Krakow’s Jewish Community Center: A Portal for Poland’s Re-emerging Jewish Community

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    The New York Jewish Travel Guide had the opportunity to sit down with Jonathan Ornstein, Executive Director of the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, for an engaging discussion about Jewish life in Poland.

    NYJTG: Jonathan, we sincerely appreciate your hospitality in having us here. We are genuinely excited to be a part of this conversation. Could you please give us an overview of the JCC?

    Jonathan Ornstein: Of course, it’s my pleasure. The JCC has been a pillar of our community for nearly a decade now. A significant moment marked its establishment when Prince Charles visited and officially inaugurated the center during his visit to our Jewish community. Initially, the plan was to create a Senior Citizen Center, but as time went on, the World Jewish Relief and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee recognized a growing interest among younger individuals in rediscovering their Jewish roots. Rather than exclusively focusing on the well-being of our esteemed senior citizens and survivors, which remains a fundamental part of our mission, we saw a vibrant underground Jewish culture emerging. In 2008, Prince Charles graciously opened our doors, and we’ve been serving our community for nine years. Interestingly, if you were to search for the number of Jews in Krakow online, you might come across estimates as low as 100 or 150 individuals. We are proud to have a thriving community, with 630 Jewish members actively engaged here at the JCC.

    It has truly evolved into a central hub for the renaissance of Jewish life. On one hand, we are actively rebuilding Jewish life within our community, but we have also transformed into a prominent Jewish visitor center. In 2016, we welcomed over 100,000 visitors from around the world, including numerous American Jews representing various federations and synagogues. Groups visit us regularly, not solely to delve into Holocaust history but also to explore Poland’s broader past. They often include visits to museums like Polin in Warsaw. Now, they also come to connect with the resurgence of Jewish life here at the heart of it all. Indeed, this place serves as the epicenter for the revival of Jewish life and culture. In a city that attracts many Jewish tourists, we offer a wide range of programming for all age groups. It’s akin to a JCC you might find in the United States. In fact, we are in the process of establishing a Hillel through the JCC. Our Rabbi conducts classes here, we host a weekly Shabbat dinner, and we offer a plethora of other activities and events.

    “Getting ready for the inaugural Ride for the Living”—New York Jewish Travel Guide

    NYJTG: Tomorrow night, the JCC is hosting a sponsored dinner at the Chabad Center.Jonathan Ornstein: Absolutely, it’s the opening dinner for the annual “Ride for the Living” event, and you’re more than welcome to join us. For tonight’s dinner and tomorrow night’s Shabbat dinner, we have a turnout of 200 people. The Chief Rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, will also be in attendance and will be participating in the bicycle ride with us. This whole journey has grown into something quite remarkable. Traditionally, people came to Poland primarily to learn about the Holocaust, but now they can delve into a rich thousand-year history of Jewish heritage and witness the incredible revival of Jewish life. While being Jewish in other parts of Europe may pose challenges, Poland is moving in the opposite direction. Young people are discovering their Jewish roots here on an almost daily basis. Many had no prior knowledge of their Jewish heritage until learning about it from their parents or grandparents. They’re coming forward and proudly embracing their heritage.

    Remarkably, we have more than 50 non-Jewish volunteers at the JCC. These dedicated young individuals, despite not being Jewish themselves, commit themselves to helping rebuild the Jewish community by staffing our reception. They work alongside us, assisting in welcoming new members and contributing to the resurgence of Jewish life in our community.

    “Dinner during the Jewish Culture Festival” – JCC – New York Jewish Travel Guide

    NYJTG: Earlier, you mentioned that there are approximately 600 to 650 Jews who are members of the JCC in Krakow. What about those who are not affiliated with the JCC? What is their religious affiliation?

    Jonathan Ornstein: Yes, indeed, some individuals are discovering their Jewish heritage and getting involved without formally becoming members. Often, they learn about their Jewish roots from their parents or grandparents. In the past, due to various circumstances, their families may have changed their names or hidden their Jewish identity. With the changing situation and growing acceptance, they now feel safe and comfortable acknowledging their Jewish heritage.

    Their religious affiliations vary; some become more religious, while others adopt a more secular outlook. We see ourselves as a gateway—an entry point into the Jewish world. If people wish to deepen their religious connection, we are here to assist them. Likewise, for those interested in engaging with Jewish culture, we provide guidance and support. This is the dynamic nature of our role—a place in the Jewish world. We also recognize how we have become a prominent and meaningful symbol of Jewish life.

