Warsaw — Since he first came here from Israel 14 years ago to help rebuild Jewish life here in the Polish capital, Yossi Erez has threatened that his retirement, and his return to Israel, was imminent. A Polish-born Jew who made aliyah with his family in 1947 and served as an Israeli Army psychiatrist, Erez served as the Polish representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, training young community leaders and coordinating educational programs and waiting until he wasn’t needed on a daily basis anymore.
That day came two weeks ago.
Erez retired on the eve of Passover, his responsibilities taken over by young, native-born Polish Jews he had a role in grooming.
This week Erez starts work as a JDC consultant, with plans to return to Poland a few times a year.
“It’s one of the signs” that Poland’s maturing Jewish community, which nearly two decades after communism was swept out of Poland, has an increasingly Polish flavor, he says. “We have more and more people who can take over responsibility.”
The signs are everywhere.
In the office of the Jewish community’s headquarters building — where for years after 1989 a fulltime employee of the New York-based Ronald S. Lauder Foundation ran a series of Jewish cultural and educational activities — Polish Jews now conduct activist activities.
Across town, the Lauder-Morasha School, a Jewish day school supported by the Lauder Foundation, had an American educator as its first principal. Now, it is led by a Polish-born rabbi who studied at Yeshiva University.
And this week, in Krakow, Poland’s first U.S.-style Jewish community center opened under the leadership of a Queens native who moved to Poland seven years ago and a staff of Polish Jews. The Prince Charles JCC is named for the British monarch who has served as a patron and driving force behind the creation of the institution. His involvement in the JCC stemmed from a visit to Poland earlier in the decade.
“Jewish life has changed very much” since communism fell, says Jonathan Orenstein, the Forest Hills native who is serving as director of the Krakow JCC. He said the Western-style, all-purpose Jewish center is a “very new idea” that will offer local Jews one location for all their communal activities. Official estimates put Krakow’s Jewish population at about 200, but as elsewhere in Poland, many philo-Semitic non-Jews are expected to take part in the center’s activities.
As the 20th anniversary of the overthrow of communism — and of a democratic Polish society’s openness to Jewish life — approaches next year, leaders of the country’s Jewish community tell of a major change in the character and vibrancy of Polish Jewry. The type of Jewish autonomy they strove for in the first years after the change in governments — a Jewish community able to sustain itself financially and spiritually without leaning on overseas Jewish resources — is now a virtual fact.
The funds, raised through sales and rentals, and by the return in recent years of Jewish communal property seized by the Nazis then appropriated by the communists, enables the community to support itself. And a growing cadre of young members of the community, who have attended Jewish classes, camps and leadership-development programs, now fills most of the leadership positions in the growing number of Jewish organizations.
With an affiliated Jewish population of 5,000, and the number of Poles with “Jewish roots” estimated to be as high as 20,000 or 30,000, the Polish Jewish community has taken on the appearance of a similar-sized, small Jewish community in a Western European country like Greece or Denmark.
The phenomenon of older Jews starting to assert their Jewish identity, and of younger, raised-as-Catholic Jews eventually learning their true identity continues to increase the size of the Jewish community. “It’s happening more than ever,” says Andres Spokoiny, the JDC’s area director for Poland.
Talk of a “post-communist” Jewish community is archaic, and discussions of a “Jewish revival” are passé, Jewish leaders say.
“There is no Jewish renaissance in Poland,” says Piotr Kadlcik, president of The Union of Jewish Communities in Poland and of the Jewish Community of Warsaw. “It’s a Jewish community.
“These people grew up in a Jewish community,” Kadlcik says. “We have a generation of young people who grew up with no problem of Jewish identity. We’re becoming part of the world Jewish community. It’s coming to be a normal life.”
For contemporary Polish Jews, the Holocaust, which nearly destroyed the world’s largest Jewish community, is an ever-present reality but not a defining feature of the community’s identity, he says. “We discuss it from time to time, but we are not obsessed with it.”
The emergence of an independent Polish Jewish community, still little-known to many Jews in the West, parallels the growth of many Jewish communities in the region’s former-communist countries.
The changes here are more drastic, observers says, because Jewish life was more curtailed for the last 20 years of Communism than in such Iron Curtain lands as Hungary or Bulgaria. Following a series of government-orchestrated anti-Jewish purges in 1968, thousands of Polish Jews migrated, and those who stayed submerged their Jewish identities.
“The Jewish community here during Communism was practically non-existent, especially after ’68,” says Stefan Oscar, the JDC’s deputy area director for Poland.
Last week, while communal seders were conducted in several cities with small Jewish communities, more people each year hold their own seders at home, Kadlcik said. “Now I have a selection of three Haggadot in Polish.”
Today, there are Jewish options, enough to fill a catalog.
“Today, when I say I work for the JDC in Poland,” outsiders don’t say “There are no Jews there,” says Yossi Erez, the Joint’s recently retired representative here who this week begins work as a visiting consultant.
Today, says Spokoiny, the Joint, which assists small Jewish communities around the world, has switched its focus from providing elderly Polish Jews welfare assistance to serving as a clearinghouse and offering advice to Polish Jews. “We are partners with the organized Jewish community, programmatically and financially. We’re accompanying changes that are happening in the [wider] community.
“In Poland, you’re freer” to experiment with Jewish programming, Spokoiny says, explaining that communist-controlled Jewish functionaries no longer stand in the way of innovation. Street festivals and cholent-cooking demonstrations, recent innovative programs, were big hits. “If it works in Poland,” he says, “it definitely has to work in many different places [in Eastern Europe].”
Today, the Jewish community offers a variety of indigenous publications, a reconstituted Rabbinical Association, a Chabad presence, a state-of-the-art Web site (jewish.org.pl), a Jewish film festival last week, a Jewish book festival later this month, and the first signs of Jewish pluralism.
Beit Warszawa, a Reform congregation on the southern outskirts of the city, two years ago hired Rabbi Burt Schuman, onetime executive director of the Jackson Heights-Elmhurst Kehillah in Queens, as its spiritual leader. And a year later Rabbi Tanya Segal, a Russian-born Israeli, joined the congregation to coordinate outreach to outlying communities.
“I see the difference in two years here,” says Rabbi Schuman, who first visited the country, his family’s ancestral home, in 1975.
The Reform congregation, which meets is in a converted private house, is supported by membership dues and by philanthropy from Severyn Ashkenazy, a Jewish native of Poland who lives in Los Angeles.
Today, there is a small-but-growing Orthodox community, a few hundred baalei teshuvah who lead observant lifestyles. Kosher food, under the supervision of Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, is available, and daily prayer services, especially at Warsaw’s Nozyk Synagogue, are filled with young faces.
“Now it’s possible to be Jewish in Poland,” says Rabbi Maceij Pawlak, principal of the Lauder-Morsaha School. “If this was not possible, there would not be a chance for a Jewish future.”