|Rachel (right), her grandmother and her
cousin on a carriage ride.
One of my earliest memories is sitting beside my grandmother on her piano bench as her fingers whizzed past me up and down the keyboard.
A few weeks ago I felt those very same feelings as my plane touched down in Poland. For my grandmother’s 90th birthday, I offered to take her anywhere in the world. To her the choice was obvious—she wanted to fly to Poland to hear Chopin’s music played in the country that inspired his Revolutionary Étude, her favorite musical composition.Overwhelmed by anticipation and excitement, I would hold my breath and close my eyes. It was as if the whole world stood still—waiting to discover what story was about to begin, which emotions were about to be stirred, where the music was going to lead us.
I had heard powerful tales of friends’ trips to Poland with Jewish tour groups or on March of the Living, but my experience, I knew, would be something quite different. I am a child of an interfaith marriage and the grandmother whose birthday the trip was honoring is actually an ordained minister. Also invited on the trip was a cousin who is like a sister to me, though the heritage on our fathers’ sides is quite different—her dad is German and mine is Jewish.
Despite being on vacation, I couldn’t quite separate this personal adventure from my professional identity as the incoming Director of Young Adult Initiatives for the Schusterman Family Foundation
In this new role, I have the opportunity to work with young Jewish adults from myriad backgrounds and family lineages to help them build and shape communities they want to be a part of and that are inclusive and welcoming to all who seek to lead Jewish lives. While our philosophy is rooted in the beauty of Jewish heritage and tradition, we look firmly forward toward the next generation to be the architects of the future vibrancy of Jewish peoplehood.
And yet, standing in the city where World War II broke out was not exactly how I envisioned starting my role as a facilitator of vibrant Jewish
journeys. But here I was, in one of the darkest places in our recent history, determined to be a light unto the Jewish people and for my interfaith family …
Our first few days were filled with castles and carriage rides, palaces and parks, each night concluding with a Chopin concert. In Krakow we marveled at the beauty of the restored Main Market Square and stood silent when we visited Kazimierz, the district where 70,000 Jews once lived but only 100 remain today. Friends on Facebook followed my daily updates and recommended countless synagogues to search out—but finding them felt reminiscent of visiting gravestones, feelings of great respect and pride mixed with a sobering sense of loss.
Staring at the row of empty restaurants in the heart of Kazimierz, I mourned for a generation of Polish Jews who never got the chance to be born and to fill the temples, restaurants and streets with music, prayer, laughter and community. We walked arm and arm through Auschwitz and Birkenau and stood in the gas chamber together as a family—one German, one Jew and one American minister who lived through the war.
My grandmother’s favorite Chopin composition, the Revolutionary Étude (the one that sparked our entire trip) was the last piece played on free Polish radio in Warsaw before it was taken over by Germany at the start of World War II. The notes are filled with tragedy and heroism—and it inspires all who listen to find their strength and act upon it for the good of their people.
On the last night of our trip we had the chance to meet modern-day revolutionaries at the Moishe House in Warsaw. These young Polish Jews are at the heart of their community’s renaissance. They are social entrepreneurs, fighting to bring vibrancy back to a community that for years has been essentially dormant. Through Shabbat dinners, Klezmer music concerts and planned gatherings of young descendants of Polish Jews from all over Europe, they are strengthening bonds between Jews in Poland and around the world.
Many who attend their events have only recently discovered they are of Jewish heritage, as is the case for one Moishe House resident. We listened, transfixed to their individual stories and collective ideas for how to breathe life into their Jewish community.
As we left Moishe House that night my grandmother leaned over and whispered to me “they are the future of Poland.” I have to agree—and I would take it even a step further. They are the perfect embodiment of the Jewish future: strong, proud and creative young Jews working together to build new ways to express their connection to Judaism, to create Jewish life on their own terms and in their own image.
Some were raised Jewish. Others have weak, distant Jewish ties. But they don’t see a hierarchy of Jewish—who is more of a Jew or even technically a Jew. They just see a point of connection, an opportunity to be trustees of our global Jewish peoplehood.
Together we’re changing the face of what it means to be Jewish, both within our community and in every interaction with those outside of it. We are not a homogenous people—we are a vibrant tapestry of diversity and experiences, each piece stronger because of those surrounding it. I could see it clearly that night at Moishe House in Warsaw, and so could my 90-year-old grandmother.
Fast forward to a Friday night in November, where I found myself at the Moishe House in Washington, DC, again inspired by how a handful of young Jews are creating innovative programs that support the values of a community that they want to be a part of.
On this night we were celebrating an Indian-themed Shabbat, complete with a lesson on the history of Indian Jews and delicious homemade Indian cuisine. We were far from Warsaw, but as I spoke with the young adults present, they remarked how proud they felt to be a part of a generation of Jewish revolutionaries all across the world—all striving to find ways to make the Jewish community stronger and more connected.
It was here, on that crowded staircase in an old house in Adams Morgan, that I realized once again I could not distinguish the personal from the professional: no matter where I am, I hope I can help connect young Jewish innovators to one another and to opportunities and resources to enable them to realize their dreams—OUR dreams—of what vibrant Jewish peoplehood can look like.
Watch a video of Rachel’s grandmother playing Chopin’s Revolutionary Étude.
Rachel Cohen is the Director of Young Adult Initiatives for the Schusterman Family Foundation.