Tinder and the Jewish question

As Jerusalem and Warsaw continue to spar over an acceptable narrative of what transpired on Polish soil during the Holocaust, the real drama is unfolding far removed from the headlines.

By
April 6, 2019 10:10
MAGDA DOROSZ (kneeling, first on left) with students celebrating their Judaism with Warsaw Hillel

MAGDA DOROSZ (kneeling, first on left) with students celebrating their Judaism with Warsaw Hillel. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Agata Tarnowska will be making aliyah from Poland in just a couple of weeks. Eight months ago, she didn’t even know she was Jewish. But when she told her mother that she’d met an Israeli guy she really liked, her mom decided it was time to share the family secret with her 24-year-old daughter.

That set Tarnowska off on a dizzying roller-coaster of self-discovery that included obtaining a photograph of her great-grandmother’s grave in a Jewish cemetery in France, compiling numerous documents from the Jewish Historical Institute of Warsaw providing incontestable evidence of her being Jewish and visiting Israel three times in the last six months.

“I can’t really explain it,” she told me, “but when I came to Israel, this was the first time in my life I felt ‘this is a place where I feel good, where I feel safe, where the people around me are more similar to me.’ I don’t know why, but I never really felt at home in Poland.

“I think maybe if I hadn’t met my boyfriend I would have never realized I am Jewish, what are my roots, where I come from. It’s a shock. But it’s amazing. I feel very proud now about being Jewish.”

Tarnowska’s chance discovery of her Jewish heritage as a young adult is far from unique in Poland. It’s actually rare to find someone there who was brought up knowing they were Jewish. But this particular story has a matchless twist to it. Tarnowska met her boyfriend on Tinder, when he was in Warsaw for a friend’s bachelor party.

Far be it from me to conjecture what it was that this Israeli male had in mind when he registered on the dating site, but my guess is that when Tarnowska arrives in Israel next month he’ll have ended up with a lot more than he’d bargained for.

TO UNDERSTAND this pervasive phenomenon of young Poles discovering their Judaism in their adolescence or early adulthood and being drawn to it so compellingly, I turned to Magda Dorosz, the 34-year old founding director of the three-year old Warsaw Hillel.

She, too, grew up not knowing she was Jewish and I asked her if that didn’t make holding the position she had more difficult. She didn’t think so. Perhaps it even works to her advantage.

 “About 70% of the students we work with only discover their Jewish roots as kids or teenagers,” she told me. “My story is not an unusual one in Poland.”

So let’s begin with that. Tell me your story.

“When I was about 15, I found a box of papers that had belonged to my grandfather. I never had the chance to meet him, as he passed away when I was just 10 months old, but he was a cherished person in our family and I’d always wanted to learn more about him, so I kept on reading.”

What did you discover?

“A Jewish family. At first, I wasn’t understanding anything I was reading. So I approached my parents and asked what these documents were all about. That moment was a starting point for a long journey of discovery. We learned that my grandfather was Jewish and, in the process, found some of his relatives. Now we are family again.”

Intriguing. But that still doesn’t explain how you ended up becoming the director of Hillel.

“That discovery inspired me to learn more about the Jewish people. I started reading books about Jewish culture, tradition and history. Then, I went on Birthright [an intensive, 10-day Israel trip]. I came back blown away by the experience and, because of its influence, started volunteering in the Jewish Community in Wroclaw, my hometown. A few months later, I was hired by the community to become its executive director. Then the position of Birthright coordinator in Poland became available. It was the perfect position for me. Not only would it give me the chance to give something back for the wonderful experience I’d had, but it would also allow me to help other young Polish Jews have that incredible journey.”

How do you explain the need for that journey, that your parents and so many others never revealed who they were? If you hadn’t come across that box of your grandfather’s things…

“The fact that so many decided to hide their identity poses great challenges for my generation today. We need to understand why they hid their identity, why they didn’t share their life story with us. I know that my grandfather was trying to provide a somewhat normal and stable life for his family in the very uncertain time of Communism. He changed his name. He never mentioned where he was from. All in order to protect his family.”

