New York Jewish Travel Guide sat down with Jonathan Ornstein, Executive Director of the Jewish Community Center in Krakow to ask a few questions about Jewish Life and Heritage in Poland.
NYJTG: Jonathan, many thanks for your invitation. I am delighted to be here. Can you tell me about the JCC?
Jonathan: The JCC has been open for nine years. It was opened by Prince Charles when he visited the Jewish community. There was an idea first to do a Senior Citizen Center and then, the World Jewish Relief and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee came together for this project and realized that they were young people starting to find out about being Jewish and instead of only focusing on the senior citizens and our survivors, which is an important element of what we’re doing here. They realized that there was this underground Jewish life bubbling up and maybe something like a JCC could help bring the community together. So, Prince Charles came and opened the center in 2008. We have been open for nine years. If you Google how many Jews are in Krakow, it says one hundred Jews or a hundred fifty. Actually, we have six hundred and thirty Jewish members here at the JCC.
Only here, it’s become really a focal point for the revival of Jewish life. So, on one hand, we’re rebuilding Jewish life in the community but also, we’ve become the Jewish visitor center. In 2016, we had over one hundred thousand visitors that came to the JCC from all over the world, which included many American Jews, from all different federations and synagogues; we have group coming here all the time and they come not only, to learn about the Holocaust, they come to Poland also now to learn about the past and they go to the museum in Warsaw to Polin which is wonderful and now they come share with JCC in Krakow, to see this revival; this is really the epicenter of the revival of Jewish life and as a Jewish visitor center in a city which has so many Jewish tourists. You know, we’re running programming for all ages, I mean, it’s like a JCC in America; we are opening a Hillel now through the JCC. Our Rabbi have classes here, we have Shabbat dinner every week, and much more…
NYJTG: The JCC is sponsoring a dinner tomorrow night at the Chabad Center…
Jonathan: Yes it is for the opening dinner “for the Ride for the Living” annual event and you’re welcome to join us if you would like…
NYJTG: Thank you. I would very much like to attend…
Jonathan: …for the dinner tonight and for tomorrow night Shabbat dinner, we have 200 people per Shabbat dinner and the Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich will be there as well. He’s doing a bicycle ride with us. I mean, this whole story became something, I think quite fascinating as people essentially, historically, have come to Poland only to learn about the Holocaust; You can come to Poland and learn about the Holocaust but you can also learn about a thousand years of Jewish history and see this amazing rebirth of Jewish life; As europe is becoming more difficult to be Jewish, Poland is going in the other direction and it’s young people finding out, people walk in here almost every day, they didn’t know if they are Jewish, they just found out from their parents, or from their grandparents and they’re walking in and standing up to be to be counted, plus we have over 50 non-Jewish volunteers at the JCC. So, at the reception, our staff working, all these are young non-Jews, who feel that they want to help rebuild the community and they work with us to bring these members and to help rebuild Jewish life.
NYJTG: You mentioned earlier that the number of Jews in Krakow is approx.600 to 650 those are members of the JCC? What about others who are not affiliated?
Jonathan: Yes, joining as members… others finding out they’re Jewish and they’re getting involved and they’re walking in here. We just found out people that very often just found out that they’re Jewish from their parents, their grandparents. Their family during communism changed their names, they didn’t tell their children that they were Jewish and now because the situation has changed so much, now they feel safe and comfortable and they’re letting people know that they’re Jewish.
NYJTG: What is their religious affiliation?
Jonathan: All depends, some become more religious, some secular, all different things. We’re trying to…we see ourselves as a portal, as an entry point into the Jewish world, people want to become more religious we will help them, if they want to connect to being Jewish culturally; we’ll definitely help them. This is really the situation of, you know, of a place that in the Jewish world; we also see how it has now become a very visible sign, an important sign of Jewish life.
NYJTG: Do you see a steady increase of membership and an increase of international visitors?
Jonathan: Yes, very much all the time. We started the membership only four or five years ago and have up to over six hundred members. So, while some of the older members are passing away, young people are joining.
In reference to visitors, more are coming from USA and Europe and especially are in group travel. I mean, we are hosting groups here every single day. Some synagogues, which we have great connections are from New York City, such as Town and Village Synagogue, Central Synagogue, Park Avenue Synagogue which we receive a group of 85 and now another group coming back with 170 people just from these synagogue. You come to Poland and you have this community, learn about the rebirth of Jewish life. People come here to study but we’re talking about rebuilding a community, we’re really not talking about outsiders coming in, the outsiders coming in and visiting us and learning about the community is one thing but we really talking about people who have Jewish roots; Poles who are here are finding out they’re Jewish and then getting involved.
NYJTG: Would you say that there’s no anti-Semitism in Poland?
Jonathan: There’s anti-Semitism everywhere; there isn’t Anti-Semitism Poland as there is in the U.S. or anywhere but here in Poland, it’s getting less. There’s less of it all the time and especially younger people feel that they want to help. I think the rebuilding of Jewish life, is very, very safe here in Poland. A lot of the security issues found in places in Europe, we don’t feel threatened here, want to be as open as possible.
NYJTG: The JCC is the heartbeat of the Jewish Community then you would say….
Jonathan: This is the center of the Jewish community here and this is also a place where Jews and non-Jews meet. We have all our classes here; the Hebrew classes and Arabic classes and Yiddish classes and it is open for everybody.
NYJTG: Beside the Festival, are there any other important events?
Jonathan: Events are on all year round. We have a big festival called Seven at Night; we open all of seven synagogues in Krakow, around Shavuot, until the end of May, beginning in June starting at ten o’clock at night. We do the Havdala here on the roof. We had a thousand people watching Havdala and then, we open all the synagogues, like a night of the museum……so, we do night of the synagogues; this has become a big festival. Our Bike ride has become very popular as well; there’s a hundred and fifty people coming from all over the world. The U.S. Ambassador is coming tomorrow on the bike ride with us…The Council General is coming as well; it’s became a big thing, but tonight you should come to this dinner , I tell you, it will be interesting for you. You’ll be my guest.
NYJTG: Thanks so much for the invitation. Anything new at the JCC?
Jonathan: We’re opening a kindergarten here; it’s the first kindergarten in Jewish school here to open. Let me show you the school. They’re still just finishing the construction. Hillel is opening now in Krakow and we’re opening next Friday. We have a student group that has become Hillel. You know, the community is really growing and more and more people are coming to us. Visitors are coming from all of the world and call us to arrange everything for them: hotel and travel, dinners and meetings and more.
NYJTG: So, tell me about your personal story, how did you get here?
Jonathan: I was studying law school in the U.S. and did not feel that law was for me so I deferred for a year and I went to Israel and I fell in love with the country. I decided to make Aliya, living on a Kibbutz and have joined the army. After the kibbutz, I met a Polish woman from Lodz and moved here to be with her; it didn’t work out and I fell in love with Krakow. I decided to stay and then I met, a few years ago, a young woman, found out she had Jewish roots. She finally came to the JCC. We met, fell in love, she’s the one now! I am getting married to her next week. July 2nd, come to my wedding…
NYJTG: Mazaltov Tov!! Thank you for the invitation!
Jonathan thank you for your time and all the information you shared with us. I really appreciated it as will our readers.
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By Meyer Harroch – New York Jewish Travel Guide