    The Jewish Community Center in Krakow – New York Jewish Travel Guide

    NYJTG: Have you observed a consistent increase in membership and a rise in international visitors?

    Jonathan Ornstein: Absolutely, we’ve been experiencing steady growth in our membership. Membership initiatives were launched only four or five years ago, and we’ve already garnered over 600 members. While we do mourn the passing of some of our older members, we’re excited to welcome young individuals who are joining the community.

    Regarding international visitors, we see a continuous influx, particularly from the USA and Europe, often in the form of group travel. In fact, we host groups almost daily. We’ve established strong connections with several synagogues in New York City, such as Town and Village Synagogue, Central Synagogue, and Park Avenue Synagogue. These connections have brought us groups of 85 people and, more recently, another group of 170 from these synagogues alone. When people come to Poland, they not only study the history but also witness the revival of Jewish life. It’s not just about outsiders visiting; it’s about individuals with Jewish roots, including Poles, who discover their Jewish heritage and actively engage with our community.

    Jewish Community Center, Krakow – New York Jewish Travel Guide

    NYJTG: Would you say that there’s no anti-Semitism in Poland?

    Jonathan Ornstein: Anti-Semitism exists everywhere; it’s not entirely absent in Poland. However, it’s worth noting that the level of anti-Semitism in Poland is not as prominent as in the United States or some other places. In fact, anti-Semitism in Poland has been decreasing over time, particularly among younger generations who are more inclined to support our efforts. I believe that the process of rebuilding Jewish life in Poland is relatively safe. While security concerns may arise in other parts of Europe, we don’t feel threatened here, and our goal is to remain as open as possible.

    NYJTG: Would you say that the JCC serves as the heart of the Jewish community here? And aside from the festival, are there any other significant events?

    Jonathan Ornstein: Absolutely, the JCC functions as the heart of the Jewish community in this area, fostering connections not only among Jews but also with non-Jews. We offer various classes open to everyone, including Hebrew, Arabic, and Yiddish classes. Our events span throughout the year. One noteworthy event is our “Seven at Night” festival, held around Shavuot from late May to early June. We open all seven synagogues in Krakow, starting at ten o’clock at night, and perform the Havdalah ceremony on our roof. Last time, we had a thousand people witnessing Havdalah, and then we opened all the synagogues, turning it into a night at the museum, so to speak. This event has grown into a significant festival.

    Additionally, our annual bike ride has gained popularity, attracting 150 participants from all corners of the world. Even the U.S. Ambassador and the Consul General will be joining us tomorrow. It’s become quite an event. However, I must insist that you join us for tonight’s dinner. I believe you’ll find it intriguing. You’re my guest, and I think you’ll have a memorable experience.

    NYJTG: Thank you for the kind invitation. Is there anything new happening at the JCC?

    Jonathan Ornstein: Absolutely, we have some exciting developments. We’re opening a kindergarten here, marking the first of its kind in a Jewish school in this area. Let me show you the school; they’re just wrapping up construction. Furthermore, Hillel is expanding in Krakow, and we are set to open our doors next Friday. We have a dynamic student group that has transformed into Hillel. The community is growing rapidly, with more and more individuals joining us. Visitors from all around the world are reaching out to us, requesting assistance with various arrangements such as accommodation, travel, dinners, meetings, and more. It’s an exciting time for us.

    Kindergarten at the JCC – New York Jewish Travel Guide

    NYJTG: Can you share your personal journey with us? How did you end up here?

    Jonathan Ornstein: Certainly. I was studying law in the U.S., but I didn’t feel a strong connection to it. So, I decided to take a one-year break and travel to Israel. During that time, I fell in love with the country and made the decision to make Aliya, live on a Kibbutz, and serve in the army. Following my Kibbutz experience, I met a Polish woman from Lodz and moved here to be with her. Although that relationship didn’t work out, I fell in love with Krakow and decided to stay.

    A few years ago, I had a serendipitous encounter with a young woman who had discovered her Jewish roots. She eventually found her way to the JCC, where we met and fell in love. She’s the one I’m marrying next week, on July 2. You’re invited to my wedding!

    NYJTG: Mazal Tov! Thank you so much for the invitation!

    Jonathan, we genuinely appreciate your time and the wealth of information you’ve shared with us. Our readers will undoubtedly find it as fascinating as I did.

    For more information, visit:

    To plan a trip to Poland, contact the Polish National Tourist Office North America or log on to:

    https://www.poland.travel/en and www.Krakow.pl

    By Meyer Harroch, New York Jewish Travel Guide

    The author took part in a press trip sponsored by the Polish National Tourist Office in North America.

     

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