I was invited to join Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland (FJRP)’s Board of Directors this summer by Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak. Joining this tremendous group of dedicated volunteers in their laudable efforts to bolster the Jewish community in Poland was an honor for me. Not long after joining, Rabbi Beliak informed me of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit Poland, as a guest of the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in Los Angeles, as FJRP’s representative, together with a group of renowned leaders of the Jewish communities in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Seattle. Knowing it was not an opportunity to say “no” to, I immediately agreed and set aside my other obligations to make it happen. I want to thank not only the Consulate General for the seven days I spent touring Poland as a result of their diligent planning and generosity, but also FJRP, which sponsored the second half of my trip, when I had the opportunity for a very different set of experiences. Overall, my trip was a transformative experience in every way. It expanded my understanding of the myriad challenges that the Polish-Jewish community confronts on a daily basis, and it also allowed me to see with my own eyes and viscerally experience the promise of a better future in a way I would never have seen from my vantage point in Los Angeles. Not only did I forge friendships in Poland that will last a lifetime, but I witnessed real change in action, and I saw first-hand the tikkun of people who are working tirelessly to transform the hearts, minds, and lives of Polish people, helping to rebuild a vibrant and sustainable Jewish community in Poland.
When Rabbi Beliak asked me to write about my experiences in Poland, I struggled with choosing from the many life-changing experiences I had there. The trip was truly overwhelming, and my head is still spinning from it all, even many months after the fact. Some of the highlights included a moving memorial concert in Kielce, where I first got to meet Piotr (Menachem) Mirsky, who was performing, and who is now a rabbinical student at American Jewish University. Cindy Paley also participated in the concert of Yiddish music and memorial prayers. Polish television and radio stations broadcast the events. After sharing in a sublime afternoon of outdoor music together, I met there numerous leaders of the Kielce’s Catholic community including clergy and the city President (Mayor) as well as Jewish visitors to the Kielce’s annual memorial events commemorating the 1946 pogrom. This was the first year that a performance of Jewish music to recall the culture of the Jews of Poland was added. We celebrated the release of the life-affirming, deeply-humanistic new film, “Bogdan’s Journey,” and we broke bread together in a restaurant where we enjoyed authentic Polish cuisine and got to know one another.
I met a teacher in Kielce who is interested in Bibliodrama and who was kind enough to share with me an English translation of her new play.
I met the Poland-based staff of FJRP, including Dominika Zakrzewska, who works tirelessly on behalf of FJRP. We discussed the initiatives of FJRP and how FJRP can maximize its impact.
I drove across the Polish countryside with Piotr to Gdansk, where I met leaders of Gdansk Progressive Jewish community. We met Kasia Mazurkiewicz, the chair while visiting the Beit Troijmiasto synagogue in Gdansk. I was able to spend several hours taking in the powerful, breathtaking new WWII museum. Piotr explained to me the controversial history of the museum, and many of the exhibits are permanently imprinted in my memory.
I attended a Shabbat dinner in Krakow’s Kazimierz district, the focus of the Jewish Music Festival, with over 600 attendees, the power of which just blew my mind away.
I attended concerts in Krakow and Warsaw, including a Chopin concert. I attended services in Krakow and Warsaw, and met Rabbi Walter L. Rothschild, who led the services. One of the most moving moments for me personally was witnessing the Havdalah blessing being recited by children who had composed their own variation on a famous melody. Their voices seemed to rise up from the very core of the Earth and sent a chill down my spine. I felt honored to be able to share in this and so many other ineffable moments with the local communities, to sing with them, to hear their personal stories, to understand the significance of these ceremonies to them personally, and to laugh and cry with them. The stories people shared with me will remain with me forever, including one young man from the United States who emigrated to Poland in search of meaning and found there his first true experience of family. Their courage and strength is an inspiration.
As we were leaving Beit Warszawa one evening, we saw that Tzedakah was being collected in one of the only surviving relics of a synagogue that was destroyed by the Nazis. There was something deeply life-affirming about this, and we were all moved to donate what we had in our pockets as we were leaving. I could go on and on and say so much more about my trip to Poland this past summer. I had been to Poland a few times previously, but this trip was very different and far more meaningful. It is one thing to hear about all the work that is being done in Poland and in other communities to repair the world; it’s another thing altogether to be there, to sing, dance, laugh, cry, and experience life first-hand with the people who are doing the hard, sometimes demoralizing work of rebuilding our traumatized, devastated world. It would be impossible to overstate the importance of the work that FJRP is doing in Poland. I feel honored to be a part of it. The people on the ground in Poland deserve our unconditional support in every way possible. They are our future. I wish I could bottle up all the hope and inspiration I gained from this trip and spread it around on the days when our news coverage leaves us little cause for optimism. If our goal is to leave the world a better place than we found it, then helping FJRP succeed is nothing less than our collective responsibility.
Nedda Black is a Los Angeles-based attorney and mediator, who joined the FJRP Board of Directors in the summer of 2017.