Greetings from Warsaw,
We all met at 2 pm at the Jewish Institute in downtown Warsaw. It was one of the few Jewish buildings that survived World War II. There we had an interesting, open and very frank discussion with our resident Jewish contact Helize. She’s been in Warsaw for about 20 years, after growing up in New York and working with Hillel before coming to Poland. She commented that many Jews from other parts of the world come to Poland to see the concentration camps and basically leave after that, without finding out what is really happening in the Warsaw Jewish community currently. She said that the Jews now in Warsaw often feel slighted because people are not as interested in them and the future of the Jewish community here, as opposed to only looking at the past. Though young Jews growing up in Warsaw now are very aware and interested in the past, they are more concerned about building a life for the future. Helize also pointed out that the young non-Jews growing up in Warsaw now have no connection to the Holocaust so it is impossible to associate them with it in anyway.
After the Jewish Institute we went to the Nozyk Synagogue, the only functioning Shul in Warsaw, other than a relatively new Chabad center. There were over 200 Shuls in Warsaw before the war. The Shul is beautiful on the inside, after having been renovated four times. We davened mincha and maariv there, and had a chance to speak with a young Rabbi who came from Israel to work in this community for a few years with his wife and three kids. He was very interesting and informative. His family grew up in Pittsburgh and made aliyah to Israel a number of years ago. After a quick stop back at our hotel we went to dinner at a kosher restaurant called Galil. In addition to a nice chicken dinner, we listened to a long talk by a gentleman named Sebastian, who is the special envoy to the Jewish Diaspora for Poland. Though not Jewish, he feels a strong attachment to the Jewish people and how they have contributed to Polish society over the years. He also went into great detail about some of the laws which have been enacted to protect both Jews and other minorities. His English was incredible, as was his ability to get across how the Jewish life in Warsaw is evolving from a governmental and legal point of view.
At the end of dinner we were visited by Rabbi Michael Schudrich, The chief Rabbi of Warsaw and Poland. He’s originally from Silver Spring, and is a friend of the Tessler’s. He told several interesting stories about dealing with practical halachik issues that come up frequently in Jewish life here in Poland.
Our main guide, Andre, who is not Jewish but has a great affinity for the Jewish people, is also very good. He grew up in Warsaw and is able to explain much about the city itself as well as Jewish life now and in the past.
There’s much more that could be told, but the most important thing I think we learned today is how complex every Jewish issue is here in Poland. Many people don’t even know that they are Jewish or came from Jewish parents and grandparents. Many are now re-discovering their Jewish lineage. 20 years ago a Jewish day school started here with just a handful of students. It now has 240 students from kindergarten through the eighth grade. It’s not a very religious school, but the kids do learn some Hebrew and about Jewish holidays and customs. It is considered a very good school academically, so much so that a number of non-Jews want to send their kids there, and try to come up with any connection to Judaism that they can just so their kids can attend there. We learned that up until the Holocaust, Jews were a major influence and news topic in daily life in Poland. However, from 1939 until 1989 when Poland became democratic, there was almost no mention of Jews in the press. Since things are more open now, there are many Poles who have a curiosity and interest in Jews, after not hearing anything about them for a period of 50 years. I think we also got the impression from our guides and instructors that the Jews here do not want to be judged as to why they would stay here or come here, but rather want to be helped and seen as a growing Jewish community similar to one in any other part of the world.
From a physical standpoint to, I think we’ve been impressed at the number of tall and modern buildings here in Warsaw. Some of the main streets are very wide. The streetcars function incredibly well. On a slightly negative note, it’s been fairly cold, and the sun has not been seen for two days, creating somewhat of a bleak atmosphere weather-wise.
Especially considering that we got started at 2 PM, we had an incredibly interesting, enjoyable and information packed day.
All the best and Shabbat Shalom to everyone back in Potomac.
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