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JCC Krakow—a Jewish Journey

Robert Poleszak
Marketing Administrator, JCC Association

When I decided to visit Poland for my cousin’s wedding I didn’t expect to get caught up in Jewish communal affairs. I was looking to return to the place where my parents were born, see some sights and some family. I’ve been in the JCC world ever since I graduated college; working at Buffalo JCC summer camp was my first out-of-college job, and I now work at JCC Association. So a respite from Jewish communal work was in order. However, through a series of fortunate events, I found myself at the Krakow JCC having one of the most Jewish communal weekends ever.

The JCC in Krakow is a great example of what a JCC is at its roots. It doesn’t have a gym, it doesn’t have a pool, and as far as I could tell, it didn’t even have a summer camp. Try to imagine a JCC in North America without these core businesses and amenities. But that’s just what I saw at the JCC Krakow and it was incredible.

They didn’t have a gym, but they did have a community room for Holocaust survivors. There isn’t a pool, but there is a small army of volunteers that work at the JCC year-round to help move its mission of rebuilding Jewish life in Poland forward. No summer camp, but there is an annual Ride for the Living, a bike ride from Auschwitz to the Krakow JCC, that honors the loss of Jewish life in the area, but also its recent rebirth. JCCs around the world participate by coming to Poland or in their own gyms, as an online spin class. When JCCs evaluate their core principles and their mission, mulling over the balancing act that all JCCs face, they could do worse than to look towards the periphery of Jewish life. Those outposts where Jews gather and successfully build communities on the fringes, like they do in Krakow.

Taking the time to visit the JCC in Krakow during my recent stay in Poland led me into a perfect storm of Jewish culture happening in Krakow. With Krakow’s Jewish Culture Festival in full swing, the streets were already packed with Jews from around the world. I instantly recognized an American delegation of Jewish teens on a group trip, as they loudly sang songs while they rambunctiously bumbled down the street. Another separate group of JCC professionals wandered up to the gate of the Krakow JCC. As soon as they recognized the bilingual sign, a palpable sense of ease was evident. It was wonderful to see a JCC act as a launching pad for visitors curious about Krakow’s Jewish history and community. People approached it confused, but left clearly with an idea of where to go, what to do, and where to wander back should they get lost. The ‘what to do’ seemed endless: concerts, dance performances, baking workshops featuring traditional foods, literary readings, lectures and tours of Jewish sites.

The climax of the week, which was the 25th year of the festival, was at the JCC’s Shabbat dinner, the largest Shabbat dinner in Krakow since World War II. Here I saw Polish Jews who had left the country throughout the years, come together to embrace their native land and its eager visitors. The evening was led by Shavei Israel emissary to Krakow Rabbi Avi Baumol and Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich; we were seated at long tables, more than 400 of us, guests that rivaled a checklist of countries attending an international Jewish gathering like the JCC Maccabi Games®. I heard a cacophony of Polish, English, Yiddish and Hebrew; it’s what I imagine a lot of Poland sounded like before the War. It was striking how quickly the mood went solemn, and the clamor turned into a unified Hamotzi in Hebrew. Language barriers disappeared as attendees participated in this unifying ritual.

It was spectacular to see the community at large gather in a crowded hall in this small city of Jewish renaissance. This was a place where Jews once thrived and had nearly been destroyed, and yet they were here to show their support and dedication to the mission of rebuilding Jewish life in Krakow and Poland. As an employee of the JCC Association, I certainly left with a new-found appreciation for the movement. To see the JCC world and the larger Jewish world rally around this blossoming Jewish community was quite moving, especially in my ancestral homeland.

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