American-Style JCC Thriving In Krakow

N.Y.-born director sees deepening Jewish engagement; in Warsaw, unexpected signs of growth.

04/17/12
Staff Writer
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Krakow — At four crowded tables in the ground-floor meeting room of the Jewish Community Centre here, some hundred people attended the first-night seder during Passover last week.

It was the “biggest community seder in Poland,” says Jonathan Ornstein, the JCC’s New York-born director.

It’s another sign that the only such American-style JCC in the country is succeeding.

Four years after it opened, with England’s Prince Charles as patron and financial supporter (hence the institution’s British spelling), the Centre, a modern four-story building on a once-empty lot in the heart of Krakow’s centuries-old Jewish Kazimierz neighborhood, is playing an increasing role in fostering the post-communist renaissance of Polish Jewry.

In a city that has an estimated affiliated Jewish population of a few hundred adults, the JCC serves more than 400 adults and children each month, most of them with “Jewish roots.” They take part in an array of activities that includes a nursery school and holiday celebrations, Yiddish and Hebrew classes, physical education and dancing, and a weekly Shabbat dinner that draws 70 to 80 people — all standard offerings for a JCC.

Krakow’s JCC (jcckrakow.org) also offers a staff genealogist who assists the continuing stream of people, from teens to seniors, who – often belatedly – discover their family’s Jewish background or become interested in things Jewish.

The JCC, says Konstanty Gebert, a Warsaw-based journalist and veteran Jewish activist, gives Polish Jews a non-judgmental, non-threatening place to explore the Jewish world – without the religious demands of a synagogue or the established Jewish community’s ties to an often-aging leadership. And while there have been stories of strained relations between Orthodox and non-Orthodox segments of Poland’s Jewish community, as elsewhere in Eastern Europe’s former Communist communities, and charges that some of Polish Jewry’s leaders are selling off communal property, they do not seem to faze those at the JCC, where the environment is welcoming.

“We make the entry as easy as possible,” Ornstein says. Krakow had a Jewish community looking for a home, he says.

A native of Forest Hills, Queens, who made aliyah in the 1990s, Ornstein, now 42, served in the Israeli army, moved to Poland to follow a girlfriend, and “fell in love with Krakow.”

Poland’s former capital, Krakow is a natural magnet, he says — Poles come because of the city’s open, cosmopolitan nature; visitors, because of nearby Auschwitz.

At the first-night seder I conducted last week — using supplies donated by J. Levine Books & Judaica, in Manhattan, and by local friends Lisa Levy, Michael Wittert and Debby Caplan — the chairs were filled with singles and young families, children and Holocaust survivors, American college students and tourists from several foreign countries.

Unlike the participants at the seders in many other Polish cities, most of the Polish natives at the JCC seder seemed familiar with the Haggadah’s reading and rituals, thanks to the seders the institution has hosted in recent years. As a sign of the growth of Jewish resources here, other seders took place this year under the auspices of Chabad, the Reform movement, and Rabbi Boaz Pash, an emissary of the Shavei Israel outreach organization.

The JCC was initiated by Prince Charles, who during a visit to Krakow a decade ago, was moved by a meeting with aging Holocaust survivors and asked what the Jewish community needed. A senior center, he was told. Officials of World Jewish Relief, headquartered in London, suggested that a facility serving the entire Jewish community would be more worthwhile. In April 2008, with the Prince in attendance, the JCC, largely funded by WJR and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, opened its doors.

Its motto, created by Ornstein: “What are Jews doing in Krakow? Building a Jewish future.” The building has hosted a brit, a wedding, and a bat mitzvah, he says.

“The most visible sign of a Jewish revival in Poland is this JCC,” Ornstein says. “We’re on TV all the time.”

One of the JCC’s most popular events last year was “7@nite,” an all-night Shavuot week program that features lectures, concerts, art exhibitions and other activities at the city’s seven synagogues. Co-sponsored by the JCC, the event, the brainchild of JDC Warsaw program director Monika Elliott, brought an estimated 10,000 people, mostly non-Jews, to Kazimierz.

7@nite will be repeated this year, in early June, and an equal or bigger crowd in expected, Ornstein says.

He says his parents “are proud that I’m involved in building Jewish life here.” Ornstein has applied for Polish citizenship. While many Jewish institutions in Poland are led by Americans or Israelis, “very soon,” he says of his impending Polish citizenship, “the JCC will have a Polish leader.”

The Torah Column

A few days before Passover last week, the readers of one weekly Krakow-based newspaper learned about the spiritual significance of the number four (the Four Cups of wine, the Four Questions, the Four Sons) in the seder.

The newspaper was Tygodnik Powszechny, a prominent intellectual — albeit small circulation — Catholic publication.

The author is Pawel Spiewak, a veteran professor of sociology at Warsaw University and recently appointed director of ZIH (Poland’s Jewish Historical Institute). He calls his weekly Torah column in Tygodnik Powszechny (Polish for general weekly), which he began writing four years ago, the only one by a Jewish author on a Jewish topic that appears on a weekly basis in any Catholic publication — “anywhere.”

In an upfront page of the newspaper that he shares with two priests, Spiewak has written about the Torah portion of the week, upcoming Jewish holidays, and, since the start of the current Jewish year, the Oral Law’s Pirkei Avot collection of ethical aphorisms.

“The Hebrew Bible is the Holy Book also for Christians. However, they have little knowledge of how it has been interpreted in Jewish thought,” says Piotr Mucharski, editor-in-chief of Tygodnik Powszechny. “We want to give them the opportunity to get to know something about [the Jewish] tradition.”

