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Poland’s Real Jewish Revival

Their parents and grandparents hid their Jewishness, but now some Poles are converting back to Judaism

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(Photoillustration IvyTashlik; original photo Shutterstock Shutterstock)
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On a recent Tuesday night in Warsaw, more than 30 people gathered around Rabbi Gil Nativ for the second weekly session of “Judaism Step by Step,” a yearlong course offered by Beit Warszawa, one of the city’s two Reform congregations. The group included homemakers, students, lawyers, and retirees, ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s. Some men wore kippahs; some women donned Star of David pendants on their necklaces. A few spoke English, but many did not, so the Israeli-born Nativ, who gave his talk in English, was accompanied by a Polish translator.

As everyone settled into a haphazard circle, Nativ carefully reminded the group that this was a class for anyone interested in learning more about Jewish life and culture. It was not a conversion class, he asserted—before segueing into a history of Jewish conversion.

It was a hot topic among the group, disclaimers aside. After all, among those attending that night were nine students—coincidentally, all women—from the previous cycle of “Judaism Step by Step,” eight of whom would soon be leaving for Krakow, where they would sit before a beit din, submerge themselves in the country’s only mikveh, and formally become Jews. While one of those women was planning to convert because she’s marrying a Jewish man, most of them, only coincidentally all women, were part of a current trend in Poland, where people are rediscovering their hidden Jewish roots and converting back to the religion of their parents and grandparents, who often kept their Jewishness a secret for fear of postwar anti-Semitism.

Jonathan Ornstein, executive director of Krakow’s Jewish Community Center, refers to this trend as Poland’s “Jewish Jewish revival,” where people are embracing the religion cast off or hidden by their ancestors. “You are talking about a community that was frozen. It went underground,” Ornstein said. “And now it’s reemerging.“

Nativ agrees, and his course plays a key role, not only in educating non-Jewish Poles about Judaism, but also in helping Jews reconnect with their lost heritage. “We are a small people, and we have not recuperated from the Holocaust,” Nativ told me in an interview. “There are less Jews in the world today than there were in December 1939, so we should welcome everyone who comes and says, ‘I want to join the Jewish people.’ ”


At Nativ’s “Judaism Step by Step” session, the women who were preparing for conversion took the floor and told their personal stories about their journeys back to Judaism. Among them was Sylwia Kędzierska, a sophisticated, fast-talking 34-year-old attorney whose story echoed those of most seated under the fluorescent lights of the conference room at the Austrian Culture Center, located next door to the old Warsaw Ghetto buildings on Próżna Street. “This has been a dream of mine since I was 5 years old,” Kędzierska said.

Like many Polish Jews who remained in Poland after the war, Kędzierska’s paternal grandfather abandoned his Jewishness for secular atheism, keeping his Jewish identity a secret in favor of the utopian dreams offered by Communism, under which many Polish Jews hoped they would find equality with their non-Jewish comrades. Neither her grandparents nor her father spoke of their family’s Jewish heritage.

Kędzierska’s situation was not unusual, according to Paweł Śpiewak, director of the Jewish Historical Institute, as well as a sociology professor at the University of Warsaw who recently published Żydokomuna, a book whose title is an old Polish slur meaning “Judeo-Communist.” He told me, “I think that most of us, 80 or 90 percent, were born in Communist families, leftist, atheist, even Catholic families.” The son of Holocaust survivors, Śpiewak acutely understands the fear under which Jews lived in Poland after World War II. As a child, Śpiewak observed his father obsessively compose poems about survivor’s guilt, while he also watched friends and relatives leave in droves during the Communist expulsion of Jews in 1968. “For me, Jewishness meant only fear,” he said. “After the war, those who stayed in Poland were often people who worked for the state, the Polish intelligentsia who felt an obligation to stay, or people who simply didn’t want to leave their home. They felt they could survive in Poland only if they could conceal their past, so they changed names, they changed their family documents, baptized themselves. The anti-Semitism of the late ‘40s, it was a very real experience, not just a slogan. People had reasons to really be afraid.”

Over naleśniki and tea at Café Prożna, an intimate noshery located in the old Warsaw Ghetto buildings, Kędzierska told me after the “Step by Step” session that, despite her family’s silence, she had the sense that she was Jewish from a very young age. She was raised in Muranow, the prewar Jewish area of Warsaw, and she remembered her father taking her to the Nozyk Synagogue when it was first refurbished in 1983. “Ninety percent of my parents’ friends were Jewish, and my father makes the best gefilte fish you’ve ever tasted,” she said. “Still, we never talked about our own family history. It was a strict don’t ask, don’t tell policy.”

