This past summer, I traveled to Poland to participate in the week-long Krakow Jewish Culture Festival. This was my fourth visit to Poland. I’d visited previously to teach Progressive communities in Warsaw, Gdansk, and Poznan, and lectured in Lublin and Bialystok. I’d met wonderful and thoughtful Jews (and their allies), enjoyed multiple Shabbat meals, led services and shared Torah–but I’d never been to the famous Krakow Festival! So, I decided to go.
The annual Festival, held in Krakow’s historic Jewish district, Kazimierz, and now running for almost 30 years, provides an abundant “smorgasbord” of Jewish cultural experiences—musical workshops and performances (this year in Hebrew, Polish, Yiddish, Arabic, Farsi, and even Hindi!), art talks, movies, lectures, and classes. For a week, Kazimierz was over-run by thousands of tourists from all over the world–most of them not Jewish, but all of them drawn there by the Festival’s reputation for offering high-level and eclectic fare. Multiple events/sessions were scheduled simultaneously, and the biggest challenge was the difficult decision of which to attend and which to miss—and how to get enough sleep. (I tried to get to the hip and edgy late night musical offerings, where, middle-aged graying/balding guy that I am, I no doubt would have stuck out like a sore thumb, but—I could never actually stay up that late!) I was privileged to teach Torah twice, inEnglish for the English-speakers, to an eclectic mix of people– Polish Jews, non-Jewish Poles interested in learning more about Judaism from a rabbi/psychiatrist from America, and tourists of assorted nationalities.
The high points of the festival are the JCC-sponsored “Ride for the Living” from Auschwitz to Krakow, a geographic distance of 90 km, but a psychological distance infinitely greater–from the “Kingdom of Death” to the Land of the Living; Friday night Shabbat dinner, sponsored by the JCC and held in the old train station, which this year had over 500 guests (the kosher chicken soup was delicious!); and the closing Saturday night concert, “Shalom on Szeroka”), held before thousands in the main square, with many of the week’s musical performers giving a free encore performance and playing together.
But the real high point for me personally was the Friday night Progressive service held in the magnificent Tempel Synagogue (the newest of Kazimierz’s seven synagogues, a mere 150 years old). The hall was packed and overflowing—Polish Jews, gentile tourists, American teen groups visiting Poland on their way to Israel. I was privileged to co-lead the Shabbat service with members of Krakow’s Progressive Jewish community, helped by some NFTY song leaders from North America. Here we were–hundreds of people, packed together in the pews, singing and davening together in a Polish schul! I spoke to the congregation about how moved I was to stand on the bima (pulpit) occupied for nearly 40 years in the early decades of the 20th century by Rabbi Yehoshua (Ozjasz) Thon, a Progressive rabbi who was a Polish patriot, democrat, and statesman (and also a pro-Zionist) before the Shoah, and whose grave I had visited earlier that day in the New Jewish Cemetery in Krakow. Here we all were, living proof that Progressive Judaism in Poland is alive and growing—proof that a long and illustrious history is still being written.
So, to my American friends, I say: Come visit Progressive Jewish Poland! In addition to touring museums and Shoah sites, make sure your itinerary includes at least one of the communities of Beit Polska–Beit Warszawa and Beit Centrum in Warsaw, or Beit Trojmiasto in Gdansk. If you make it to the Krakow Festival in 2018, come to schul for the Progressive Shabbat service on Friday night. (Perhaps you’ll participate in the Ride for the Living—you don’t have to do the whole 55 miles!) And to my Polish Progressive Jewish friends, members of Beit Polska, I say: Keep up your good work and dedication! You inspire us with your love and thirst for Jewish tradition, and with your determination and commitment to make sure that Progressive Judaism in Poland continues to grow and flower. May you go from strength to strength, and may we be privileged to keep celebrating with you.
See you next time!