Raised a Catholic in Lublin, Sebastian Rejak has served for the last year and a half as the special envoy for Poland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs for relations with the Jewish diaspora, one of a few nations in Eastern Europe with such a diplomatic position. He has a working knowledge of Hebrew, Jewish history and aspects of Jewish culture and history. He was here last week as part of a brief mission introducing himself to leaders of the American Jewish community. This is an edited transcript of the interview.
Q: How did you develop your interest and expertise?
A: I was then a theology student in Lublin, in the mid-1990s. We were being taught about ancient Israel … various literary layers of the Torah, but not a word about contemporary Jewish religious thought. I took interest in modern-day Judaism, including its responses to the Holocaust — my first book by a contemporary Jewish intellectual was Richard Rubenstein’s “After Auschwitz: History, Theology, and Contemporary Judaism.” It seemed only natural to delve more into the question of how the Holocaust has affected Jewish religious and ethnic identities. That was the topic of my Ph.D. research.
What reactions do you get from non-Jewish Poles who learn about your interest in Judaism?
Twenty years ago people would simply ask “Why"? and most were interested to know more about a topic they considered somewhat exotic. I never heard, “You’re a Shabbos goy.” Today, if you’re interested in Jewish topics, you’re one of the thousands.
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We read about the increase in support for Poland’s Jewish revival. Is this countrywide, or limited to urban, more-educated parts of the country?
Most of that interest or fascination with Jewish culture and the revival of Jewish life is to be found in urban centers with people who have a decent education. On the other hand, even in little towns, former shtetls, more and more teachers have started learning about the multicultural histories of their birthplace. Kids sometimes do terrific projects “unearthing” the Jewish past of their towns and streets.
Even rural Poland is changing. Sometimes local parish priests also get involved. A few weeks ago I talked with the Jedwabne parson who told me he is sometimes visited by Jewish groups and joins them for services in memory of the 1941 pogrom’s victims.
How important for the strength of Poland’s Jewish community is the support of non-Jewish Poles?
On one hand, with or without the support of non-Jewish Poles this revival would have taken place. But if your question is, “Does this support help?” my answer is “Yes.” I assume that without a wide interest in and acceptance of the Jewish renaissance it could have been much slower. I think Jews in Poland simply feel safe in their homeland. And judging by what is going on right now in Western Europe and the rising number of Jews making aliyah, I would say most Polish Jews feel safer at home than do Jews in France, Italy or the UK.
How can we judge how successful Poland’s Jewish revival is, and how viable its Jewish community is?
It’s not only about minyans in Orthodox synagogues but also about progressive Judaism and the more than 10 Reform chavurot that are just about to print their new siddur. It’s also about the secular TSKZ [Social Cultural Association of Jews in Poland] organization with 17 offices across the country; it’s about Jewish cuisine, jazz, two Jewish film festivals in Warsaw alone, Moishe House, JCCs, bar and bat mitzvahs, marriages, Jewish schools and preschools, Limud and post-Limud studies, developing publishing, numerous Purim parties in several cities and even recreating Jewish sports clubs. How viable is this all? I tend to be optimistic so I keep fingers crossed.