It wasn’t until Kędzierska was 15 that her suspicions were confirmed, when her grandmother gave her a copy of the memoir written by her grandfather, who had died when Kędzierska was 5. That’s when she discovered that her great-grandmother had been one of the few to survive Treblinka and that her grandparents had met in a Communist group whose membership was largely Jewish. “It all came together,” Kędzierska told me. “I was finally vindicated, you know? I had always felt so alienated from my school friends, who were all Catholic, and I always identified more with my father’s family.”

Soon after discovering the truth, Kędzierska did her best to start practicing Judaism. In 1991, she bought herself a Haggadah, started to “kosherize” her meat—which for her meant salting her mother’s roasts—and began observing the High Holidays. She read every book on Jewish life and culture she could find. Still, because her mother wasn’t Jewish, Kędzierska worried that she’d never be accepted into the Jewish community. “The most difficult thing for me was, I was afraid of Jewish people not recognizing me,” she said. “But when I thought more about becoming properly Jewish, I knew it would feel like a homecoming, not like I was changing faith, because I never had another faith. Plus, I wanted to choose, because you can choose your identity. And I wanted to choose full Jewishness. Not half, not this or that. But I wanted to completely embrace my identity.”

Kędzierska made her first attempt at conversion in the mid-’90s. She wrote a letter to Rabbi Pinchas Menachem Joskowicz, who was then the Chief Rabbi of Poland and head of Warsaw’s Nozyk Synagogue. She told him her story and asked how she could begin the conversion process. Joskowicz never responded; Kędzierska can’t be sure he ever got her note, but regardless, she began to lose hope.

“The Nozyk Synagogue was only accepting people born into Jewish families,“ Śpiewak said. “You had to be willing to be fully Orthodox, which was not an option for most of those of Jewish heritage in Poland, many of whom were part of the intelligentsia, who had complicated biographies.”

When Ornstein moved to Poland from Israel in 2001 and then helped open Krakow’s JCC in 2008, people were already talking about a Jewish renaissance in Poland; it was largely a movement carried by non-Jews who wanted to celebrate and preserve Poland’s rich history of Jewish life and culture. Quickly, however, Ornstein started meeting more and more Poles of Jewish origin, people like Kędzierska who wanted to return to their ancestral faith without becoming Orthodox. “The first stage was the non-Jewish interest, but, now, we’re in the second stage,” he said, where people with Jewish backgrounds rediscover their own heritage. “It’s fantastic, because regenerating Jewish communities in Europe has, for the most part, not been a positive experience, but ours is. Poland is the only country in the world where it’s safer, easier, and more accepted to be Jewish every single day.”

Exactly how to reabsorb these crypto-Jews back into the greater Jewish community, however, has been a huge source of puzzlement for religious leaders like Nativ. Because so many Poles of Jewish origin were raised without any Jewish education, were often baptized Catholic, and, in many cases, are not halakhically Jewish in the Orthodox sense, conversion has become, for even the most liberal rabbis, a crucial part of the rebuilding process.

While Ornstein acknowledges that conversion is a divisive and touchy subject within the Jewish world, he points out that the situation for many of those converting in Poland is unique. He’s careful to clarify that the goal of places like the JCC Krakow is not to convert non-Jews, but to give Poles of Jewish origin a place to be Jewish. “Jewish life is starting to become normal. It’s no longer novelty, but something real and everyday. Now we’re focused on building the normal Jewish institutions one needs to sustain such a community. And this is a process that takes time. But, even in five years, the change is unbelievable.”


When he was first asked to come to Poland, Nativ was skeptical that any Jewish life existed here. He and his wife Ziva only arrived in Warsaw in August, and immediately they were pleasantly surprised. “I thought there really was nothing here, but there is an interest,” he said. “There is a fire here, and all the people converting and getting interested in Jewish life is also exciting, because it is different from what we always experienced inside or around an established Jewish community. This is starting from, in one way, scratch, which is truly incredible.”

But how to start from scratch has been bewildering for everyone, from the country’s most Orthodox rabbis to Nativ, who was ordained at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem and has served both Reform and Conservative congregations all over the world for more than 30 years. Because almost 90 percent of Polish Jews living in Poland were not raised Jewish, Nativ believes that conversion is required even for those who are halakhically Jewish. “Throughout their childhood, if they got no Jewish education whatsoever, and especially if they got a Catholic education, then the fact that the mother was formally Jewish means very little,” he said. “If you’ve had no Jewish upbringing, which many here don’t, then you need the conversion process to solidify your Jewish identity.”

