Poland’s Jewish history is packed with Hassidic connections, especially if you consider that a high percentage of Russian Jews were Polish Jews in the Middle Ages, only for the borders to shift and Poland to be wiped off the map for a time.
But Poland had more Progressive Jews — Conservative and Reform in America — than the United States, Britain and France combined on the eve of World War II, said Rabbi Haim Beliak, the executive director of Beit Polska, Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland (jewishrenewalinpoland.org).
After the Holocaust and more than 40 years of communism, some people think Poland has no Jews or shouldn’t have any Jews, serving instead as a memorial to what was lost to the Nazis and their collaborators. Beit Polska knows Poland has more to offer.
“What is the value of nostalgia? We’re concerned about that. You can’t build a Jewish community just on nostalgia. You have to build it on reality too,” Rabbi Beliak said.
The reality is hard to pin down. Until five or six years ago, he said, census results indicated Poland had 3,000 to 6,000 Jews, but now people say 13,000 and usually will agree on 20,000 to 25,000. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has consistently claimed that 50,000 Jews remain.
Statistically, Rabbi Beliak said, Poland must have 100,000 to 200,000 people with a Jewish grandparent or great-grandparent. The issue, as in the United States and Israel, is whether to embrace those who have been separated from the Jewish community or push them away.
“Our answer at Beit Polska is we try to welcome them,” Rabbi Beliak said.
What typically happens, he said, is that someone will walk into one of the 10 Progressive Judaism communities associated with Beit Polska and express curiosity about Judaism. After several months or even years, that person will acknowledge Jewish ancestry and go through two years of Judaism classes, spending up to 12 hours a week, then complete the return to Judaism with a beit din (religious court) and mikvah.
Rabbi Beliak said Beit Polska’s flagship synagogue in Warsaw has about 150 members; only two of the families have three intact Jewish generations.
A smaller Progressive synagogue operates in the Warsaw suburbs, and a third synagogue opened in Gdansk in July. Beit Polska has seven other congregations that don’t yet qualify as synagogues, but Rabbi Beliak anticipates that three of them could reach that point within a year.
Those congregations rely on financial and mentoring support from American Jews, a process facilitated by Beit Polska’s twinning program between U.S. and Polish congregations. The congregations’ teens might connect by Skype to talk about music or summer camp, while the adults talk about how to operate a synagogue board.
“What we do in Poland is about the restoration of Jewish dignity,” Rabbi Beliak said, “and that restoration of Jewish dignity is a two-way street: how we care about our brothers and sisters in Eastern Europe and how much we want them to connect with us and vice versa.”
Rabbi Beliak, whose mother was from Poland, has worked with Poland’s Progressive Jews since 2011. He has seen the community grow while also helping dozens of Jews make aliyah to continue their Jewish journeys.
“My approach has been that we need to have a compelling Judaism,” he said. Of the 100,000 to 200,000 Poles of Jewish ancestry, “it’s not unreasonable to think that 5,000 to 10,000 will assume a serious Jewish life. Maybe as many as 25,000.”
Rabbi Haim Beliak leads one tour of Poland a year to help visiting Jews connect with the current Jewish community and Poland’s Jewish history. His “insiders’ tour” for 2016 will take place in June and July (exact dates soon to be announced).
As opposed to the March of Life, which focuses on the death camps and cemeteries, Rabbi Beliak’s tour will concentrate on the diversity of Polish Jewish life as the source of modern Jewish life, including Jewish socialism, Yiddish culture, various strains of Zionism and Hassidism. And he ensures that the visitors meet Polish Jews.
“Yes, some people only want to come and see the death camps and leave,” he said. “But more and more I think what people are interested in is seeing the renewal of Jewish life and also seeing something of where people lived. It’s impossible to go anywhere in Poland without the opportunity to say, ‘There was a Jewish community here, and this is what it was about.’ ”
Email RabbiBeliak@JewishRenewalinPoland.org for more information about his tour.