TODDLERS IN their Krakow JCC T-shirts, in the city’s first Jewish preschool since the Holocaust, which opened two years ago. (Courtesy)

How do you deal with that?

“Birthright. And Hillel. My involvement with one led to the offer to take up the challenge of creating the other. Both are frameworks in which we can uncover all that was hidden from us. Family stories. Jewish life and tradition. Young people who are in the process of discovering their roots come to us with questions. What does it mean to be Jewish? Is my grandparent’s history my history? Am I Polish? Am I Jewish?”

What do you tell them?

“We teach by doing. We don’t assume that our students have any prior Jewish knowledge, therefore we use each and every opportunity to teach. We celebrate Shabbatot and holidays together. We laugh and learn from one other. We affirm that whichever way of living a Jewish life they might choose, it will enrich their lives.

“That’s what is most crucial, showing our students that Jewish life is full of positive and joyful experiences. We provide them with the other side of what some did learn from their grandparents, which is linked to the trauma of the war and the fight for survival. We also encourage our students to go on Masa [long-term Israel programs], where they can really learn and experience Israel firsthand.”

With the hope that they will ultimately decide to live there?

“Our Jewish life in Poland, though it will never be as rich as before the war, is thriving. We have Jewish communities and organizations around the country, countless Jewish cultural festivals, and summer camps for kids and teenagers. We are surrounded by the horrors of the Holocaust, but we – the Jews of Poland – keep living our joyful Jewish life despite the terrible history. I want every foreigner to think twice before asking ‘How dare you live in Poland?’ or ‘How can you live in the shadow of Auschwitz?’ Where else should we live if not in the homeland of our grandparents and great-grandparents? The homeland that created the many different forms of Judaism we live today, its culture and traditions.”

I might have suggested she consider a different homeland, the one all of our grandparents can point to as the source of our culture and traditions, but I gave in to the moment and simply remarked: That was some treasure trove your grandfather left you, albeit unknowingly. The bottom line?

“We want our students to understand that despite the difficult Polish Jewish history, we are all equal members of the Jewish world. We are no longer afraid, we are no longer ashamed and we no longer feel the need, as my grandfather did, to hide our identity. Today we choose to be Jewish. Today, we speak out about the history we inherited and take pride in it.”

DOROSZ IS not alone. When the Jewish Agency brought 40 of its Israeli emissaries stationed around Europe to Warsaw for a seminar earlier this month, they were greeted by representatives of a thriving Jewish community they hardly knew existed. In addition to the Hillel in Warsaw, there is another in Krakow, which is home as well to an exceptionally vibrant Jewish Community Center that also houses the city’s first Jewish pre-school since the Holocaust, opened less than two years ago. There is another JCC in Warsaw, a particularly powerful magnet for young families. The Hashomer Hatzair youth group has also recently reappeared, operating out of the community’s full-fledged Lauder Morasha Jewish Day School. There are also religious communities identifying with Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Chabad Judaism. And all of these institutions are networked together through the Union of Jewish Religious Communities of Poland, an umbrella organization serving the needs of its constituency in nine cities spread throughout the country. All receive the attention of the country’s ever-accessible chief rabbi.

None of these institutions’ leaders are oblivious to the eruption of antisemitism shaking the Jewish communities of Europe, nor to the horrors of the Holocaust in whose shadow they live. But they have chosen to rise above this unspeakable hatred, refusing to define themselves by what others have or would do to them as they continue to seek a voice all their own. While the politicians continue arguing over a narrative for the past, they are creating one for the future.

The writer is the deputy chair of the Jewish Agency Executive and actively engaged in empowering small Jewish communities around the world.

The Jewish Agency is the ongoing story of Israel and the Jewish people. “Family Matters” tells that as it is, one chapter at a time.


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