For Kędzierska, converting finally became a real option in July 2011, when Beit Warszawa offered the “Judaism Step by Step” course for the first time. For the past year, she’s spent every Tuesday night learning how to read ancient Hebrew, bake Passover cakes and challah, light Shabbat candles, and sing Jewish songs. She’s also offered her services as a translator for the revolving door of rabbis, none of whom have been Polish, at Beit Warszawa, which first opened in 1995 and now boasts a membership of more than 250 people, according to Marta Pilarska, the synagogue’s administrative assistant. “When I first started lighting Shabbat candles 13 or 14 years ago, I felt like I was playing a role—like I was faking it,” Kędzierska said. “I always thought: Is this really mine? Now, it’s more and more mine. And every time I do it, I think of all the women in my family who lit those candles before me, and I feel that much more connected.”

Earlier this month, on Nov. 13, Kędzierska’s dreams finally came true. Unlike the other eight women from the first “Step by Step” cycle, Kędzierska decided not to go to Krakow for her conversion, but opted for Los Angeles instead, where she preferred to be converted by a Conservative beit din that included Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, the former rabbi of Beit Warszawa under whom Kędzierska did most of her studies. “It worked out,” she wrote me in an email, her euphoria absolutely palpable. “I’m now fully Jewish. Still can’t get over it, feels like a dream.”


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StefanoNBelinda says:

a shame that they are wasting their time with Reform rather than studying and practicing real Judaism.

Richard D. Cameron says:

What a putz you are Stefano. Amazing that you simply cannot take joy in the reaffirmation of their Judaism, instead you find the need to proclaim your own poisonous message. Who made you an expert on Jewish authenticity?

    well said, richard

    Thank you, Richard–Stefano’s kind of knee-jerk sectarianism is a spiritual and intellectual curse.

    genelevit says:

    Reform “Judaism” is not a Judaism. The name was stolen for the new religion and the new deity by the name: “social justice”. The only common part between two religions is the fact that the majority of adherents for both of them are ethnic Jews

      Richard D. Cameron says:

      Always hoping for an intellectual discussion, worthy of “Tablet”. In that spirit, “genelevit”, if you want to engage in a serious discussion about “who is a Jew” and the Torah and prophets attention and directives about social justice, based upon fact, history and logic, let me know. I will be happy to engage privately and provide my private email address.

Good for them. They should be proud to be Jewish, whether they choose to be reform or orthodox or conservative.

good for them! i grew up in the US and didn’t find out that i was jewish until after my mother and grandmother died. i thought everyone’s grandparents spoke yiddish. it’s a journey for me.

beldujour says:

Welcome *home* to all of them!

Jews returning to Poland…..Mashugana

    genelevit says:

    I guess some people history teaches nothing. I wonder if they are Jews at all: their kops are definitely not Yiddishe.

Hey this is 21 century dear, reform is the go, and Judaism is what ever it’s in yours hart not what has been brainwashed in to you.

    Michelle, you may think that it is “the go”. But frankly, it is a matter of arithmetic.

    Several years ago I was a guest at the national convention of the Union of Reform Judaism. The most common refrain that I heard, was not that their children had intermarried, and that the grandchildren were not raised as Jews, but that they would not have grandchildren at all.

    As we know, in grester New York, over 70% of the Jewish children are Orthodox. The greater secret, is that a large majority of the world’s Jewish children live in Israel. Perhaps 1% of Israelis are affiliated with the Reform movement. While the non Orthodox majority may complain about the rabbinical establishment, the synagogue and services that they choose on the rare occassions when they go, are Orthodox.

    The Israeli Reform movement further alienates themselves from the majority, by their staunchly identifying themselves with the elitist political left. By contast, the Israeli Masorati/Conservative movement, is staunchly non partisan.

      Scott Tennis says:

      Reform is nothing more than a resting place for those Jews living in small towns with no Conservative or Orthodox congregations. Most of the members are married out and their children also marry out.It’s just the final stop for those people whose children will no longer identify as Jews. And that’s a fact.

Rachel Bookstein says:

Beautiful article.

