Monday, July 7, 2014

The Warsaw Ghetto

At the time of the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943 there were officially 30,000 Jews left in the city, and perhaps another 30,000 hiding underground.  Before the war, there had been 380,000, approximately 1/3 of the entire population, making Warsaw the second most Jewish city in the world after New York.  After the German invasion, another 450,000 Jews from all over Poland were crammed into the ghetto.  The vast majority of these 830,000 Jews had been deported and murdered in 1942.  Those remaining were the most able-bodied, used for slave labor, but also most capable of resistance.

Though von Ribbentrop reported to his superiors in Berlin that the ghetto was pacified without a fight, in fact the Germans were only able to quash the resistance by systematically destroying the entire neighborhood, house by house, block by block.  As a result, when the dust had settled, there was nothing left but dust. Not a building was standing.  Shortly after the war ended, a small memorial was dedicated.  Buildings were gradually built along the edges of the ghetto, and then moved inward.  But at the heart, surrounding the memorial, there was nothing. It was a park of sorts, and as a result of the war and the uprising it was also a large unmarked cemetery.

Today, in the middle of this large open space, a beautiful but simple building rises.  It is the home of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews.  The permanent collection will not open officially until October 28, but through the auspices of the Foundation for Polish-Jewish reconciliation, we were privileged to have a private tour with the director and one of the docents.

The building itself was designed by the Finnish architect Mahlamaki who won the job after a competition which included the likes of Daniel Libeskind.  It was the simplicity that swayed the judges.  Mahlamaki i says that the modest but elegant rectangle is like a gift box with a jewel - the collection - in its center.  He did not want his building to draw attention away from the jewel.  In a way, he suggests, it is also like so many of the old European synagogues:  modest on the outside to avoid attention, beautiful and filled with life on the inside.

And this notion of life links to a second important idea:  this is not a Holocaust museum.  Rather, it tells the story of 1000 years of Jewish life in Poland.  To be sure, It covers the Holocaust - how could it not - and in some ways it seems even more tragic set in the context of so much history.  But it also continues after the Holocaust and speaks about the ongoing presence of Jews, and the small but growing rebirth that is taking place at this very moment.  This museum truly will be a jewel, one which will require several visits to take it all in.

While excavating for the foundation many bricks were found, remains of the buildings that stood on this spot prior to 1943.  One of these red bricks, cut in half the long way, now serves as the mezuzah case on the main entrance. When you enter past the mezuzah you step immediately onto a bridge spanning over the exhibition space which is all below ground.  The architect intends it to be a bridge in time linking all the years of past Jewish life, represented in the museum collection, with the many years still to come.  It leads from the door to a full height glass curtain wall through which you can see the park, full of people strolling, playing - living once again.  It is a beautiful and hopeful symbol for what Princess Irina hinted to me at dinner on Monday night: a Poland which we see not just as one huge graveyard filled with the ashes of our people, but rather as a land where the darkness which nearly destroyed us has passed, and where a new chapter in the millennium-old saga of Polish-Jewish life is just beginning. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

After 75 Years, A Bar Mitzvah in Zamosc

The day of the bar mitzvah has finally arrived! At 11:00 a.m. I was the first to arrive at the synagogue, which was not yet open.  I took the opportunity to examine the building, the only Renaissance style synagogue in Poland.  It was originally built to match the architecture of the rest of the town which was laid out and designed by an Italian architect in the 16th century.  Immediately next door is the house in which the great Polish writer I.L. Peretz was born, standing now, appropriately, on Peretz Street.  The lovely synagogue courtyard is surrounded by a wrought iron fence, each section topped with a stylized 7-branch menorah.

In just a few moments the caretaker arrived, carrying the borrowed Torah wrapped in a tallit.  Inside, the simple but beautiful painted-plaster sanctuary was bare, save for rows of folding chairs and a desk which would serve as the lectern.  The niche for the Torah, inset in the wall, was blocked by a very heavy 4-foot tall brass chanukiah which resisted efforts to move it, so we placed the Torah scroll on the desk instead.

The Wisniks had gone out early in the morning to see the house in which Eva's father and grandparents had lived.  While I awaited their arrival, we set up the room, placing copies of the service I had compiled (in Hebrew, transliteration in English and Polish, as well as translation into English and Polish) on each of the seats, rolling the Torah, tuning the guitar, etc.  Despite the unusual setting, much of the preparation was very like what I would do in Tarrytown.  And as at home, while I prepared, the guests trickled in.

The diversity of the attendees was wonderful.  First to arrive were staff of the Forum for Dialogue Among the Nations, the Polish organization which has helped make all of the arrangements. They left Warsaw at 6:00 a.m. to be in Zamosc by noon.  The Forum is leading the movement for Polish-Jewish reconciliation.  More about their important work another time.  One of their partners is the American Jewish Committee, whose American summer intern in Poland also attended the service.

