Krakow JCC hosts largest Shabbat dinner since World War II
The Krakow Jewish Community Center last month hosted the largest Shabbat dinner in the city since World War II. Some 500 people – including local Polish Jews, tourists and non-Jewish volunteers – made Kiddush (sanctification over the wine), said the motzei before breaking bread together, and sang Shabbat zemirot (songs) on the streets of the Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of Krakow.
Shavei Israel emissary to Krakow Rabbi Avi Baumol and Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich led the evening, which was part of Krakow’s annual Jewish Culture Festival, now in its 25th year. Last year, the Krakow Jewish Community Center hosted 400 people for Friday night dinner as part of the festival. A prayer service led by Rabbi Baumol for close to 100 people was held at the JCC as well.
The Jewish Culture Festival was started by a non-Jewish resident of Krakow, Janusz Makuch in 1990. Rabbi Baumol explains that Makuch “was dismayed that, even as communism was crumbling in the late eighties and Poland was inching towards independence, Jews in Poland were unable to express their Jewish identity, engage in Jewish culture or even speak about Jewish life openly. He strongly believed that a thousand years of Jewish history and Jewish contribution to Poland had to be brought back into the public discourse.”
Makuch’s Jewish Culture Festival has now seen a total attendance of more than 250,000 Poles over the years – nearly all of them non-Jews. Indeed, 50 non-Jewish volunteers make up a significant chunk of the JCC’s volunteer staff, including the receptionist at the front door. The JCC volunteers have even come up with a name for themselves: MesuGoyim, a mash-up of meshuga (“crazy” in Yiddish) and goyim (Hebrew for non-Jews). Krakow’s non-Jewish volunteers were in attendance at the 500-person Shabbat dinner.
The Jewish Culture Festival is similar to the Limmud network of conferences (we wrote about Shavei Israel’s participation in the recent Limmud Jerusalem here) with more than 100 non-stop lectures and workshops taking place at the JCC. Rabbi Baumol taught classes in Talmud, the five Megilot (the books read on some of the Jewish holidays including Purim and Shavuot), and Rabbi Baumol’s Mezuza Project, where he is working to return mezuzot to local Jewish homes.
At the Friday night dinner, Rabbi Baumol spoke about a young girl and her story of finding out about her Jewish roots from her grandmother just before she died. “A few weeks later, we held an event at the JCC and I taught the girl how to bake challah,” Rabbi Baumol says. “It was something her grandmother had wanted to do before she died. We stay in touch today this girl has a Jewish boyfriend from Israel!”
Jonathan Ornstein, executive director of the Krakow JCC, also marvels at the remarkable Jewish resurgence in his city. “For years Jews have been coming to Poland and reciting only Kaddish,” he says. “Today with the miraculous reemergence of Jewish life in Krakow they are also reciting shehechiyanu,” referring to the blessing one recites for a new or unusual experience.
We have more pictures from the Shabbat dinner below.
If you missed the Jewish Culture Festival this year but are planning to be in Krakow another time, the city is bursting with Jewish institutions and activities. Here are a few:
- The Galicia Jewish Museum aims to memorialize Jewish history in the region, educating tens of thousands of Poles each year about Jewish life.
- An organization known as Mifgash, started and run by both Jews and non-Jews, travels to Polish high schools to lecture about Judaism.
- The Center for Jewish Culture has for the last 25 years sought to preserve the Jewish culture of the Kazmierz, enlighten Poles about Jewish heritage in Krakow, and has been a forum for dialogue between Poles and Jews.
- Klezmer-Hois is a restaurant, inn, theater and Jewish publishing house started by a non-Jewish couple that had an affinity for Jewish Kazimierz – as well as great art.
- The Jewish Sports Club of Krakow represents a return of the famous Jewish cultural sports organization that thrived before the Second World War.
- Krakow’s largest university has an Institute of Jewish Studies with 150 non-Jewish students pursuing degrees in Judaism. Rabbi Baumol is a frequent guest lecturer.