Wroclaw, Poland — The American-born chief rabbi of Lower Silesia stood at the head table of the community seders in the historic White Stork Synagogue here last week and witnessed, in a single glance, the changes in the last 25 years of post-communist Polish Jewish life.
Rabbi Tyson Herberger, 35 a native of North Carolina with stops in Michigan, Norway, Australia, Israel and the Greater New York area (some time with relatives on Long Island and in the Bronx), led one of the tables at the communal seder that drew some 170 people. An American volunteer led another table; a young, Modern Orthodox couple from Jerusalem, sent by the World Zionist Organization, led a third.
At the head of the other three tables were members of the Wroclaw Jewish community.
Twenty-five years ago, when Communism fell, ending the country’s ban on open religious education, it was unthinkable that more than a handful of Polish Jews would be able to conduct their own seders, let alone show others how to.
“This is a miracle,” says Jerzy Kichler, a longtime resident of this city on the Oder River in the southwest corner of Poland and a veteran community activist.
Kichler, a retired engineer who supplements his income by teaching Jewish studies courses here, said the composition of the seder evening’s crowd reflected another change in Polish Jewry. In the seats was a mixture of age groups, including many families with young children. Registration picked up in the final days before yom tov, necessitating the addition of extra tables.
In the early 1990s, when the first communal seders were offered, most of the people who came were aging Holocaust survivors, Kichler said. In recent years, as a growing number of Poles continue to discover their “Jewish roots” and affiliate with the Jewish community. More young couples show up at community events.
They’re no longer afraid to publicly identify themselves as Jewish.
In Poland and other former Eastern Bloc countries, the seder is annually one of the most popular Jewish activities, a chance to do something Jewish, learn a little about Judaism and get together with other scattered members of the community.
One other sign of change at the seders: the cuisine was dairy. The entrees were fish, potatoes and a selection of salads.
Because of uncertainty caused by the last year’s court challenge to the legality of animal slaughter done according to the Jewish and Islamic traditions, the Wroclaw community decided to switch its kitchens to dairy, all kosher under the supervision of Rabbi Herberger.
Twenty-five years ago, few Polish Jews cared about a kosher diet.
Now, Kichler said, “people care” about Jewish traditions and “they learn.” Some 20,000 Jews lived here a century ago, the same number as in the early 1930s.
Wroclaw (pronounced VRAHTSwahv) — known as Breslau while it was part of Germany until 1945 — was an early home of the Reform movement and the site of a long-gone rabbinical seminary. It has one of Poland’s largest Jewish communities.
In a working-class city of 500,000, the official number of affiliated Jews is about 300, but members of the community say it may be 1,000 or higher. The number has remained constant in the last two decades; as more Jews discover their Jewish background and begin to attend Jewish events, an equal number leave for Israel or other places in the West, some seeking a larger community.
In Poland, and in other once-communist countries in Eastern and Central Europe, there is no official census or estimate of the size of a Jewish community.
At the seders here last week were the standard crowd of any large Jewish community event in Poland — some seniors, some young people who did not know until a few years ago that they were Jewish or had Jewish relatives and some secular ones. There were also some Millennials who have recently begun to observe halacha and formally converted to Judaism, some people who consider themselves Jewish but do not conform to the qualifications of Jewish law, as well as some people who probably are Jewish but do not know it, and some Righteous Gentiles or descendants of local non-Jews who risked their lives to rescue Jews during World War II.
The Magdas and Doratas, Piotrs and Zbigbiews came in a mixture of jeans and more formal wear. Some actively participated in the singing and readings, some mostly shmoozed with friends.
As in most Polish communities, few Jews feel comfortable leading their own seders at home.
Outside the synagogue, on a chilly, cloudy night, on a cobblestone courtyard from which the city’s Jews were deported to death camps in 1941-45, a few Poles sat under the branches of a large chestnut tree on the seder nights at the alfresco tables of the Mleczarnia restaurant. Some attendees of the seders ate there afterwards, assuring the bypassing rabbi that they were ordering only “kosher drinks.”
The Jewish community of Wroclaw is mostly the descendants of Polish Jews from elsewhere in the country who were resettled here en masse by Polish authorities after World War II. There are virtually no Jews with pre-war roots in Germany here.
The newcomers, some 20,000 in the last 1940s, replaced the 100,000 Germans who were displaced as part of he Potsdam Conference. After the 1946 pogroms in Kielce and other Polish cities and the establishment of Israel in 1948, the numbers quickly decreased. But for several years, Wroclaw maintained a more-traditional Jewish flavor than most other Polish cities, with a kosher butcher and Yiddish school deep into the years of Communism.
When Communism ended a quarter-century ago, the Jewish community in Wroclaw revived, Norman Davies writes in “Microcosm: Portrait of a Central European City” (Pimlico, 2003). “It was a bare shadow of its former self, but numbers rose from a mere 40 in 1993 to about 200 by the end of the [20th] century. A youth group appeared and the Stork Synagogue underwent lengthy restoration. The district around Wlodkowica Street, which also contained Protestant and Orthodox churches, was declared a Zone of Tolerance.”
Another sign of the growth of Jewish life in Poland: the country’s Birthright Israel activities are coordinated by Magda Dorosz, executive director of Wroclaw’s Jewish community, the first major Jewish program in Poland that is not based in Warsaw.
A lone security guard protects the shul’s entrance. This is the norm in most of the region’s former communist countries, unlike in much of Western Europe where fear of anti-Semitic attacks necessitates extensive security at Jewish venues.
Largely Catholic Poland has become the home to widespread philo-Semitism, especially among young Poles, since 1989. “Only 2 percent of the people are crazy,” in other words, anti-Semitic, a 40ish, non-Jewish resident of Wrolclaw said.
The white-brick synagogue, next door to the headquarters of Wroclaw’s Jewish organizations, is a frequent site for tourists and for visitors at services.
Rabbi Herberger, a former radio journalist, led a model seder on the eve of the holiday last week for four dozen young students, most of them not Jewish, from the city’s pair of unaffiliated Jewish schools. (He is partially supported by The Shavei Israel organization.)
The rabbi, who moved here with his wife Rebecca from Warsaw six months ago, is a self-declared “liberal Orthodox” leader who has separate ordinations from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a prominent Modern Orthodox activist in Israel, and from a more-haredi rabbi. Rabbi Herberger, who served for two previous years at Warsaw’s Nozyk Synagogue, runs an annual summer camp-hiking club Torah Trek in the Polish countryside.
The unexpected number of members of the Polish community — some from as far away as an hour and a half — who came to the first seder gave him reason for optimism for the future of Wroclaw Jewry, he said. On the second night some 60 Jews came, an increase from last year.
Many Jewish communities in Poland conduct only a single-night seder, for lack of wider interest.
Several of the worshipers at Shabbat and yom tov services took part in conducting the services.
Like other Jewish Polish communities, Wroclaw is becoming more self-sufficient each year, Rabbi Herberger said. “They still need help” from abroad, but are growing more knowledgeable. “I am encouraged.”
Staff writer Steve Lipman was a volunteer seder leader this week under the sponsorship of the Chief Rabbi of Poland. He used supplies donated by J. Levine Books and Judaica, and friends Lisa Levy, Chanan Furman, Shulamis Blokh and Michael and Rebecca Wittert.