My husband and I spent more than 6 years working on the revival of the Polish Jewish community in Poland for the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. After graduate school we worked as “wandering Jewish merrymakers”, racing through train stations, and pot-hole riddled streets, we faced all kinds of Polish weather to make our way to the small and often unmarked Jewish social clubs throughout Poland. We were part of a team of dedicated people making holiday celebrations and summer camp activities under the leadership of Rabbi Michael Schudrich starting in 1996. Two years later we took over as the Country Director, and Program Director of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation in Poland. While we were there for only four additional years, I can say truthfully that they were among the most rewarding and transformative years of my life. The RSL Foundation began 25 years ago by meeting basic communal needs like kindergartens, social clubs, holiday celebrations, educational summer camps. It is even responsible for building, and rebuilding (under my watch in 2001) the mikveh I surmise, that is mentioned in this article, that is now being used for Reform conversions.

The community was then, like now, thirsty for knowledge and excited by new openness in Poland. In the 1990’s the emerging sense of excitement that Poles-with-Jewish-Roots had permission and access to our shared Jewish heritage was palpable – a development we all encouraged and supported responsibly.

It was my sincere honor to have been a part of that blossoming, and I love reading about all the good work being done there today. Today in Poland there are so many more options for Jewish observance and identification as your article describes. There are Reform Communities, and essential cultural institutions like the JCC’s, but there are also home-grown Polish Jewish leaders: politicians, academics and activists who are publicly displaying their identity, heritage and spirituality reviving the indigenous Jewish infrastructure. And now, unlike when we were there, Chabad has established itself as a strong orthodox presence. Polish Jews, Poles-with-Jewish-Roots, and the Polish Jew-Curious now have many more resources and to that I can only say na zdrovie!

I would like nothing more than a chance for my husband and I to return to Poland for a visit with our children Moshe (13) and Tzofiya (12) who were born while we were living in Warsaw, and Shlomo (10) and Naftali (6) who were born “state-side”, for a visit this summer to travel and see the complex reality of post-war, post-communist, and post-assimilation Poland.

I am excited by the well written stories I sometimes read, or the stories my friends tell when they return from an academic conference, a family roots trip or for whatever reason they may be going to Poland. Because Polish Jewish communities are rushing headlong into their own history making, and we have a lot to learn from the results.

Thanks for covering the Polish Jewish revival.

Rachel Bookstein
Jewlicious Festival // JConnect LA

“If you’ve had no Jewish upbringing, which many here don’t, then you need the conversion process to solidify your Jewish identity.” – this is a joke, right? where, in what country,a halakhic Jew, schooled or not in Jewish matters, has to go thru a convertion?

    My Conservative rabbi recommends that halachic Jews who were not living as Jews, either through ignorance or choice, who decide to return to active Jewish practice, should undergo the mikveh. It’s not conversion, and perhaps the article would have been well-advised not to call it that, but rather a re-dedication. However, as the article also says, many of these Polish Jews have complicated ancestries, so a mikveh might be advisable for them, to have their Jewishness undisputed. Also, although again, I would not call it formal conversion, a class for those with no knowledge of Judaism, seems like a good idea, so that their Judaism can involve identity, belief and practice.

Maybe Poles will become more tolerant one day!

    Poles need to realize that the Jews among them are just as Polish as they are. As Morgan Freeman once said when referring to black history month, “Black history is American history.” Well, Jewish history is Polish history. Jews have lived in Poland continuously for 1000 years. They served in the court of the King, they were in the army as soldiers and officers alike, they struggled for Poland’s freedom, whether it was in the wars against the Russians or the wars against the Germans. As it was reported, during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Polish flag was raised by the ZZW right alongside the flag they chose for themselves.

creditresource says:

Wonderful story of growing up Jewish in Poland since the war. A real change is taking place a visiting the Jewish Festivals that abound in Poland today is always a good start. Krakow at the end of June is the best trips arranged through

do they really think there’s a future for Jews in Poland? Do they really think that the Poles will ever do away with their anti-semitism. It’s in their DNA, it’s in the air, in the water, and in the blood-soaked earth.

the future for Jews in Poland is always going to be hostage to the latent hatred of Jews; it’s not going away.
And anyone who thinks otherwise is engaging in a fool’s errand.

Srul Cenzurstein says:

a lot of historical lies in this article – western Europe doesnt know, and doesnt want to know, that so called “communists” have organized in Poland, at goverment level of Soviet occupied country (and betrayed former ally), a real terror, with thousands Poles tortured and killed by Jews, who were then in power. For minimum 11 years after war, when Europe celebrated end of war, Jews were introducing in Poland a “new order”. Read something about names like Salomon Morel, Josef Swiatlo, Josef Rozanski, before you belive in so called “after war antisemitism”. (warning – knowledge about certain facts is for Jews enough to categorize you as “antisemite”, so consider before reading)

    brynababy says:

    What world are you living in? Not the real one, for sure. It is your kind of lies and pretending that kept Poland from moving forward until now.

