This month’s column is written from Warsaw, Poland, where I am proud to be part of a delegation from our community to visit Warsaw, Lublin and Krakow before flying to Israel to continue our mission and concluding at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly.
Warsaw is a beautiful, modern, thriving city. It’s difficult to square today’s reality of modern Warsaw with the black and white images of the hor- rors of the Warsaw Ghetto, the forced deportations and massed killings of more than 300,000 Jews from Warsaw alone at Treblinka.
It’s important to understand our history and to bear witness to all that happened here. But equally important was how we completed our first day of the mission.
After a day walking in the footsteps of the past, immersed in the tragic realities that befell the Jews, we concluded with an inspiring visit at the Warsaw JCC. The bright and cheery building, located in a hip, young and thriving area of the city, is about to celebrate its fifth anniversary and is enjoying steady growth of programming, membership and engagement. It has become home to activities and programs for youth, families, men and women and is a major part of the renaissance of Jewish life. The visit was inspiring because of the passionate leaders we met there like Agata Rogavitzka, Director of the JCC. Agata has one Jewish parent but didn’t know her Jewish story. Hers is a common tale --- after WWII and the rise of Communism, religious identity was some- thing to be tamped down. It was only after the fall of the Soviet Union when a spiritual awakening became pos- sible. The JDC, our overseas partner supported by our community’s Annual Campaign, was on the ground to help and begin the process of supporting the Jewish community. Agata was sent to Jewish summer camp by the JDC. At Camp Szarvas in Hungary, she met hundreds of other kids like her who were discovering that they were Jew- ish and immersed in Jewish summer camp fun and ritual. She returned a changed person and became more involved in learning about her heritage and helping lead the community.
Current studies tell us that the Millennial Generation and those that follow will not see their part in Jew- ish peoplehood through the lens of the Shoah. The bond to the Jewish people and to Israel must be formed through experiences that celebrate the beauty of and deepen understanding of Jewish culture, learning, ritual and connection.
Experiential education also creates a lifelong impact. This is why our community provides gateways to those experiences like March of the Living, Israel programs -Birthright Israel, MASA, Jewish learning programs and Jewish overnight camp. Not everyone will be able to participate, many due to financial limitations, so as a com- munity, we must work harder to raise funds to help enable our kids to build a strong foundation and affinity with Jewish life.
With the help of donors to the Annual Jewish Federation campaign, nascent Jewish communities are growing — supported and enriched at places like the Warsaw and Krakow JCCs. Young Jews are re-discovering their identities and putting down new Jewish roots in Poland.
And those roots can be rekindled in unexpected places. There have been several goose bump moments. But the best one for me today came when Dr. Harry Schwartz shared that as a son of a child survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto he had seen this experience as something connecting him to his past but after listening to Agata at the Warsaw JCC, he was proud and happy to consider himself a child of Warsaw.
My mentor and friend, Mark L. Goldstein, z”l, the former Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley, used to comment that there was nothing like a Jewish Federation mission. For Harry and for each of us who are having moments that will last a lifetime, Mark continues to be very right.