Toronto student spends a year volunteering in Poland

The Canadian Jewish News
January 15 2007

I grew up hearing the word "kehillah" - the Hebrew word for community - quite often in the Toronto Jewish community. They were, and still are, important words that permeate my life. In the past several months, I have learned a new word - a word that has been infused into my new vocabulary and into my new life outside of Canada.

That word is gmina, the Polish word for community. I've learned that word since I began working for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee ("The Joint," as it is called in Poland) as a Jewish Service Corps volunteer placed in Warsaw, Poland, for one year.
Last year, nearing the end of my university career, I felt it was time to learn about Jewish communities beyond Israel and North America. I knew there were other communities in the world in which I could make a contribution.
Since I was accepted as a JDC volunteer in September, I have been living in Warsaw. I have gotten involved in the local community, their programs, and their families. Each day I am amazed at what can be done here and how I, as a proud Canadian Jew, can help Jews in need overseas.
The work that I do involves initiatives to unite communities and bridge generation gaps, all within the framework provided here by JDC.
My volunteer position is housed within the Jewish Social Welfare Commission, which is one aspect of JDC's work in Poland.
In addition to projects I organize with the Youth and Education Department, I also work with senior citizens through the welfare commission by creating educational and cultural programs for them, attending retreats with them, listening to them and helping them to live out their lives in dignity.
The welfare commission assists more than 1,000 seniors in seven Jewish communities throughout Poland. It also assists more than 60 families in need.
The seniors and families receive medical care, home care, medicine, food and the attention of volunteers who help enrich their lives. Volunteers are trained and comfortable with what they are doing, and they enjoy their work.
In addition to the work I do in Warsaw, I have had some opportunities to travel to different communities around Poland. Recently, I helped organize a project that highlighted the best of Jewish life in Poland.
As a way to show our appreciation for more than 50 volunteers, the Volunteer Centre organized a Mitzvah Week.
In seven Polish communities - Gdansk, Katowice, Szczecin, Lodz, Wroclaw, Krakow and Warsaw - there is a social worker from the welfare commission as well as numerous volunteers.
Together, we planned a program specifically tailored for each community. The goals were to thank and show appreciation to our volunteers, to create a program that welcomes and includes members and leaders of the community and to give people the opportunity to participate in a special event rooted in Jewish values of doing good for others, working together and taking care of each other.
The planning, advertising and co-ordination of the week kept me on my toes - especially when you consider the language barrier. (I'm working on my Polish.)
But in the end, I helped create a program that included special diplomas, gifts and material to enhance the volunteers' experience in each community.
In Wroclaw, there was a kiddush after shul on Shabbat, during which the rabbi spoke and the social worker made a presentation to members of the community.
In Krakow, the social worker organized an evening in the Senior Club, and many people came and filled the room with happiness. The social worker gave the volunteers their gifts and diplomas and read a story about mitzvot. The rabbi in Krakow addressed the volunteers and emphasized the importance of their work.
Gdansk has a small community, yet despite that, the warmth and energy I felt when I was there was incredible. For the program there, a special Shabbat dinner was organized.
The social worker presented members of the community with gifts and diplomas, and I gave a speech about doing mitzvot and how appreciated the volunteers' work is.
The last Mitzvah Week event took place in Warsaw. More than 60 people, young and old, gathered together. The Youth Club kids sang songs in Hebrew and Polish and a musical presentation by students from the Lauder Morasha Day School followed.
It was incredible that so many people of different ages who do different things in the community came together to do mitzvot and help each other.
The time I have spent in Poland has filled me with many feelings and thoughts. I am so thankful and appreciative that I have the opportunity to work with the Jewish communities in Poland.
The work that is being done here is not easy, and elsewhere in the world, having events like the ones I described may be taken for granted. But not here.
I am so proud and amazed at how the communities came together and how they make an effort to support each other. There is Jewish life here, not just the past that haunts people, but there is a present and a future for the Jews in Poland.
I am hopeful these communities will grow and change. Every community and every person has a story and a past, and here in Poland their stories and their past have motivated and inspired people to create a present and a future.
For more information about JDC and the Jewish Service Corps, visit www.jdc.org.
Aviva Millstone of Toronto is living and volunteering in Poland for one year.