Feature Stories

Learning Fest Helps Rebuild Poland’s Jewish Life

An 800-person Havdallah ceremony—the biggest ever in Poland—culminated this October’s Limud learning fest in Warsaw.
An 800-person Havdallah ceremony—the biggest ever in Poland—culminated this October’s Limud learning fest in Warsaw. photo: Piotr Kulisiewicz

Sasha, 24, is still glowing with enthusiasm, energized by the 800-person Havdallah ceremony—the biggest he’s ever seen in Poland—that culminated this October’s Limud learning fest in Warsaw. For a young man who grew up in a secular family in Dzierżoniów, a small Polish town with no Jewish community, seeing this convergence of Jewish life of all denominations and every corner of his country was an unparalleled experience.

In its fifth year, Poland’s Limud—a pluralistic, volunteer-organized learning initiative that’s active today in over 50 countries—continues to be the country’s largest Jewish gathering year after year. The annual event draws Jews of every age together for a weekend of teaching, discussion, and celebration of community. In a country with such a complex and challenged Jewish history, today this JDC-supported program is an important building block in the reconstruction of a modern Polish-Jewish identity, particularly for many who are learning about Judaism for the first time.

“In my parent’s generation there was no Jewish life whatsoever. Our generation is now teaching ourselves so our children can grow up in a reimagined Jewish community in Poland,” explains Anna, 23, from Warsaw.

Sasha and Anna reflect the new generation of young Polish Jews, many of whom had their first exposure to Judaism through one of the many JDC programs in Europe that have helped rebuild Jewish life where it was once destroyed and shape young leaders to ensure the community’s future.

Sasha, for example, went to the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation/JDC International Summer Camp at Szarvas, Hungary, where he became a madrich (counselor), and then a unit head. Now he is preparing to be the director of Poland’s Jewish camp for some 120 kids next summer. Anna went through JDC’s madrich/a training, where she learned about leadership, Jewish culture, and how to relay tradition and history to kids and youth. Now she works on a variety of “JCC Without Walls” programs to bring people together to experience Judaism in non-traditional settings.

Not only have they both been to every Limud in Poland since its launch in 2008, this year they also each taught sessions on particular aspects of Jewish life they were passionate to share with others. Sasha presented classes about Shabbat and the Sh’ma; Anna led a discussion on using children’s stories to educate about the Holocaust. “Sharing knowledge is critical for our development in Poland. We do not know about Jewish things unless we get together and learn about them through discussion.”

This year’s theme was Education and talks on the value of teaching and learning; text studies; and meetings with authors on Jewish subjects made up a large portion of the weekend’s itinerary. There were also cooking workshops, yoga classes, and film screenings open to all. Everyone offers his or her area of expertise with the community, “because when you’re sharing something with fellow Jews, it becomes Jewish,” Sasha explains.

“For people who come from smaller communities, who don’t have synagogues or JCCs, or Jewish family or friends, Limud is the only opportunity to talk about Jewish things,” explains Anna. This year she decided to bring her parents for the first time. “Here people like my dad can talk about the Jewish books they love, meet other Jews, and feel they are part of something bigger.”

This bridge-building between people, as well as the many organizations and institutions of Poland is an important component of Limud. “Diaspora is not just a concept in the world, it is a reality in Poland, particularly in smaller communities that are not well connected,” Anna notes. “When we all come to Limud we feel stronger, and this is critically important.”

With activities open and accessible to every denomination and every age, Limud allows participants to discover, cultivate, practice, and share Judaism. “It is a perfect entry point for new people and the space for those returning to continue to explore. Being active is what helps community grow,” Sasha says. The conversations here become the narrative of Jewish identity throughout Poland.

“As someone who has grown up Jewish in Poland, seeing the bridges we are building here between disparate parts of our community—through learning, talking, working and sharing with one another—is incredible,” he adds

Anna agrees and points out that this is a great starting point for the next generation. “I got involved from a young age because of the great people I met. Everything that is Jewish in my parents’ home I taught to them,” Anna observes. “Now things are different. When programs like Limud expose young kids to Jewish life, they have a chance to meet peers, go to camp, and connect. It’s easy for them from the beginning.”

Tags for this story: Jewish Holiday Celebrations

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