Meet the new Polish emissaries behind Shavei Israel’s historic kindergarten in Lodz

Meet the new Polish emissaries behind Shavei Israel’s historic kindergarten in Lodz

Miriam and Rabbi Dawid Szychowski

Miriam and Rabbi Dawid Szychowski

When Miriam and Rabbi Dawid Szychowski agreed to move back to Poland, where Dawid was hired to take on the job of Shavei Israel’s newest emissary to Lodz, Miriam had one major concern: where would her three young children go to school?

The Szychowskis had made aliyah four years earlier and their three children were happily enrolled in religious Jewish pre-schools in the Jerusalem area. What would they do in Lodz, whose last semblance of a Jewish school closed in 1968 due to Communist repression?

Miriam’s answer: she would create one of her own. Later this month, the first Jewish kindergarten in decades will open in Lodz with Miriam as its ganenet (teacher). The project is being promoted by Shavei Israel and the Lodz Jewish community.

“I wanted there to be a Jewish place for my children and others in Lodz,” Miriam explains, “filled with Jewish books, Jewish prayers, the Hebrew aleph-bet.” Miriam began collecting materials before she and Dawid left for Poland: “Jewish puzzles, children’s siddurim (Hebrew prayer books), pictures of Jewish children to hang on the wall – whatever we knew we couldn’t get in Poland,” she says. She decided to name the school Gan Matanel. “Gan” means kindergarten and “matanel” is a present from G-d, Miriam adds. “From a young age, I always dreamed about opening a kindergarten. So this is a kind of present from G-d for me.”

Gan Matanel will open with ten students, aged 3-5, in one room within the Lodz Jewish Community complex, which comprises several buildings including a synagogue, mikveh (ritual bath), kitchen and even a kosher hotel.

Rachel is ready for school to start

Rachel is ready for school to start

Miriam has never worked as a ganenet – she was involved with running programs at the Krakow Jewish Community Center, including Sunday School, summer vacation programs and the Krakow Jewish student club – but that hasn’t stopped her. “I spoke with my daughters’ teachers and to a number of people involved with educating children in Israel,” she explains. “I learned how to divide up the day, when to do prayers, when to serve lunch, which books to read. I have a plan for the whole year, what we’ll do on each rosh chodesh [the first day of the Jewish month]. We’ll grow plants and learn about recycling.”

Miriam won’t be alone: a young Polish woman with experience working in kindergartens will be helping her with arts and crafts, singing and general cleanup and maintenance.

Following the end of World War II, many of Poland’s remaining Jews fled. Those who stayed often had to hide their identities. Since the downfall of the Iron Curtain, and Poland’s transformation into a democracy, an increasing number of Poles have begun to discover their families’ Jewish roots. Raised as Polish Catholics, many have only recently learned of their true Jewish identity, leading them to play an active role in rebuilding Jewish life.

Miriam’s own story reflects both the tragic history of Jews in Poland and the striking Jewish renewal happening in the country today. Miriam’s grandmother made it through the Holocaust by being hidden in a convent. Her grandfather ran a well-known print shop in Warsaw that served both Jews and non-Jews. Although he died before the war, his wife, daughter and granddaughter survived with the assistance of local Poles who had become friends – “many today are famous writers because of this print shop,” Miriam says.

Writing ran in the family: Miriam’s grandmother, Joanna Olczak-Roniker, wrote an award-winning memoir of Jewish life in Poland before the war. In the Garden of Memory became a best-seller in Poland and was translated into 12 different languages, including English and Hebrew. “My grandmother’s family was meticulous about writing things down. So if they bought a dress, they’d write down what it looked like and what it cost,” Miriam says. “In that way, my grandmother was able to paint a detailed picture of Poland and Europe from 100 years ago. It’s amazing – better than any period movie.”

Miriam’s grandmother also wrote a book about Janusz Korczak, who ran a Jewish orphanage in Warsaw and chose to be sent to his death along with his children rather than leave them. “He was my grandmother’s doctor,” Miriam adds.

Miriam’s mother is a writer too – she’s written about the Jewish ghetto in Krakow and was involved with the creation of a new Jewish museum on the grounds of the Schindler factory, which became famous from the movie Schindler’s List. Miriam describes it as “one of the best museums in all of Poland.”