The next group were the students and teachers from Zamosc and a nearby town who are part of the School for Dialogue a program of the Forum in which they study the Jewish history of their communities (partly using a website called Virtual Shtetl). Later in the day they gave us a tour of Jewish Zamosc based on what they have learned.  For most of them today was the first time they had ever met a Jew, to say nothing of attending a bar mitzvah!  They were very nervous about saying or doing something wrong during the service, and were relieved when I told them that the only thing that would upset anyone is if they didn't help us celebrate this joyous occasion.

The deputy mayor of Zamosc was there with some other officials.  Four American Jews who happened to be passing by came in and stayed (giving us a minyan).  Perhaps most touching, two elderly Jews who spoke almost no English had heard about the ceremony the night before on the radio in Lublin, 1 1/2 hours to the northeast.  They were so excited that they drove down to be part of the event.  And they brought a bar mitzvah gift!  Afterwards they asked us to pose with them for pictures so they could remember the moment, and kept thanking us for being here.  In total, perhaps 70 or so guests attended.

And then there was the media.  Only one reporter was invited: Don Snyder, who was for twenty plus years the producer of NBC's the Today Show made the trip with his wife and a photographer from Greenwich, Connecticut, covering the bar mitzvah for the Hearst papers.  But we were surprised at the amount of local media who turned up: two TV stations each with reporter and camera man, several radio stations and newspapers, also with reporters and photographers.  The pre-bar mitzvah photo op was nothing like what happens on Shabbat morning at Temple Beth Abraham!  I have never been the target of paparazzi, but I now have a small sense of what it's like to face a wall of cameras. We all did interviews with several different journalists, I showed them the Torah scroll and explained how it's made and what it contains, and they remained a somewhat intrusive presence throughout the service. This was one of the revelations of this trip: Poles really are interested in and happy about renewed Jewish life here.

When we finally got everyone in place, we were only about fifteen minutes late.  The ceremony itself was beautiful (IMHO!), very similar in style to what we do back at TBA.   I explained, with the help of a translator, what was about to happen and asked everyone to participate as best they could. We sang, and thanks to great acoustics and our four newly-recruited American Jews, the music filled the room.  Jake led almost all of the service and his parents spoke movingly to him.  Of course Jake read from the Torah.  The portion was the story of King Balak, who, frightened of the oncoming Israelites, asked the prophet Balaam to curse them so that he and his army could destroy them.  In his d'var Torah Jake taught that this was but one example of the many times in history that people have tried to destroy the Jews, the most recent of which largely took place right here in Poland.  Thank God, he said, no one has ever succeeded.  And now, Jake continued, his bar mitzvah in Zamosc and the presence of so many Poles at the ceremony symbolizes a small step in the rebirth of this 1000 year old Jewish community.  His words were greeted with applause and copious tears.

Thinking later about Jake's words, I was struck by the serendipity of this ceremony taking place in a  Renaissance (French for "rebirth") style synagogue in the center of a Renaissance style town.  The Renaissance marked the slow emergence of Europe from the darkness, ignorance and brutality of the previous age.  The founder of Zamosc, Jan Zamoyski embraced that ideology, envisioning and creating a diverse, international community, in which Poles, Armenians, Greeks, Hungarians, Germans, Scots, and Jews lived and worked side by side.  It is an inspiring model for what all those involved in today's bar mitzvah celebration hope will bloom again in Poland.

Every bar or bat mitzvah ceremony is joyous.   But this morning the room was overflowing with feelings in a way I rarely experience.  Joy, absolutely.  A sense of being part of an historic moment, yes.  And also sadness at what was lost here.  Wistfulness for what might have been if not for that loss.  Hope for what might yet be.  And for me, an overwhelming sense of gratitude: to Jake and his family for their vision; to the many diverse individuals who felt so strongly, each for their own reasons, that they simply had to be here, in this place, at this moment; to the many Poles - a few Jewish but mostly not - who worked so hard for more than a year to bring us all together; and finally to God, shehecheyanu v'kiyamanu v'higiyanu lazman hazeh: who gave us life, sustained us and allowed us to reach this moment.  May it be only the first of many more like it.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014


What a remarkable piece of serendipity!  Read on for another beautiful example of this being a very small Jewish world.  As Bob Wisnik said to me, if we had arrived ten minutes earlier or later none of this would have happened.

This morning we headed north from Bialystok to Tykocin, a small village dating back to the Middle Ages.  In 1543, under King Zygmunt II, Jews began to arrive.  They quickly became a large community whose presence defined Tykocin's character for the next four centuries.  In 1642 they built a magnificent wooden synagogue with a large central bima, The entire interior was beautifully painted.  Remarkably, it survived WW II, and is today considered the best preserved synagogue in all of Poland.

