The Meaning of Leadership: The Evolution of the Polish Jewish Community

I am on a flight from Warsaw to Israel. I have just participated in a very moving experience and I would like to share some reflections with you about the meaning of leadership in a very “young-old” community. Several months ago I received a request to participate in a seminar to strengthen and further develop the evolving paid and volunteer leadership in the Polish Jewish community. You might be asking yourself, “Are there Jews in Poland?” or “Are there Jewish communities in Poland?” or “What Jew would live in Poland today?” Well I have to tell you Jewish life not only exists in Poland but there are people committed to the furtherance and strengthening of the Jewish community.

More than 15 people arrived from several communities throughout Poland, including Warsaw and Krakow, for an intensive day and a half of presentations, workshops, and discussions. These focused on the concepts of Jewish community and leadership, and it included studying relevant Jewish texts and deepening their understanding of how to develop and build their communities. The participants were interested in learning more about Jewish concepts of leadership and community and expanding their understanding of the implications for their work in their local communities.

So who are these community leaders that are so committed and devoted to renewing and rebuilding what was once the largest Jewish community in Europe. On the eve of World War II there were 3 million Jews in Poland and there was a richness and vitality to community life until its destruction during the Shoa. During the last twenty years people have learned more about their Jewishness and others have been drawn to learn more about Judaism. At the same time, Jews from other countries have identified with the resurgence of Jewish life in Poland and have immigrated to the country to be part of this unique renaissance in the Jewish community.

I would like to tell you about a few of the participants to provide you with a few examples of the new emerging leaders in the Jewish community. One young woman, Miriam, was not sure about her Jewish roots and even though she had a sense from her family that they were Jewish she had no way to prove it. As a result she had to participate in a formal conversion process and she agreed to participate in classes as well as tutorial learning. During the process she decided to become an observant Jewess and she met a young man who was also finding his way back to Judaism after having grown up in a family that had no particular ties to Judaism or the Jewish community. Together they are raising their children with a strong sense of Jewish identity and are active members of the community. They have developed close friendships with observant Jews in other countries and have been able to spend time in communities that have larger and more developed Jewish institutions. M sees her future in the Polish Jewish community and she works as a volunteer to strengthen the organizations that are so vital for the future she is part of creating for herself and others.

Robert is in his mid-fifties and had a conversation several years ago with his mother who is now in her 80’s. She told him that both she and he are Jewish. The conversation was very difficult for her because after the Shoa she made a promise to herself never to talk about her Jewishness. She felt she could no longer contain herself and as she was approaching the last years of her life she wanted her son to know that he was Jewish. As a result, R decided to retire early and devote himself to learning about Judaism and to contributing to the strengthening of the Jewish community in Poland. He knew he was not alone and today not only is he active, but his adult son has also taken an interest in learning about Judaism and contributing to the community.

One young man, who grew up in Romania, heard about the resurgence of Jewish life in Poland and wanted to join in the efforts. N emigrated from his home country a number of years ago and has been living, working, and volunteering in the community. He has developed an interest in reaching out to other Jewish young adults and now participates in developing programming for the group in his community.

Each of these people did not grow up with a Jewish identity and they have recently discovered their connection to the Jewish people. They decided to pursue learning more about Judaism and to become active in the community. For them Judaism is not only a personal issue but also includes their relationships in the broader community. They enthusiastically accept upon themselves their involvement in the organizations that make up the Polish Jewish community. There is an understanding that they need to be actively involved to insure the community becomes stronger and survives for the next generation.

They were active participants in the seminar with their colleagues. They treasured the opportunity to learn about Jewish texts and to understand more about how they could be effective in assuming leadership roles in building and strengthening their community. As they move forward in the efforts they welcome connection with Jewish communities and leaders from other communities. If you are interested there is a valuable contribution that your community and your leadership could make in forming connections with one of the world’s youngest old communities.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.