Exploring Contemporary Judaism in Poland

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Samuel Heller is an active member of the Jewish community, participating in social justice projects around the world and advocating for peace in the Middle East. He has visited Israel 11 times. He majored in history at UCLA, was part of the Ha'aretz newsroom during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and was a media fellow for the Israel Project in 2008. A public relations professional, he is currently a fellow at NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. He is also involved with Moishe House and their sister organization, Moishe House without Walls. Having attended the ROI Summit in 2009, he has participated in social activism projects throughout the world, ranging from helping Hurricane Katrina victims in Mississippi, to the Passover Project in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Jewish people often associate Poland as a house of horrors for the Jewish people due to a long history of discrimination and the death camps during World War II. Through the joint efforts of Harriet Mandel's public policy group—The Global Roundtable—and the Polish Foreign Ministry, a unique group of 17 people explored Warsaw and Krakow.

The program's first night was an impromptu visit to the main synagogue in Warsaw to participate in a memorial service remembering the three slain Israeli teens kidnapped near Hebron. Over 400 people attended the service, more than double the usual attendance for an Israeli rally according to the Israeli embassy official. Poland's Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich remarked that this was due to the outrage of children being murdered. At the Polish JCC, I witnessed more signs of Jewish life with a festive meal. The following day, I took a personal tour with Zoom President Joanna Baczko. In the next few months, she is launching the Warsaw Kibitz project, a beautiful garden full of plants and fruits and a small hut. The kibitz, which has similar values to the Israeli Kibbutzim, strives to get the young professionals in the Warsaw Jewish community involved with social justice values. I found it awe-inspiring.

Over the weekend, our group took the train to Krakow to participate in their annual Jewish festival. The highlight of the weekend was the Krakow JCC-hosted Shabbat dinner at an old railroad station. It was a stunning display of Jewish life in what was once the cultural capital of Poland for Judaism. Nearly 500 people attended the dinner and collaboratively sang Shabbat songs. The Shabbat festivities were part of the Jewish festival. The festival had a variety of programming, including interesting historical tours of Jewish Krakow and a klezmer concert drawing over 15,000 people. The vast majority in attendance (at least 95 percent) was not Jewish.

Although we visited Auschwitz after the festival concluded, my impression of Poland was of a country with a small, but vibrant Jewish community that is proud of their heritage. The Polish people were extremely generous and kind. While Poland’s poignant history can’t be ignored, the country today is a wonderful place to visit with a bright future ahead.