In Warsaw, Building Polish Jewish Identity Through Celebration and Exploration

In Warsaw, Building Polish Jewish Identity Through Celebration and Exploration

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

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

By: Kaja Siczek - Warsaw JCC Teen Coordinator

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!”

Kaja, right, is the coordinator for Hultaj, the Warsaw JCC's teen club.
Kaja, right, is the coordinator for Hultaj, the Warsaw JCC’s teen club.

Now I work with our community’s teenagers, through our “Hultaj” teen club. I like to say we’re the JCC’s inner power. The word “hultaj” means “rebel” in Polish and also in Yiddish — it’s the kind of thing people might have heard from their bubbe or zayde. It definitely fits us. We’re the cool kids gang, walking around the JCC and eating the leftovers from our “Boker Tov” Sunday brunch and minding our own business, but we’re also super helpful and involved with LGBTQ and social justice issues. We look for modern topics that interest our teens — things like the Jewish guidelines for surviving a crisis like the pandemic or connecting Black Lives Matter to Biblical concepts like “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” I always focus on the Jewish calendar, coordinating and synchronizing activities with the Jewish holidays but also recognizing that not all of our teens go to Jewish day school.

It’s hard sometimes for me to understand that there are some people who don’t believe I’m Jewish — because I don’t have any papers that prove it, just my mother’s story. I identify as Jewish, I keep a kosher kitchen, and I teach the next generation of the Warsaw Jewish community. How can that not be enough? But I know it’s not, not for some people. I’m considering a formal conversion to prove my Jewishness beyond a shadow of a doubt.

With the best of what’s Polish and the best of what’s Jewish, we can move mountains.

Once that comes, it will be one more chapter of my beautiful, improbable Polish Jewish story. Our community is developing so quickly that, at 25, I already feel like an old lady. Some of my younger friends used to be my campers, and now they’re madrichim (counselors) themselves. I hope I’ve been setting a good example.

As we look to the future, with JDC as a partner, I hope we’ll continue becoming an even more unified community, not only talking to each other but really listening. I want us to follow the JCC’s example and build a Polish Jewish community not of “bossy bosses” but of true cooperative leaders. We really take responsibility for each other as a community, always showing that we care, and I want that to continue.

Polish hospitality is famous, like the stereotype of the yiddishe mama overfeeding you and asking you too many questions about your love life. I want us to channel the best of that, with love for everyone and not just an exclusive group. I’m confident that with the best of what’s Polish and the best of what’s Jewish, we can move mountains.

Kaja Siczek, 25, is the teen coordinator at the Warsaw JCC and works as a tour coordinator and educator at The Taube Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland Foundation.