At the Warsaw JCC, Coronavirus Can’t Stop Jewish Cooking Classes
Maria Kos of the Warsaw JCC shares how she brings Jewish cooking to her community, even when it has to happen over Zoom.
By Maria Kos - Director of Programming for Children and Families, Warsaw JCC | August 11, 2020
Here in Warsaw, we have many Jewish organizations — vibrant synagogues, a Jewish school, a Hillel chapter, and more — but still, I think the Warsaw JCC is unique and essential to Polish Jewish life.
Our role is a special one because, for many people, we’re the first Jewish place they’ll enter in their entire lives. Our members think about us as a safe Jewish space, and we try to ensure we’re open and welcoming from the moment they walk in the door. We also cultivate a spirit of independence. Our mission aligns with JDC’s — we are modern, open, and committed to including everyone who wants to connect with the Jewish community, regardless of their denomination or religious background.
We want to make sure everyone feels comfortable, not just the majority of our community who are secular Jews, but also Orthodox Jews and everyone in between. That’s why we keep a kosher kitchen, and why we take care when planning our activities to ensure we’re including everyone and that there are opportunities for different types of people to meet, talk, and really construct a community together that honors different backgrounds and different points of view.
Growing up in Krakow, I wasn’t involved with the Jewish community. Though I always felt there were some Jewish roots in my family, we didn’t really talk about it. I identified as Jewish even though I didn’t really know what that meant. Back then, I mostly associated Judaism with Holocaust stories, a narrative that was very present in my house. I was very aware of what had happened to Poland’s Jews during the Second War War, as the subject of death camps and how terrible they were was always present.
Finally connecting with the Jewish community was one of the most important events in my life. After moving from Krakow to Warsaw for university, I met a friend who was very openly Jewish, always wearing a huge Star of David necklace, and she invited me to participate in Atid as a madricha (counselor). I don’t want to sound cheesy, but it was magical. Suddenly, I found myself in a group of people I had so many things in common with. I felt completely … safe, and it was a really life-changing moment for me. I made friends that first summer who I still treasure today, and I started to get more involved and more in touch with my Jewishness.
I moved back to Krakow to finish my master’s degree, got involved with the JCC there, and began teaching Sunday School and leading cooking classes. I also met my future husband one summer at Atid, when he served as a madrich with me. We just celebrated our second anniversary, and now we both work at the Warsaw JCC, me as the director of programming for children and families and him as coordinator of our Moadon youth club and Sunday School.
I’m really proud of the work we’re doing. Our JCC’s teen club is called “Hultaj,” which means “rebel” in both Polish and Yiddish. The idea came from the parents, many of whom had sent their kids to Jewish day school through middle school but weren’t sure what would happen next, since Warsaw had no Jewish high school then. They wanted to make sure their kids didn’t disconnect from the Jewish community, and so we founded a group based on three pillars: informal Jewish education; giving kids a fun, social experience; and raising socially aware young Jews. Our teens make sandwiches and hot tea for the homeless, organize clothes drives for refugees, and more. Hultaj really makes a difference for our teens, and they tell me how much they appreciate the chance to make Jewish friends and build a stronger, more positive, and more confident Jewish identity.
Another program that really embodies our approach at the JCC is “Uga,” a culinary workshop named after the Hebrew word for “cake.” Once a month, families come to our JCC to learn about a global Jewish community and cook a meal together from that country. Since we began, our families have visited Japan, South Africa, Ethiopia, and most of the countries in Europe. After we make the food, we all sit down together and have a Shabbat dinner with all the blessings. It has a real impact on our families, and we’ve seen that, slowly, our community members are beginning to feel empowered to host Shabbat dinner in their own homes.
When I bake challah, I feel super Jewish, so maybe this was the right time to make our cooking classes even bigger, I thought.
That success story inspired one of my favorite ways we responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. When we had to close the JCC in mid-March, we had several brainstorming sessions to figure out how we could still keep people connected and provide programs for them in this new reality. I remembered from our family camps that Friday afternoon would always include a challah bake, and many of our participants said it was an important experience of the experience for them. I always led those sessions, and it always made me feel good to see that people were eating a challah they’d made themselves at Shabbat dinner.
When I bake challah, I feel super Jewish, so maybe this was the right time to make our cooking classes even bigger, I thought. After all, a weekly Zoom session could give people a sort of routine during this challenging time. We wanted to give people the opportunity to do something powerful and meaningful without leaving their homes, and in quarantine, people would have the time for the full challah process, not just braiding the dough but making it from scratch.
We started the program in mid-March, and by the second session, it was huge. We had 40 or 50 people on the Zoom call, and everyone wanted to unmute themselves and ask questions. It was crazy! Soon I started to reach out to different members of the community inviting them to share a recipe and lead a session. We had one chef from JCC Krakow, and another from Australia who used to serve in Warsaw as a JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps fellow. We had vegan challahs and dairy-heavy ones, sweet ones with chocolate chips and one with extra honey perfect for Rosh Hashanah.
We had spent so much time thinking about how to get people to bring Jewish traditions into their homes, and suddenly, organically and improbably, our community was baking challah together each week — almost every Friday afternoon for four months. Even when we took a week off for a public holiday, people sent in photos of their challahs. It seemed like our community was getting more and more comfortable with the idea of Shabbat. I was, too: I realized after leading my initial session that it was the first time I’d prepared a Shabbat dinner at home with my husband.
During the pandemic, our important community-building, leadership development, and educational work took on another dimension. We found ourselves calling to make sure everybody was safe and healthy and providing help for those in need. As the world returns to something that looks a little more familiar, I hope we’ll continue to feel so connected to one another.
I want us to grow as a community in every sense, taking ownership of our beloved JCC and taking responsibility for each other. As we do, I’m confident we’re learning the right lessons from this challenging time.
Maria Kos, 29, has worked at the JDC-supported Warsaw JCC since 2014 and serves as its director of programming for children and families. She is also the co-director of Atid, the JDC-supported Polish Jewish summer camp.