Warsaw — At the podium was the prime minister of Poland, who began his speech with a quote from the Talmud.
In the crowd were several hundred Polish Jews — parents and grandparents of children enrolled in Warsaw’s only Jewish day school.
In the front rows sat some of the most prominent leaders of American Jewish organizations and a few hand-picked American philanthropists.
In an aisle seat was Warsaw’s new rabbi — chosen last year by the city’s Jewish community. And near the front was sandy-haired Rafel Minc, 14, sitting with his classmates at the dedication of the Lauder-Morasha Private Elementary School No. 94 and the Lauder-Morasha Private Middle School No. 22 here last week. He and 164 other students were the focus of the historic event.
For a fancier of symbolism, the day offered a cornucopia. Under a cloudy sky, in a big tent outside the entrance of the renovated ex-home for elderly Jewish intellectuals, more than 700 Jews and non-Jews shaping Poland’s Jewish future listened to students sing in Hebrew and watched Ronald Lauder nail a mezuzah on the front door post.
“The dedication of this school building,” Lauder said, “marks the beginning of a new era.”
The New York philanthropist, who 12 years ago established a foundation bearing his name to aid the scattered Jews of Eastern Europe, then walked up the front steps of the building and led an hourlong tour through five stories of classrooms, a synagogue and a gymnasium.
Located in a working-class neighborhood of the capital, the Lauder-Morasha School opened for classes in August. It offers a standard Polish curriculum as well as Jewish classes that include Hebrew, history and holidays. In addition, the school hosts a regular series of remedial seminars and Shabbat programs for students’ parents and grandparents.
The school, said Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek, “is a magnificent proof of the vitality of Polish Jews.”
Lauder, scion of the Lauder cosmetics family and former U.S. ambassador to Austria, established his foundation in 1987 after returning from Vienna, where he took a public stand against the election of Kurt Waldheim as Austria’s president and met with Jews during his travels around Eastern Europe.
“The Jewish future in this part of the world was considered by most skeptics to be very grim,” he said at the dedication. “They needed support if they were to survive as Jews.”
Lauder’s stress on local community-building often puts him at odds with Zionist-oriented organizations who want Jews to immigrate to Israel.
“We have found the more that people learn about Judaism, the more they want to stay,” he said.
Though communism ended in Eastern Europe a decade ago, it has left a legacy of discredited older community officials who owed their loyalties to atheistic governments, and younger wannabe leaders who largely lack administrative skills or Jewish knowledge. Enter the Israeli-based Jewish Agency, which is active in many communities with an emphasis on aliyah, and American Jewry.
Beginning with modest programs in four countries, the Lauder Foundation has grown to 58 programs in 15 lands, from Germany in the west to Belarus in the east. Its emphasis is educating Jewish children; more than 7,500 students are now enrolled in Lauder schools.
In Poland, as elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the Lauder Foundation complements the work of the New York-based American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which concentrates on “life-sustaining assistance to elderly and infirm Holocaust survivors” and an array of cultural activities.
The Joint and the Lauder Foundation have jointly sponsored leadership training programs in Poland and a summer camp in Szarvas, Hungary.
Lauder says the foundation spends “a lot” of money on its Eastern European programs but would not name a specific figure, fearing that the outlay would overshadow the outcome. The Joint’s 1998 budget for Eastern Europe totaled about $7.5 million.
The dedication of the Lauder-Morasha School followed similar ceremonies in successive days in Berlin and Vienna, part of a whirlwind mission to Central and Eastern Europe under the auspices of the Lauder Foundation. The dedications took place, many speakers pointed out, during the week after the annual cycle of Torah readings began with Bereshit, the book of Genesis.
The Juedisches Lehrhaus on the grounds of a synagogue in the former East Berlin will serve as a teaching training and resource center. Located in a one-time Talmud Torah building, it is geared for the more than 70,000 Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union who live in Germany.
The Lauder Chabad School in Vienna, on the edge of Augarten Park, was founded by the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic movement, but now is not affiliated with a particular denomination. The new school, built to accommodate up to 400 children, replaces a cramped two-room school for students from the former USSR.
Last week’s dedication trip, which featured official award presentations to Lauder and formal dinners with political leaders, was designed to showcase his schools — and the changes in Jewish life in the former satellite countries during the post-communist 1990s.
The symbolism of a Jewish school in 1999 Warsaw was particularly poignant to one bearded, skullcapped member of the community who attended the ceremony. Konstanty Gebert shakes his head in disbelief.
Ten years ago, in the last days of communism, he says, “it wouldn’t be possible to have this school.” Polish Jews would not be interested; the government wouldn’t allow it.
