Feature Stories

Warsaw JCC Debuts

Hundreds of people packed Warsaw’s first modern Jewish Community Center (JCC) recently to celebrate the facility’s opening — a remarkable milestone in Poland’s astonishing Jewish renaissance.

Funded by JDC, the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture, the Koret Foundation, and other donors, the new JCC is the second in the country and will serve as a boutique hub for a vast array of Jewish cultural, educational, and community programs and activities.

“The opening of the JCC is yet another chapter in the remarkable story of the revival of Jewish life in this country,” JDC CEO Alan Gill said. “It’s a testament to the perseverance of Polish Jews that they are continuing to rebuild their institutions after surviving near annihilation followed by decades of oppression.”

JDC’s help was also crucial in establishing Krakow’s JCC, which opened in 2008 and operates a variety of programs and activities for that city’s Jews. Chief among the Krakow center’s annual slate of programming is 7@NITE, a “Judaism Without Walls” festival in which the city’s seven remaining synagogues are opened to the public for events like concerts, fashion shows, film screenings, and art exhibits.

The Warsaw center — now in a brick-and-mortar location after a year of operating under a “JCC Without Walls” model — is a powerful symbol of Poland’s progress, said Agata Rakowiecka, the facility’s director and a JDC staff member.

The 3,000-square-foot space is located in one of central Warsaw’s hippest neighborhoods and will offer a range of activities around the year, including cooking classes, childcare, training programs, Jewish education, theater classes, and a book club for its 900 preregistered members. Before its conversion, the building was a popular café.

“This is next-level. The JCC will show that Polish Jews — even in small numbers — can do significant things for each other, for the city they live in, and for the Jewish community, which is not a closed chapter, but something evolving, constantly changing,” Rakowiecka said. “The JCC sends a strong message: that Jews can feel good, safe, and comfortable in the heart of Warsaw.”

Before the Holocaust, Warsaw was home to about 400,000 Jews, a third of the city’s population. Now, all of Poland has just 25,000 Jews — but the community remains strong and diverse.

Miriam Gonczarska, who attended the JCC’s October 27 dedication, said she’s proud the center will welcome all Jews.

“The beauty of this place is that it’s a place for everybody. Anyone can come — Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Haredi, totally secular. Everyone can come and be comfortable,” she said. “There aren’t many places in the Jewish world that can say that. This is one.”

Though JDC has worked in Poland since shortly after its founding in 1914 and through the second World War, it re-entered Poland in 1981 to provide relief services during the Cold War era. Today, JDC continues to ensure the well being of impoverished elderly and other vulnerable Jews and to help Polish Jews reconnect to Judaism and secure a vibrant future.

JDC’s role in Poland is huge,” Rakowiecka said. “The Joint [as JDC is affectionately known] is the only organization answering the various needs of the Jewish population. It supports local organizations, creates programs, and fills the gaps in the community-building process.”

It’s JDC support, she added, that makes Poland’s landmark Jewish revival possible.

“Polish Jews are taking over their own fate. They have their own ideas of what it means to be Jewish in Poland, to be Jewish and Polish,” Rakowiecka said. “The JCC’s goal is to provide the people with a platform to express themselves.”

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