March of The Living Is Missing A Path

Burt E. Schuman

From New York Jewish Week 05/19/2006


Thousands of Jewish teens and college students recently returned from Poland as part of the March of the Living, a program designed to educate young adults about the Holocaust and to reaffirm support for the State of Israel as our national Jewish homeland. The problem, however, is that the March of the Living treats Poland as merely a Jewish graveyard and ignores the near-miraculous renaissance of Jewish life in Poland today. This is a serious "sin of omission" on the part of the March and its organizers.

These students visited sites of unspeakable brutality and slaughter, such as Auschwitz, Treblinka and the Warsaw Ghetto Monument. They then went to Israel, where they learned of how Holocaust survivors were smuggled illegally into Palestine after World War II.

Over the next several months, different Jewish age and affinity groups from throughout the world will make a similar journey to Poland.

These are chapters of Jewish history we dare not forget, particularly in an era in which Holocaust denial and knee-jerk Israel bashing are rampant in segments of the mass media. It is fitting and proper to visit these sites in Poland to mourn the incomprehensible and wanton annihilation of our six million martyred brethren. It is equally important to celebrate the rebirth of the State of Israel as a homeland and a haven to which we as Jews are intrinsically bound.

It is grievously unfair, however, to present our youth with an archaic and distorted view of Jewish Poland while ignoring contemporary realties that offer such hope and promise for Jewish renewal. Such a "party line" perspective serves neither the cause of Holocaust education nor that of Zionism.

Spurred on by a dramatic change in Poland's political and social climate, thousands of Polish Jews are "coming out of the closet." Thousands more are discovering they are of Jewish ancestry and many of these seek to convert to Judaism, spurred on by the selfless acts of young Polish Christians who consider 1,000 years of Jewish life and history in Poland an integral part of Polish culture that was denied to them by Hitler and Stalin.

These acts include the study of Jewish history, Yiddish and Hebrew, restoration of Jewish cemeteries, establishment of Jewish museums and cultural centers throughout Poland, organizing and performing Yiddish plays and musicals and supporting Jewish music and cultural festivals in cities like Warsaw and Krakow that draw tens of thousands of appreciative fans.

Moreover, an active and dynamic Jewish Student Association has re-emerged, offering a host of programs, including travel and study in Israel. A Jewish History Center has also emerged as a major source of documentation and research. A superb Jewish quarterly, Midrasz, links past and present in Jewish Poland with trenchant and well-researched articles and essays.

To those who greet this news with skepticism, I would like to remind them that the perception of Jewish life in Poland today finds a parallel in the perception two decades ago of Jewish life in Germany; many thought, incorrectly, that Jews were extinct. They were anything but extinct in Germany and anything but extinct in Poland today.

Recently, I had the extraordinary pleasure of leading worship and study sessions at Beit Warszawa, the first Liberal Jewish congregation to emerge in Poland since before the Holocaust. From a handful of Polish and expatriate Jews in 1999, Beit Warszawa has grown to more than 200 members and draws as many as 1000 non-member participants during High Holy Day services and Jewish festival celebrations. Shabbat dinners and services draw as many as 120 and no less than 50 on a typical Friday night and as many as 100 and no less than 30 on Saturday. The hunger, zeal and enthusiasm displayed for Jewish worship, ritual, Torah, Talmud, Jewish history and Jewish music would put many of our North American congregations to shame. Moreover several families are preparing for b'nai mitzvah (there was an intergenerational b'nai mitzvah at Beit Warzsawa recently), and dozens are seeking formal conversion.

This experience finalized my acceptance of an offer to serve as Beit Warszawa's first full-time resident rabbi, beginning this summer, and the first rabbi to serve a Polish liberal Jewish congregation in this capacity since before World War II. Never in my wildest dreams had I ever thought this could be possible again in Poland, but the dream is being realized.

What is happening at Beit Warszawa is merely a microcosm of an extraordinary phenomenon taking place in cities throughout Poland. Liberal Jewish associations and congregations are forming in cities such as Krakow, Lublin, and Lodz and even Chelm, manifesting the same Jewish hunger and the same need for Jewish resources and rabbinic leadership. Their rate of growth has been geometric as Liberal Judaism addresses their need to integrate Jewish practice and Jewish culture into their modern and highly sophisticated lifestyles.

To this picture we need to add to the reality of a Polish political culture that is increasingly friendly to Jews, fully Western in its orientation and extremely supportive of Israel. Just ask the growing number of Israelis and American Jews doing business in Poland.

I urge the leaders of the March to pay heed to this new reality, one I believe to be the greatest refutation of Nazism and anti-Semitism. The rebirth of Jewish life in Poland is indeed a "March of the Living."

Rabbi Burt Schuman will soon serve as rabbi of Beit Warszawa, a liberal congregation in Warsaw. Special To The Jewish Week