Like most Jews in Poland following World War II and the rise of Communism, Miriam’s family was highly assimilated. But Miriam didn’t have to discover she was Jewish: “We always knew we were Jewish,” she says. “We were proud of it and even though my grandmother wasn’t religious, she never said ‘no’ to Jewish culture.”

That led Miriam’s family to send her to Jewish summer camps growing up. During university, she worked at the Krakow JCC; she met husband Dawid there at a Hanukah party. Dawid was much less knowledgeable about his roots than his wife-to-be and had moved to Krakow in order to study philosophy. One of his teachers was Shavei Israel’s emissary to the city at the time Rabbi Boaz Pash.

Dawid realized he wanted to become religious…and a rabbi. He decided to move to Israel. When Miriam met Dawid, he already had one foot out the door to Jerusalem, where he was planning to continue his studies at the Machon Meir yeshiva.

After a brief courtship of just 13 days, Dawid proposed to Miriam. Dawid left for Israel but returned so the couple could be married in Poland. Then they were both off to the Holy Land, where Dawid received his rabbinic ordination in 2015, first from Rabbi Yakov Peretz of the Beit Midrash Sefardi and then from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin through Yeshivat Hamivtar in Efrat. Miriam, meanwhile, studied at the Nishmat seminary for women while learning Hebrew and raising their children.

Both Miriam and Dawid joined the Amiel program, which trains Israelis for positions with Jewish communities abroad. Shavei Israel’s other Polish emissaries – Rabbi Avi Baumol, Rabbi Yehoshua Ellis, Rabbi Yitzhak Rapoport, and Rabbi Pash – are all graduates. Dawid also participated and lectured in several of Shavei Israel’s summer seminars in Israel for young Polish Jews.

Miriam recalls how she became religious. Dawid was in Israel and she was still in Poland. “We were talking on Skype and he asked, ‘what are your plans for Shabbat?’ I said, ‘well, I have to work,’ I’ll be on the computer most of the day. He asked, ‘would you do something for me? Would you try to turn off the computer and phone? Just for the day?’ I said ‘no way! I can’t.’ He said, ‘just do it for me this one time.’ It was the only time he ever suggested something in terms of religion. So I tried. I didn’t know anything. I sat around with just candles. I didn’t know you could leave the lights on! But you know, it was such a relief, not to have the computer or the phone on. I went to the JCC for Shabbat dinner. I spent the whole day reading, walking. I loved it. That was how it began. I‘m still learning all the time.”

It was Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich who first asked Miriam and Dawid to move to Lodz .“We didn’t expect him to suggest Lodz,” Miriam says. “We thought we’d go to Katowice.” Rabbi Ellis, Shavei Israel’s emissary there, had just moved to Warsaw. But Rabbi Schudrich felt that Lodz had a great need. “It’s a much larger community,” Miriam says, “and was the second largest Jewish community in Poland – after Warsaw – before the war.” Lodz today has a daily minyan and a beit midrash (a house of study).

Katowice won’t be neglected – Dawid’s responsibilities include visiting both Katowice and another two Polish cities with small Jewish communities, Poznan and Gdansk, including one or two Shabbats a month. Miriam and the family will travel with him.

How does Miriam feel being back in Poland, especially after having left it for a life in Israel? “I miss Israel very much,” she says. “But Poland is also my home. And there is huge potential. Lodz is growing all the time. We’re very focused now on what we need to do.”

Reading a book at Gan Matanel

Reading a book at Gan Matanel

Which includes, first and foremost for Miriam, ensuring that Gan Matanel is ready for the start of school in the coming weeks. Then, in October, after the Jewish holidays, Miriam hopes to move to a larger space with two rooms within the Lodz Jewish Community and to expand enrollment to 12-15 children. “We want to have younger children attend as well, but we need the space for cribs and changing tables,” she says.

Miriam’s family is aware of the historical significance of her daughter’s work with the first Jewish kindergarten in Lodz in 70 years. Echoing the words of the rabbis in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), “my mother would say to me, ‘if not you, who? If not now, when?’” Miriam says. “This is not so much about the past or even the future. It’s about right now. I’m here and I can fill a gap. So I said, let’s do it!”

If you’d like to be a part of building Gan Matanel, please visit this special page that Shavei Israel has set up where you can learn more about this exciting project.

“It is so emotional for us to be a part of the renewal of Jewish life here in Lodz,” Miriam says. “We are truly proud that our own children will be among this first Jewish kindergarten class in Lodz.”