Spiewak says his words are probably the only Jewish perspective that the paper’s readers — “big-city intellectuals” — receive on a regular basis. He calls his column another sign of post-communist Polish openness to Judaism, and of some Catholics’ growing ecumenical stance. “It’s obvious,” he says.

A native of Poland who learned Bible stories as a youth from his Christian mother (his father is Jewish), Spiewak is a longtime writer on Jewish subjects, an identified member of the Jewish community, and, as head of ZIH, a leader and spokesman for the community. With mixed religious roots, he is typical in Poland, where Jewish identity is fluid and a growing number of individuals with so-called Jewish roots are active members of the Jewish community.

“I’m writing as a Jew,” he says.

Spiewak pitched the idea of a weekly Torah column four years ago to the editors of Tygodnik Powszechny, a progressive Catholic publication that is affiliated with, but not published by, the Church. The paper was suspended by government authorities briefly in the 1950s, and was an open opponent of Communism in the Solidarity Movement of the 1980s.

He says he was told two years ago by the editors that he has a place at the paper as long as he wants.

“More and more people in Poland recognize the worth of the Jewish presence in our history,” Mucharski says. “I’m sure that this is the attitude of our readers.”

The newspaper’s readership is “enthusiastic” about Spiewak’s column,” Mucharski says. “We receive many letters in which people ask whether Pawel Spiewak’s texts will be published as a book.”

Spiewak’s interest in Torah (he was largely self-taught as an adult) has led to a book of summary of Jewish commentators on Genesis, an upcoming book on the whole Torah, a radio show on biblical subjects and a dramatized series of productions about Torah personalities at a Warsaw theater.

“The Torah is life. You can’t live without the Bible,” he says he tells his university students. He says his outreach to a Catholic readership is “definitely a responsibility.”

Spiewak says he feels more comfortable offering the opinions of more-learned experts on Torah rather than his own. “I don’t need to be original.”

After Passover, he returns to Pirkei Avot. His biggest challenge, he says, is choosing which of the many rabbinic sayings – they are traditionally studied in synagogue during the weeks between Pesach and Shavuot – to make the focus of each week’s column.

“It depends on what thought interests me – if I find something inspiring,” Spiewak says.

The Kosher Exports

Next week, if it is a typical week in the Jewish Poland that has emerged since Communism (anti-religious, anti-Jewish, anti-Zionist) fell, kosher production supervisors will fan out from Warsaw: north to a fish plant in Gdansk, east to a cow slaughter house in Bialystok, south to a factory near Katowice where mustard is made, west to a chicken slaughter plant near Golina. And in other directions to more facilities.

While the number of kosher-observant members of Poland’s Jewish community has increased since freedom of religious practice arrived in 1989, most of the kosher food made in the country today is for export.

And, say experts, the amount of kosher food — and of chemicals and ingredients that also require a hechsher — made here increases every year.

Poland — and to varying degrees, most of the other formerly communist countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union — has become a major supplier of kosher food around the world. Many of their exports go to Israel, England, much of Western Europe, and the United States.

It’s still a little-known phenomenon; sometimes, the products’ Polish origins are unclear or missing altogether from labels.

One example: King Oscar Sardines, promoted as a proud product of Norway. Made in Poland.

While the reasons for the increase of kosher food production in the onetime Eastern Bloc countries are largely economic (lower overhead than in the West, cheaper shipping costs to Europe and Israel), the result carries heavy symbolism – the country that was home to the world’s biggest Jewish community before the Holocaust is a player again in an important Jewish area, the international kosher market.

“It’s part of the global economy,” says Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz, senior rabbinic coordinator in the kashrut department of the Orthodox Union, which started certifying products in Poland in the early 1990s and now provides certification in some two dozen Polish plants. “They range from bakeries to vegetables, to detergents, to fish, to milk products,” he says. “For the most part, they” — the manufacturers — “are coming to us.”

“Kosher has become mainstream” in the food production industry, Rabbi Rabinowitz says.

“The fact that Poland is exporting kosher food … is a growing source of pride” to Polish Jews, says Michael Schudrich, the country’s Long Island-born chief rabbi, who coordinates the kosher food supervisors who live here and come from abroad.

Some of the products coming out of here, like candies, are internationally generic. Some, like pickles and gingerbread, are identifiably unique to Poland.

“We’re becoming a serious source of shechita [kosher animal slaughter],” says Rabbi Schudrich, who has filled a file cabinet with three drawers of kashrut reports.

The rabbi says Poland’s kosher food production, which began with vodka in the late years of communism, has expanded to include scores of products, at least ten supervising agencies from overseas, and about a dozen kosher food supervisors who grew up and live in Poland.

“I don’t know who all the mashgichim [supervisors] are,” says Tyson Herberger, Rabbi of the Jewish Community of Warsaw. “It’s more than just one or two guys.” The group includes a few female food supervisors, Rabbi Herberger says.

The growth and growing visibility of kosher food production have served to increase the contact of Poles involved in the business with the Jewish community and with the fine points of Jewish law, Rabbi Schudrich says. “A growing number of Poles are becoming Jewishly aware.”

Some kosher-for-Pesach products were made here in the months before the recent holiday, the rabbi says. Most of the affected plants shut down their kosher lines during Passover, but resumed this week.

The food supervisors, who rested from their supervising over the holiday, are on the road again, to Gdansk and Bialystok and …

E-mail: steve@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

04/18/2012 - 08:12

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