Pulling up to the synagogue, we came upon a large group of teen-age girls all wearing skirts, a few older women and a few men wearing kippot.  One of the men was explaining to the girls in Hebrew where they were, and that they would go inside and sing some songs.  We started to join them and were stopped by their Polish security guard, who said we would have to wait until the group left.  I approached one of the group leaders, and spoke to him in Hebrew, explaining who we were.  He asked if we were all Jewish, and I explained about the upcoming bar mitzvah in Zamosc.  Incredibly, they had been in Zamosc yesterday, and they had been told about the bar mitzvah.  They could hardly believe it was us!  Of course, they invited us to come in with them.

It turns out that the girls were all from one high school in the West Bank.  They had just graduated and were on a one-week heritage tour in Poland with their teachers before starting national service.  The girls themselves were from all over Israel, and, just like the three boys who were just tragically killed, they commuted from their communities to the school.  In fact, one of the teachers is a neighbor of the family of one of the poor young men.

Once inside the synagogue, the girls made a large circle around the central bima, linked arms and began to sing.  The four male teachers went up on the bima, and invited me to join them.  We put our hands on each other's shoulders and began to dance.  I called Jake to join us as well.  After several songs, one teacher explained to the girls that Jake had decided that rather than have a ceremony in New York, he had opted to become a bar mitzvah at his grandfather's synagogue in Zamosc.  They applauded and cheered.  Then he did a mi shebeirach for the bar mitzvah boy, and the girls threw chocolate gelt which they had quietly distributed during the singing!  Finally, they broke out in a rousing chorus of Siman Tov u'Mazal Tov, as the entire Wisnik family did the hora together on the bima.  The spontaneous joy that filled the room was simply overwhelming.  Tears flowed freely.

It's hard to describe the other emotions of the moment.  Here we were, Jews from New York and Israel in a glorious 375 year-old synagogue, the most beautiful building in Tykocin, singing and celebrating a life-cycle event that must have happened hundreds of times over the centuries on this very spot.  But if not for us, and other tourists who come here, there would be no Jews at all in Tykocin.  The community that lived here for half a millennium was wiped out in one day, August 25, 1941, when the Germans marched the town's 2000 Jews into the forest, shot them and buried them in mass graves.

The building survived, but the people who filled it with life did not.  This morning I was torn between grief for the past and joy in the moment.  Above it all, as I told the students when I thanked them, in spite of what happened here on one day 73 years ago, despite the loss of most of the Jews of Poland and the rest of Europe, our presence here today speaking Hebrew and celebrating reminds us that Am Yisrael Chai - the Jewish people still live.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Beit Polska

Liberal (Reform) Judaism has a long history in Poland.  It began in 1803, just two years after its founding in Germany in 1801.  While the Jews of the shtetls maintained their Orthodox traditions, the urban (and urbane) Jews of Warsaw and Krakow embraced the Enlightenment ideas of Moses Mendelssohn, to be a Jew in the home and a citizen in the street.  Ironically, while many of the upper-class German Jews (Guggenheim, etc.) came to America and made their mark on the Jewish communities, in Poland it was the opposite.  The assimilated Jews stayed and ultimately perished, while the shtetl Jews in the east, torn by Cossack pogroms from Russia, emigrated in large numbers.

Over the past 10 years, Liberal Judaism has been making a comeback, in large part because of WW II and then the communist years.  Families who were able hid their Jewishness during the war, and then continued to do so under Soviet domination.  Now hundreds and perhaps thousands of elderly Poles are sharing their secrets on their death-beds.  Teens and young adults are suddenly discovering that they have Jewish heritage, and a surprising number of them are embracing that heritage.  Jewish studies is a growing college major.  Each year dozens of Poles come to the Jewish community, many seeking formal conversion.  The established Jewish community in Poland is very small - hundreds, perhaps a thousand who affiliate.  The problem is that, by and large, the Orthodox community wants nothing to do with the folks rediscovering their roots.  They generally say something to the effect of "Bring us some paperwork showing your Jewish roots and then we'll talk."  The nascent Liberal community is much more welcoming.

Sponsored by the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), of which our own URJ is a member, 9 liberal synagogues in Poland have come together to form Beit Polska; effectively a Polish URJ.  [Sad to say, even in this tiny community there are politics; the liberal congregation in Krakow refuses to affiliate]  These synagogues are teaching Jews and potential Jews alike about the beauty of Judaism.  The Polish Jewish community, over 1000 years old (!), and so nearly extinguished, is beginning to grow again.  Beit Polska, led by the largest congregation, Beit Warshava, has just published a new siddur, in Hebrew, Polish, and Polish transliteration, the first since WW II.  (The service I created for Jake's bar mitzvah makes use of these translations and transliterations.  I'm indebted to Beit Polska and Rabbi Gil Nativ for sharing them with me.)

