Celebrating One Year of the Warsaw JCC

October 7, 2014

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Emblematic of Poland’s astonishing Jewish revival, Agata Rakowiecka spent six years focusing on attracting young Jews to the Warsaw community, and is now the director of the city’s Jewish Community Center, celebrating its first anniversary later this month.

Agata represents the generation of Polish Jews rediscovering their heritage. We’re grateful she took the time to answer a few questions about the JCC’s important milestone.

Q: This month, the Jewish community center in Warsaw will mark its first anniversary. Please tell us a bit about the complex.

A: The JCC is located in central Warsaw, which we felt was important for it to be. When we looked for a property, we were looking for it to show the Jewish community wasn’t just a thing of the past, but part of the fabric of daily, modern life in the city. To emphasize that point, the JCC’s logo, for instance, combines a mermaid, the official symbol of Warsaw, with a Star of David. The building itself has a large window façade, communicating with the street and inviting people inside. That’s symbolic of the inclusionary spirit of the community, as if sending a message for people to “come in and see!” Chmielna Street, where the JCC is located, is one of the best in Warsaw, packed with cafés, stores and galleries. There are several other cultural institutions nearby and the university is a stone’s throw away as well, making it convenient for students to drop by. We had a record 900 guests fit into the building during the opening, and every Sunday we have about 200 people visitors throughout the day. We definitely faced the problem of a lack of space much sooner than we thought, but I treat that as a good signal.

Q: How did the idea of opening such an institution come about?

A: Warsaw has been in need of a place where all Jews — secular, Orthodox, Reform, unaffiliated, young, seniors, and families — could meet. After successful educational programs like Limmud and summer camps, we knew we had an audience looking for a permanent space where they could partake in Jewish activities. Krakow has had a popular JCC for several years and we thought Warsaw would benefit from one, too. Some 25 years since the Jewish community in Poland was rejuvenated, we thought it was time for there to be an institution like this in the capital.

Q: Where were social and cultural events held before the opening of the JCC in Warsaw?

A: Before the opening, we ran our programs in different locations using a “JCC Without Walls” model. We rented rooms and coffee shops and cooperated with other Jewish institutions in Warsaw to use their facilities. We still like this concept and don’t limit our activities to the JCC, but the JCC is much more than a building. It creates home, it creates community and a specific atmosphere in which people can feel comfortable and have a sense of ownership.

Q: In this first year of programming, what was the most memorable event for you?

A: Besides a wonderful and festive grand opening, the most impressive program was the Purim shuk. We invited craftsmen, designers of Judaica, artists, and chefs from the community to sell their work. Twenty percent of the proceeds were donated to needy members of the community. That day, the JCC was full of wonderful, talented people. Many people came to buy Purim gifts, and we gathered a good sum of money for tzedakah. Sundays are my favorite days of the week at the JCC. That day, we run Boker Tov — a Kosher brunch with wonderful vegetarian food that connects people. At the same time, there are children’s activities, a group of photography students at break who take pictures of their friends sitting at brunch, little kids, dogs, old friends meeting again — there is a sense of happiness and positive energy. There are religious and secular people of different ages sitting together, talking, laughing. I meet people who haven’t been involved with Jewish life for years. At these moments, I realize how needed and how important our mission is.

Q: Looking at the future, how do you see the JCC developing? What kind of new programs will it feature?

A: After a year of experimenting and learning from our members, we have an idea what works and what doesn’t. Many of the programs will be continued. There are plans to have Shabbat dinners on different topics, with special guests. We’re also launching a proper volunteer program and many new programs for kids and young parents. In cooperation with an Israeli architecture studio Talmon Biran, the Polish Institute in Tel Aviv, and the Keret House, we are planning a Hanukkah project, based on lighting the candles in different locations around Warsaw where the candles would have been lit 75 years ago. We want to keep the memory of those people in Warsaw and show the fire is still burning. Our JCC is where Jewish culture happens in this city, and Warsaw is broadcasting “live” to the Jewish world.

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