      Absolutely agreed, brynababy. This fellow belongs to a sad bitter and twisted but vocal minority. I for one am delighted by this revival, as are many of my friends and relatives back in Warsaw. For centuries the city was a multi-ethnic melting pot – a fact later, unfathomably, swept under the proverbial carpet by crude, nationalist post-war propaganda. My grandparents and parents told me how their friends had one by one left Poland for Israel after the war, especially after the March events of 1968. The real pain and shame for them was knowing that, those Polish Jews who had been lucky enough to survive the Nazi carnage during the war, later left because Poland became such an unpleasant place to live in. Yes, the Holocaust was a Nazi crime but – if you believe in collective responsibility – the shame of the lynch mobs of Kielce and Krakow in the late 40’s and the mass-exile after 1968 laid solely with us Poles. Thankfully this is now changing but I wish it had happened sooner. We will sadly never have another generation of Jewish Poles like that of Tuwim, Slonimski, Korczak, Brzechwa, Tarski, Szpilman, Rubisnstein, Tyrmand, Lesmian and …too many great Poles too mention!

Srul Cenzurstein says:

also, FYI – there is almost no antisemitism in Poland. Jews in Poland are hated for the things they were actually doing, not for some false accusations, so its not a so called “antisemitism”. Only in Gaza Zone there is even less antisemitsm than in Poland. Menachem Z. Rosensaft has called all Jews to boycott Poland, and he is absolutely right – please, please, boycott us, leave us, forgeg polish and Poland, you all, and do it for ever.

This is a wonderful thing. Safety to all of these wonderful, brave people.

If you want to help tell more of this fascinating tale of Jewish revival:

This is so familiar to me. My great great grandparents Frank & Hannah Haberland left Pleskau RB around 1889, sailed to the UK via Berlin, where their first son was born. Going through Ancestry UK I found Rabbi Haberland who sailed from New York in 1920 and stopped off in the UK before sailing on to Hamburg. Frank & Hannah lived in Bethnal Green for many many years, producing 12 or 13 children. One of my relatives in my early childhood used to give me Gefilterfish, when we visited. Frank & Hannah kept quiet and were buried in the Jewish grave yard not far from Bethnal Green. As a little girl I felt alienated by Christianity, my Italian Mother never practiced her own Roman Catholic faith, my grandmother never attended any church or synagogue. She met my grand father at Saqui & Lawrence Jewelers in the East End. I entered my first Synagogue during Pesach, 30 years ago, and was welcomed. At this time my name, was Vivienne Simmons, the Rabbi believed I may already be connected, there had been another Vivian Simmons. However, I explained there was no connection and I needed to convert. I recall the first thing I said to him was ‘we are all sons of G-d, Jesus isn’t G-ds only son, I believe he was either a Rabbi or a prophet’. I went before the Beth din, Rabbi Jonathan Saxe, Rabbi Julia Neuman, believe Rabbi Rothschild and one other took me through my paces. I attended the oldest Micvah in London, on my conversion. I feel a profound connection to the Jewish people and only hope when I come to die a Rabbi can be found, or I’ll just have to repeat the Schma to myself with my last breath! For over a year I studied, Jewish practice and Hebrew. Sadly I lost the man I was too marry, but I’m still proud of my Jewish heritage.

I can see from some of the comments below, some one will be unkind enough to point out spelling mistakes on Jewish words, say I’m not really one of you. I will tell you something about being a Jewess, first we are survivors, resilient and pretty smart. I’ve run my own business on a shoestring and made it work. I handle finance and negotiating well. I’ve taken abuse and on many occasions been asked are you prepared to work over the high holidays. So those nasty clever intellectuals down below be glad you were born and bred correctly into the faith. Further more Israel wants recognition as a nation not as a bunch of Holier than thou Jews! Lastly what I found truly appalling in the screening of the ‘Future of Israel’ BBC2 UK, your Chassidim live on welfare? Their reason being, they must study the TORAH all the time? Come on please, every Jew Orthodox, Conservative, Masorati, Reform, aught to be working for the good of Israel and her future. Those of you fortunate to live there be proud and grateful for the beautiful land you’ve finally come home to, Israel will sort out Gaza. Insults will simply be water off a duck’s back!

Wolf Krakowski says:

Maybe the proud, new Jewish community can get Polish magazine photographers from using the Jewish cemetery in Lodz for their fashion shoots.


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Poland’s Real Jewish Revival

Their parents and grandparents hid their Jewishness, but now some Poles are converting back to Judaism