On Monday night I had dinner with Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, an American rabbi sent here several years ago by the Reform movement to help with the renaissance.  He is here four months each year, and is one of the driving forces in all areas of liberal Jewish life here.  The diversity of support for the movement is remarkable; one of our dinner companions, and a member of the board of Beit Polska, was Princess Irina who is Austrian, and a gentile, but who loves both Poland and Jews.  Over dinner she urged me to see Poland with open eyes during my stay here.  "There is so much good happening; I think you'll be surprised."

So far, I have been surprised, very pleasantly so.  Apparently the Princess is a regular customer at this restaurant.  As soon as she walked in, the piano player broke into an extended medley of Israeli and klezmer songs, ending with Hatikvah.  I don't know if any of the other patrons recognized the music, but sitting at a restaurant in the middle of Warsaw, hearing the Israeli national anthem brought tears to my eyes.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Surprises Begin at the Airport

Sunday night, at JFK.  Walking toward my gate, I notice several groups of teens.  Looking closer, I see that they're all wearing name tags with the word NFTY on it.  I approach a group sitting together, one boy strumming a guitar.  I introduce myself as a Reform rabbi and former NFTYite, and we strike up a conversation.  Turns out they are part of a NFTY summer experience taking them to Prague, Terezin, Krakow, Auschwitz, Warsaw and Israel.  This is the same North American Federation of Temple Youth that gives all of our b'nei mitzvah kids $250 toward travel.  These 47 kids are all using their gift certificates!   And their chaperone?  Ira Wise, the educator from B'nei Israel in Bridgeport, the congregation which joins TBA on the annual 10th grade trip to Washington.  It's a very small Jewish world!  I'm going to see them for Shabbat in Krakow.
A short time later.  Sitting at the gate, I see another group, all wearing identical T-shirts, saying "RAJE".  Of course I have to ask.  RAJE stands for Russian American Jewish Experience.  A group of 40 teens and young adults whose families are from the FSU are traveling back to Eastern Europe looking for their Jewish roots.  It seems that at least a third of the passengers on this flight are Jewish!  A hundred years ago, Jews were leaving Poland in droves for the "Goldene Medina."  Now they are returning, if only for a visit.  I wonder what my great grandparents, every one a Pole, would think about that?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Why I'm Going to Poland

To be honest, it has not been high on my list of must-see places, even though it’s my entire family’s most recent ancestral homeland.  I always thought that I would get there someday, if only to make what I’ve come to think of as an obligatory pilgrimage to Auschwitz, but I hadn’t imagined it quite this soon. So why am I going? Surprisingly, it’s in order to officiate at and celebrate a bar mitzvah in the town of Zamosc (in eastern Poland, four hours from Krakow and not far from Chelm).
An aside. Two years ago I traveled to Budapest as a member of the UJA Rabbinic Cabinet. I was astounded to see and hear about the renaissance – really, the resurrection – of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. It is happening all over, and it has been going on for some time, but in the past few years it has really gained momentum. Young Poles, Hungarians, and others are discovering that they have hidden Jewish roots, and suddenly, incredibly, this is considered positive, even desirable. Poles who want to be Jews. Absolutely amazing, given the history, and also in light of the recent study of the ongoing prevalence of world-wide anti-Semitism.
Back to the bar mitzvah. The Wisnik family have been TBA members for years. Eva was born in Poland. Her father was just a boy during WWII. He missed his bar mitzvah, but he did survive the Holocaust, and he returned to Poland where he eventually married a Polish woman. In 1968, when there was once again difficulty for the Jews in Poland, the family left, eventually coming to the United States.
Over the years, Eva maintained a connection with Poland, and has been thinking about holding Jake’s bar mitzvah there in her ancestral town. Recently she got connected to the Forum for Dialogue among the Nations, a Polish organization actively promoting Polish-Jewish reconciliation. Both she and Bob traveled to Poland with the Forum, and that group is helping to facilitate our trip this summer. Students in Zamosc have been studying the history of the Jewish community there, and they will be attending the bar mitzvah ceremony. Afterwards, they will lead us on a tour of the Jewish sites about which they’ve been studying.
The ceremony itself is taking place in the old Zamosc synagogue, the one in which Jake’s grandfather should have had his bar mitzvah. It was returned to the Jewish community in 2000, and restored in 2009. As far as we can gather, this will be the first bar mitzvah there since 1939. We will be closing a circle that has been open for 75 years. It promises to be a remarkable journey.