well, I bet he thought my story was even more ‘touching’ than yours!”, the first replied.

I laughed along with the group, but inside I felt quite embarrassed and a little ashamed. I had arrived in Szarvas fully expecting to be ‘touched’ by the ‘heartwarming’ stories of renewal of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, to hear moving tales of escape from the darkness into the light. I left camp feeling not touched but impressed. Impressed by a group of sophisticated, engaged, Jewishly-literate and knowledgeable community professionals who put on a fantastic two weeks for their campers. The picture I got was of people who were fed up with being portrayed by the rest of the Jewish world as its impoverished and ignorant country cousins. Yes, anti-Semitism is growing across Eastern Europe, and the community struggles with low numbers of consistently engaged Jews as a percentage of the entire local Jewish population. But isn’t anti-Semitism on the rise across the world, and don’t we all struggle to engage young Jews in Jewish activities? We don’t let these challenges hinder our work, and neither should we expect our Eastern European colleagues to do so.

On this level, the American Szarvas Fellowships program is on the cutting edge of East-West interaction. Our campers were treated (and acted) like any other group at Szarvas. We didn’t come to impose our American-style Judaism on anyone; instead, we came to learn about what it’s like to be a Jewish teen in Eastern Europe, and to share our different Judaisms with our Eastern European friends on an equal footing. The sense of achdut and Jewish peoplehood was palpable: it was clear to all the American participants that whether you were born in Boston or Budapest, you felt the same pride in being Jewish and the same sense of connection to the global Jewish people.

The Jewish professional world is starting to plan its tours to Eastern Europe in light of these realities, and the readers of this blog are familiar with the many new Jewish initiatives setting up shop across the region. But this awareness has not trickled down to our teen tours, at least not as a given. Most tours still focus on the Holocaust and Jewish life before the war, but pay little attention to Eastern European Jewry today. I believe that our tours need to give weight to both. On a fundamental level, making this change is about intellectual honesty, and about treating our students and teen participants like the mature young adults that they are. Instead of giving them a narrow, one-sided experience that is highly mediated by our own top-down and ideologically-driven goals, we should expose our teens to the full picture of Eastern European Jewry: both its past and its present. All sides will be enriched by the result.

The opinions expressed above are those of the author alone and do not represent the positions of the Szarvas Fellowships, Szarvas Camp, the JDC or the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation.

Gavin Beinart-Smollan was a counselor for the Szarvas Fellowships at the third session of Szarvas Camp 2012, held in Hungary. He was born in South Africa, grew up in New Zealand, and now lives in Israel. Outside of the Szarvas Fellowships, he has been involved in Bnei Akiva, March of the Living, Limmud NZ and the Zionist Federation of NZ.