Poland’s reviving Jewish communities come out

Poland's Jewish population which now numbers approximately 5,000 is suddenly attracting widespread interest.

Jews in Poland 370 (photo credit: Cnaan Liphshiz)
Jews in Poland 370
(photo credit: Cnaan Liphshiz)
ZAKOPANE, Poland - In southern Polish woods, an unfamiliar blast alarms hikers and wildlife as it pierces the still of a misty morning. It has been a long time since a shofar echoed in these mountains.
At the narrow end of the traditional Jewish horn are the puckered lips of Rabbi Tyson Herberger, an American who works for the Warsaw Jewish Community. Earlier this month, he led Poland’s first Torah Trek - an adult summer camp that marries Jewish learning with hiking.
With Poland's synagogues and Jewish centers once again providing basic services, local Jewish communities are taking to the outdoors as the next step toward expanding Jewish community life here with more exotic activities.
The Torah Trekkers stayed for five days at the remote Kalatowki lodge, a mountain resort so isolated that it can be reached only by four-wheel drive. The daily shofar sessions - a tradition in Elul, the Hebrew month that precedes Rosh Hashanah - took place on the trail, out of consideration for the lodge’s other guests. It still drew some attention.
“People would stop and look and take pictures, of course," Herberger says at the lodge. He and his Norway-born wife, Rebecca, and other partners negotiated and set up a makeshift kosher kitchen here just for the trekkers.
“It showed how little is needed, not even a synagogue, to live a Jewish life,” Rebecca Herberger says. “That’s especially important for a community in the process of rebuilding itself.”
Organizers plan to make an annual event out of the Torah Trek, which was largely subsidized by the Luxemburg-based Matanel Foundation.
Small, diverse and enthusiastic, the 14-person Torah Trek team seems representative of Polish Jewry today. Some participants regularly wear kipahs and keep basic mitzvot; some are expatriates; others only recently explored their Jewish roots.
The trek’s Torah portion went beyond the basics, to explore and discuss the relationship between man and nature in Jewish sources, as well as Jewish philosophy and the ideas of Martin Buber. The Jewish Polish student group Zoom, founded in 2007, recently started holding winter retreats near the Torah Trek lodge at Zakopane, a well-known ski resort.
“There are all kinds of such programs now,” says Karina Sokoloska, country director for Poland for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).
Her organization held a one-week summer camp on the Baltic coast last month for young families. More than 200 people attended. The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation held yet another family retreat with greater emphasis on religion. Polish Jewry’s annals reveal that the current summer camp trend is the resumption of an old tradition.
The Tatra region’s gravest hiking accident befell a young Zionist group not three miles away from the Torah Trek venue. Climbing a peak in stormy weather, four members of the Akiba group were killed by a lightning bolt on Aug. 15, 1939.
That fateful year, Zakopane registered its first independent Jewish community, just weeks before World War II broke out. The community was wiped out in the Holocaust. The grounds of one synagogue are now home to a marketplace; the remains of the other shul were incorporated into a cemetery that was restored in 2004.
Jews in Poland are not the only ones seeking to reconnect with nature. In Ukraine, the JDC-funded Metzuda group of Odessa started leading summer camps for young adults three years ago. It was the first time in decades that this community of 45,000 Jews had organized such an outing on its own initiative, according to program coordinator Mariya Zarud. However, the Jewish Agency for Israel had organized some camps during the past 20 years.
Torah Trekking required some sacrifice on the part of Jakob Staszevski of Warsaw. He helps to make up the minyan - the minimum 10 men required for some ritual rites -- in three different synagogues every week and “staying in one place was not easy,” he says as he hurries back from the lodge into civilization.
For Staszevski, 32, the summer camp was a late “tikkun” -- repair. As a boy, he was bullied by "some rude boys" at a non-Jewish summer camp and never returned to one until Torah Trek happened.
His story is typical of young, educated adults from Jewish homes. “I knew one of my grandparents was Jewish. Then I found out about additional relatives, then I learned I was Jewish according to halacha,” he says, referring to Jewish law. “I explored my Jewishness in university and gradually became more involved.”
Many like him re-entered Jewish life after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, whose regimes tried to blur religious affiliations as a matter of policy.
“The Bible and other Jewish sources are full of nature, but we’ve moved away from it, becoming the people of the book. The trek was a way to reconnect,” says another participant, Jonathan Orenstein, the New York-born director of the Jewish Community Centre of Krakow.
Despite its small size of 400 members, that center is among Poland’s most well-known Jewish community centers. After a 40-year hibernation, the JCC was revitalized in 2008 with the dedication of a new building at the center of the city’s old Jewish quarter. Seven synagogues are within walking distance. The building -- equipped with colorful furniture, a gym, classrooms, a dining hall and recreational rooms -- was born thanks to donations by JDC and the World Jewish Relief. It was initiated and partly funded by Britain’s Prince Charles. It is now the community’s focal point, and shared territory for Orthodox and Reform Jews, as well as curious non-Jews. 
Poland has a Jewish population of 5,000, according to the World Jewish Congress, with 600 Jews in Warsaw. Smaller Jewish communities can be found in Wroclaw, Lodz and Gdansk.
Throughout Poland, these Jewish communities are attracting interest from media, local and foreign tourists, genealogists and museums. Orenstein speaks of a general air of philo-Semitism.
This backdrop, he says, is crucial for Polish Jewry, which he says began its revival in 1988, as Poland began slipping out of the grip of the disintegrating Soviet Union. At Krakow’s JCC, Orenstein tells a group of American Jewish tourists about recent developments. As on most Friday evenings, some 50 local Jews are also present.
Also visiting are Nathan and Laurie Weinstein of Connecticut. He was born in Poland and left with his family in 1970. This is his first time back. “My head is spinning from everything I’m seeing and hearing,” he says.
Weinstein was among thousands of Polish Jews who emigrated amid the anti-Semitic campaigns that the communist regime led in the late 1960s. That action drove this community, already decimated in the Holocaust, further underground.
Weinstein recalls how even in those times, a few brave souls went to shul. "You know, we even had summer camps -- if you can believe that," he says.