Poland’s Real Jewish Revival
Their parents and grandparents hid their Jewishness, but now some Poles are converting back to Judaism
When Ornstein moved to Poland from Israel in 2001 and then helped open Krakow’s JCC in 2008, people were already talking about a Jewish renaissance in Poland; it was largely a movement carried by non-Jews who wanted to celebrate and preserve Poland’s rich history of Jewish life and culture. Quickly, however, Ornstein started meeting more and more Poles of Jewish origin, people like Kędzierska who wanted to return to their ancestral faith without becoming Orthodox. “The first stage was the non-Jewish interest, but, now, we’re in the second stage,” he said, where people with Jewish backgrounds rediscover their own heritage. “It’s fantastic, because regenerating Jewish communities in Europe has, for the most part, not been a positive experience, but ours is. Poland is the only country in the world where it’s safer, easier, and more accepted to be Jewish every single day.”
Exactly how to reabsorb these crypto-Jews back into the greater Jewish community, however, has been a huge source of puzzlement for religious leaders like Nativ. Because so many Poles of Jewish origin were raised without any Jewish education, were often baptized Catholic, and, in many cases, are not halakhically Jewish in the Orthodox sense, conversion has become, for even the most liberal rabbis, a crucial part of the rebuilding process.
While Ornstein acknowledges that conversion is a divisive and touchy subject within the Jewish world, he points out that the situation for many of those converting in Poland is unique. He’s careful to clarify that the goal of places like the JCC Krakow is not to convert non-Jews, but to give Poles of Jewish origin a place to be Jewish. “Jewish life is starting to become normal. It’s no longer novelty, but something real and everyday. Now we’re focused on building the normal Jewish institutions one needs to sustain such a community. And this is a process that takes time. But, even in five years, the change is unbelievable.”
When he was first asked to come to Poland, Nativ was skeptical that any Jewish life existed here. He and his wife Ziva only arrived in Warsaw in August, and immediately they were pleasantly surprised. “I thought there really was nothing here, but there is an interest,” he said. “There is a fire here, and all the people converting and getting interested in Jewish life is also exciting, because it is different from what we always experienced inside or around an established Jewish community. This is starting from, in one way, scratch, which is truly incredible.”
But how to start from scratch has been bewildering for everyone, from the country’s most Orthodox rabbis to Nativ, who was ordained at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem and has served both Reform and Conservative congregations all over the world for more than 30 years. Because almost 90 percent of Polish Jews living in Poland were not raised Jewish, Nativ believes that conversion is required even for those who are halakhically Jewish. “Throughout their childhood, if they got no Jewish education whatsoever, and especially if they got a Catholic education, then the fact that the mother was formally Jewish means very little,” he said. “If you’ve had no Jewish upbringing, which many here don’t, then you need the conversion process to solidify your Jewish identity.”
For Kędzierska, converting finally became a real option in July 2011, when Beit Warszawa offered the “Judaism Step by Step” course for the first time. For the past year, she’s spent every Tuesday night learning how to read ancient Hebrew, bake Passover cakes and challah, light Shabbat candles, and sing Jewish songs. She’s also offered her services as a translator for the revolving door of rabbis, none of whom have been Polish, at Beit Warszawa, which first opened in 1995 and now boasts a membership of more than 250 people, according to Marta Pilarska, the synagogue’s administrative assistant. “When I first started lighting Shabbat candles 13 or 14 years ago, I felt like I was playing a role—like I was faking it,” Kędzierska said. “I always thought: Is this really mine? Now, it’s more and more mine. And every time I do it, I think of all the women in my family who lit those candles before me, and I feel that much more connected.”
Earlier this month, on Nov. 13, Kędzierska’s dreams finally came true. Unlike the other eight women from the first “Step by Step” cycle, Kędzierska decided not to go to Krakow for her conversion, but opted for Los Angeles instead, where she preferred to be converted by a Conservative beit din that included Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, the former rabbi of Beit Warszawa under whom Kędzierska did most of her studies. “It worked out,” she wrote me in an email, her euphoria absolutely palpable. “I’m now fully Jewish. Still can’t get over it, feels like a dream.”
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