Why Poland?

Romi, far right, at a cooking workshop at the JCC Warsaw. Photo courtesy JDC.

By Romi Rutovitz

I moved to Warsaw in November, and since then the most common question that has been asked of me is why Poland? How did you end up here – where Jewish life was almost decimated under the Nazis and the Communists – comes quickly afterwards.

My first visit to Poland was ten years ago on March of the Living.

Since then, like many other Diaspora Jews around the world, I have maintained an interest in the Holocaust – visiting concentration and death camps around Europe during other visits to the continent, completing a course in Genocide Studies at university and continuing to read, watch, and learn about the Holocaust whenever I can.

I have always felt however, that one of the most important aspects of being Jewish is not to define ourselves by the Holocaust – but rather what we have done as a people after it.

It was fortuitous then that this past November I commenced working at JCC Warszawa as part of my fellowship with the JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC). JSC is a year-long opportunity for Jewish young professionals to volunteer overseas with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the global Jewish humanitarian organisation.

Along with others from my cohort, we’re helping respond to international Jewish and humanitarian challenges around the world. During the interview process for this fellowship the suggestion of Poland came up early in the conversation. What would I think of going to Poland? Do I have any family connection to the country? What do I know of Polish Jewish community today?

For me, growing up being Jewish in Australia was easy. I went to a Jewish day school from pre-school through to Year 12, played sport for Maccabi, had kosher restaurants to eat at, supermarkets that sell kosher food, and a synagogue and school a ten-minute walk from my house (even if I tried to get out of walking whenever I could).

The picture could not be more different growing up in modern Poland. Before WWII, a third of the residents of Warsaw were Jewish. It had been one of the epicentres of Jewish life before 1939, and just like the city itself, the surviving (or remaining) community was in ruins after the war. This was followed by 50 years of Communist oppression.

But being in Warsaw (and Poland) in 2017 is exciting. I am a part of a community where every day something new is happening. People welcome you into their lives and are excited to learn about their Jewish identity. I have a front-row seat to a community choosing to take part in Jewish life, rebuild and grow their community.

In the almost 4 years JCC Warszawa has existed – and an additional year as a JCC (Jewish community centre) without walls – JCC Warszawa has built up a calendar of programs that touch approximately 1,000 people – both Jews and non-Jews. It reflects the tastes of local Jews, meeting them where they are in their Jewish journey, and was created by JDC with the investment of longtime players in the reestablishment of Jewish life in Poland: the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture, the Koret Foundation, and the Kronhill Pletka Foundation.

Many people who have learned about their Jewish roots may never consider joining and getting involved in a Jewish community centre, but through programming for both Jewish and intermarried families, and by providing an open and inclusive atmosphere, JCC Warszawa has created a space that is welcoming. Community members and visitors can find their place within the walls through activities relevant to the whole family, such as parenting classes, kids clubs, family camps and Jewish academic discussions.

This year is a year of firsts and new experiences for me – here is another one to add to the list. This (European) summer I’ll be joining JCC Krakow and visitors from around the world taking part in the Ride for the Living. We will be cycling 90km from Auschwitz-Birkenau to Krakow to celebrate the rebirth of Jewish life in Poland.

This country – this community – is very different to the one I saw when I first visited a decade ago.

So now when you ask, why Poland? I think this place speaks for itself.

Romi Rutovitz is the JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow in Warsaw.