In Warsaw, Building Polish Jewish Identity Through Celebration and Exploration

Growing up, Kaja never knew she was Jewish. Now she serves as the Warsaw JCC's teen coordinator, educating the next generation of Polish Jews.

By Kaja Siczek - Warsaw JCC Teen Coordinator | October 19, 2020

Kaja Siczek, right, assists a Polish Jewish teen at a JCC Warsaw cooking event.

When people think about Jews in Poland, I want them to know that we are here. There’s a strong Jewish community in Warsaw, and we’re flourishing.

I’m tired of the phrase “Jewish revival.” This isn’t a resurrection — it’s a continuous process many people have been working very hard at for decades. For the people in my community, the Holocaust is not our primary marker of Jewish identity. It definitely isn’t for me.

Growing up, I didn’t know I was Jewish. For most of my childhood, I thought I was just a regular Polish girl with no particular focus on religion. My parents would celebrate Easter and Christmas, but it was a cultural thing unconnected to Catholic traditions. Then, when I was about 9 years old, my older sister told me we had Jewish roots: “You should know, Kaja, that there is obviously no Santa Claus, and also you’re Jewish. I just talked to Mom about it.” No Santa was obviously a bummer, but when I found out about Chanukah, it sort of balanced out.

My sister brought me to the synagogue for Yom Haatzmaut, Israeli Independence Day. It was a festive, sunny day, and everyone was barbecuing. I met Agata Rakowiecka there, now the director of our JDC-supported Warsaw JCC, and she told me about a Sunday school she was leading in the community. My mom was so excited, but I wasn’t quite as thrilled to be waking up early on Sunday mornings. I soon came to love it, though.

Kaja and her mother attend an event at the Warsaw JCC, which recently celebrated its seventh anniversary.

In 2006, after a year of attending Sunday school, I found out we had a Jewish summer camp in Poland — my first-ever summer Jewish experience. I fell in love with the atmosphere and I made instant friends. It wasn’t like summer camp itself was new to me, but it’s totally different when it’s Jewish. At a regular Polish camp, you go to the sea and have dance parties at night. At a Jewish camp, it’s like you’re at work (but not in a bad way!) — you have a very busy schedule, and you can’t be late. We had Israeli dancing, Hebrew classes, electives, themes we were exploring through different activities … all that in addition to the regular camp stuff like sports and going to the lake. We’ve had to pause these activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but I pray we’ll be able to resume them next summer.

When JDC launched the JCC seven years ago, it was groundbreaking, and it changed everything for my mom. Suddenly, she was there six out of every seven days, going to everything from Hebrew classes to a Jewish book club. Even before the JCC, my experiences in the Jewish community were a window for my mother into the Jewish world, but when it opened its doors, it was an explosion of her Jewish identity and self-expression. I was so proud of her.

The JCC opened at a very good moment for our community — we needed a place to meet that wasn’t the synagogue or one of the programs for the elderly. It might not have met an American standard for JCCs, with a swimming pool or a tennis court, but we definitely met a critical need here in Warsaw: developing interesting programming and making it Jewish through a 21st-century lens or through something more engaging than you might expect.

That culture starts at the top. In Polish society, you usually address people with “Mr.” or “Miss,” but at the JCC, we just call everyone by their names — no hierarchy. We know she’s the director, but she’s also just Agata, my friend and mentor who will grab a coffee with me just to schmooze. The JCC always has a human face.

I was the JCC’s first member, and then in 2016, I started working at the front desk, meeting with groups, hosting visitors, preparing everything before an activity was set to start. I was often the first face that people would see when they entered the JCC. It was a big responsibility, and I always felt proud to grab their hands and say, “Come on in. We don’t bite!”