Gebert, in his 40s, was a leader of Warsaw’s Flying University, a network of illegal, underground Jewish classes in the late 1970s. Today, as editor-in-chief of the monthly Jewish magazine Midrasz and a columnist for Poland’s largest newspaper, he is an unofficial spokesman for Polish Jewry.
The dedication showed that the country’s Jewish community, long considered moribund after World War II, is making a comeback with the help of overseas Jewish organizations who were represented at the ceremony, and Polish feelings of responsibility for its remaining Jews.
Sitting on the podium with Prime Minister Buzek, Gebert noted, were the mayor of Warsaw and an aide to President Aleksander Kwasniewski, who read a presidential greeting.
Buzek’s remarks began with the Talmudic statement that “The world is sustained by the breath of school children.”
“This was the first time a prime minister quoted the Talmud,” Gebert said.
Gebert estimated that half the crowd last week was Polish Jews.
Would several hundred of them have attended a public Jewish ceremony 10 years ago?
“No way,” he said. “There has been a change for the better.”
Five years ago, when the Lauder Foundation founded its school with 18 students in a rented villa in a Warsaw suburb, Gebert was still skeptical. Today, enrollment in the Lauder-Morasha School, the first-such institution in the city in 50 years, is 165 in grades K-8. Though admission is open to all applicants, 70 percent of the students have “Jewish roots.”
“Now it’s not only a bunch of friends,” Gebert said. “It’s a real social reality. Each year more Jewish families feel empowered to send their children to a Jewish school.”
Another day school was established last year by the Lauder Foundation in Wroclaw, in eastern Poland. It is headed by a native Polish Jew.
“We’re doing well,” Gebert said, adding a caveat about the Polish Jewish community’s continuing need for financial independence and trained leaders.
Poland, which before World War II had the largest Jewish community in the world with a population of 3.5 million, is now home to about 10,000 Jews, double the figure of a decade ago. Unofficial estimates put the current number at 30,000 or more. That includes the uncounted “hidden Jews” who feared identifying themselves as Jewish under communism, or were raised as Catholics and only discovered their true identities in recent years.
This Jewish renaissance “has very striking similarities” to those in other now-independent countries throughout Eastern Europe, Gebert said. All faced, to varying degrees, bans on organized religious and cultural activities. Now all boast more classes, more programs, more Jews doing Jewish things.
“Numerically, it is not very important,” he said. The entire region has a Jewish population of 200,000 — as many Jews as live in a couple of New York neighborhoods — if one uses a liberal definition of Jewishness.
Symbolically, the renewal of Jewish life in the prewar centers of Judaism “is a major triumph,” Gebert said. This is especially true in Poland, the majority of whose remaining Jews left in 1968 following a government-orchestrated anti-Semitic campaign.
“Probably nowhere in all of Eastern Europe would the opening of one school create such a fuss,” he said.
What message does the school convey about a Jewish rebirth? “It’s possible anywhere,” Gebert said.
Warsaw’s Jewish community last year engaged Rabbi Baruch Rabinowitz, a native of the former Soviet Union, as its spiritual leader. The Joint and the Lauder Foundation pay part of his salary, but community members interviewed candidates and decided to choose Rabbi Rabinowitz, the first religious leader hired by Polish Jews since before the Holocaust.
“For us it is important,” said Stanislaw Krajewski, a veteran Jewish activist in Warsaw who serves as a consultant for the American Jewish Committee. “We are responsible for the community, rather than someone doing something for us.”
“We are fully aware,” said Helise Lieberman, the American-born founding director of the Lauder-Morasha School, “that we are making history here each day.”
While showing a visitor around the school one morning last week, she was approached by one young student after another. Each hugged her and handed her a bouquet of flowers. “It’s Teacher’s Day,” she explained.
Lieberman, a native of Urbana, Ill., who trained for a career in Jewish communal service at Brandeis University, says her school has adopted “American-style” student-teacher relationships — closer than is common in other Polish schools.
“The school has a pivotal role in defining the future of the Jewish community here,” she said. “The parents are committing their children to something extraordinary.” One woman whose granddaughter attends the school called Lieberman a few weeks ago, asking how to put a mezuzah on the family’s apartment. “It’s because of the school,” Lieberman said.
She introduced the visitor to Rafel Minc. Rafel, who did not learn he was Jewish until he was 6, chose to attend the Lauder-Morasha School four years ago. “I like that there are many cultures here,” he said, referring to the mixture of Jewish and non-Jewish students. He became bar mitzvah last year, influenced by his Jewish studies. “I want to lead a Jewish life.”
Lieberman excused herself from the tour; she had an unscheduled visitor: A Jewish man from Warsaw, in his 40s, wanted to enroll his two children in the school next year.
Steve Lipman’s travel to Europe was partially subsidized by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation.