Celebrations & More: The hills are alive with the sound of shofarsby cnaan lipshiz, jta
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zakopane, poland | In the woods of southern Poland, an unfamiliar blast pierces the silence on a misty morning. It has been a long time since a shofar echoed in these mountains.
At the narrow end of the traditional Jewish horn are the puckered lips of Rabbi Tyson Herberger, an American who works for the Warsaw Jewish Community. In early September, he led Poland’s first Torah Trek, an adult summer camp that marries Jewish learning with hiking.
With Poland’s synagogues and Jewish centers once again providing basic services, local Jewish communities are taking to the outdoors as the next step toward expanding Jewish community life here with more exotic activities.
“People would stop and look and take pictures, of course,” Herberger says at the lodge. He and his Norwegian-born wife, Rebecca, and other partners negotiated and set up a makeshift kosher kitchen here just for the trekkers.
“It showed how little is needed, not even a synagogue, to live a Jewish life,” Rebecca Herberger says. “That’s especially important for a community in the process of rebuilding itself.”
Organizers plan to make an annual event out of the Torah Trek, which was largely subsidized by the Matanel Foundation in Luxemburg .
Small, diverse and enthusiastic, the 14-person Torah Trek team seems representative of Polish Jewry today. Some participants regularly wear kippahs and keep basic mitzvot, some are expatriates, and others only recently explored their Jewish roots.
The trek’s Torah portion went beyond the basics, to explore and discuss the relationship between man and nature in Jewish sources, as well as Jewish philosophy. The Jewish Polish student group Zoom, founded in 2007, recently started holding winter retreats as well.
“There are all kinds of such programs now,” says Karina Sokoloska, country director for Poland for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).
Her organization held a one-week summer camp on the Baltic coast in August for young families. More than 200 people attended. The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation also held a family retreat, with greater emphasis on religion. Polish Jewry’s annals reveal that the current summer camp trend is the resumption of an old tradition.
The Tatra region’s gravest hiking accident involved a young Zionist group not three miles away from the Torah Trek venue. Climbing a peak in stormy weather, four members of the Akiba group were killed by a lightning bolt on Aug. 15, 1939.
That fateful year, Zakopane registered its first independent Jewish community, just weeks before World War II broke out. The community was wiped out in the Holocaust. The grounds of one synagogue are now home to a marketplace; the remains of the other shul were incorporated into a cemetery that was restored in 2004.
Torah Trekking required some sacrifice on the part of Jakob Staszevski of Warsaw. The 32-year-old helps to make up the minyan in three different synagogues every week, and “staying in one place was not easy,” he says as he hurries back from the lodge to civilization.
Staszevski’s story is typical of young, educated adults from Jewish homes. “I knew one of my grandparents was Jewish. Then I found out about additional relatives, then I learned I was Jewish according to halachah,” he says. “I explored my Jewishness in university and gradually became more involved.”
Many like him re-entered Jewish life after the collapse of the Soviet bloc.
“The Bible and other Jewish sources are full of nature, but we’ve moved away from it, becoming the people of the book. The trek was a way to reconnect,” says participant Jonathan Orenstein, the New York-born director of the Jewish Community Centre of Krakow.
Despite having only 400 members, that center is among Poland’s best-known JCCs. After a 40-year hibernation, the JCC was revitalized in 2008 with the dedication of a new building at the center of the city’s old Jewish quarter. Seven synagogues are within walking distance. The building — equipped with colorful furniture, a gym, classrooms, a dining hall and recreational rooms — was born thanks to donations by JDC and the World Jewish Relief. It was initiated and partly funded by Britain’s Prince Charles, and is now the community’s focal point — and shared territory for Orthodox and Reform Jews, as well as curious non-Jews.
Poland has a Jewish population of 5,000, according to the World Jewish Congress, with 600 Jews in Warsaw. Smaller Jewish communities can be found in Wroclaw, Lodz and Gdansk.
Throughout Poland, these Jewish communities are attracting interest from media, local and foreign tourists, genealogists and museums. Orenstein speaks of a general air of philo-Semitism.
This backdrop, he says, is crucial for Polish Jewry, which he says began its revival in 1988, as Poland began slipping out of the grip of the disintegrating Soviet Union. At Krakow’s JCC, Orenstein tells a group of American Jewish tourists about recent developments. As on most Friday evenings, some 50 local Jews are present.
Also visiting are Nathan and Laurie Weinstein of Connecticut. Nathan was born in Poland and left with his family in 1970. He was among thousands of Polish Jews who emigrated amid the anti-Semitic campaigns that the communist regime led in the late 1960s.
This is Weinstein’s first time back. “My head is spinning from everything I’m seeing and hearing,” he says.