Special Interview Rabbi Says Her Visit to Cracow for Bar Mitvah Celebration Had ‘lots of Pain As Wel
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Special Interview Rabbi Says Her Visit to Cracow for Bar Mitvah Celebration Had ‘lots of Pain As Wel

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The Reconstructionist rabbi who accompanied Eric Strom and his family to Poland for the first Bar Mitzvah celebration in Cracow in some 35 years today described the visit with mixed emotions.

“I think the experience had lots of pain as well as joy,” said Rabbi Emily Korzenick, in a telephone interview from her home in Scarsdale, N.Y. with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. While visiting the remnants of the once thriving Jewish community of Cracow she said “we were also seeing memorials to that which was.”

At the same time, Korzenick appeared to brush aside the significance of the dispute which erupted among Orthodox rabbis here over the prospects of having Korzenick participate in services in an Orthodox synagogue in Cracow. “I had not come there to make waves,” she asserted.

Korzenick accompanied Eric Strom on his journey to Cracow for his Bar Mitzvah, an idea that developed after a visit there last April by a group of Federation of Jewish Philanthropies trustees and leaders on a UJA-Federation Campaign of New York trip.

While on that trip, an elderly woman of the Cracow Jewish community asked the Federation leaders to “Send us a Bar Mitzvah. Send us life.” Arrangements were made, and on September 2, 13-year-old Eric, his 9-year-old sister, Holly, his parents, Barry and Margery Strom, three of his four grandparents, Korzenick, and Auschwitz survivor Edward Blonder, departed for Poland.

There was some controversy over the selection of the Remu Synagogue in Cracow. The Rabbinical Council of America issued a statement saying “it would be a betrayal of Jewish history” if the Jews of Cracow allowed a Reform or Conservative rabbi to officiate in the synagogue, the oldest in Cracow.

The site was changed before the Saturday, September 7 Bar Mitzvah, either under Orthodox pressure or to accommodate larger crowds — some 150 persons attended the services — to the 130-year-old Temple Synagogue. Korzenick took her place on Saturday morning with the other women sitting in a separate section of the balcony.


She emphasized that they had not prepared themselves to confront the Orthodox rabbi, Nachum Elbaum, a New York businessman and travel agent, who along with an unidentified cantor arrived in Poland shortly before the Friday evening services began. Elbaum conducted Friday night services, and the Saturday morning services. There is no rabbi in Cracow.

Blonder, who served as a translator on the visit, read the Torah portion Saturday. At the closing of the service, Eric signalled for Korzenick to come to the Bima as he was preparing to recite his Haftorah portion, from Isaiah. Korzenick had helped to train Eric in his Haftorah portion.

Korzenick came down to the Bima, she recalled, and had a prayer shawl she was going to place over her shoulders snatched away by Elbaum. Eric’s grandfather, meanwhile, handed her another tallit. When she began her commentary, Elbaum said several times, “But ladies cannot speak in synagogue.” Korzenick said the elders in the synagogue did not take up the chant.

In her English commentary, Korzenick quoted Isaiah to the effect that “violence shall no more be heard in the land and the sun shall no more go down. Neither shall thy moon withdraw itself for the Lord will be thy everlasting light and the days of mourning shall be ended.”


But moreover, Korzenick, spiritual leader of the Fellowship of Jewish Learning in Stamford, Conn., the synagogue with which the Strom family is affiliated, asserted that the Bar Mitzvah was an expression of Jewish “oneness and concern.”

She said “one thing I did see was little tiny germs of possibility for the future” of Jewry in Cracow. She noted that some 20 young Polish Jews had attended the Bar Mitzvah,and that some of the elderly persons in the community have tried to increase the study of Jewish and Yiddish culture.

She also said that during her brief visit, which included a show at the Yiddish Theater in Warsaw, she felt that the Polish government appeared to be encouraging efforts by the small Jewish community. Some 15,000 Jews are estimated to live in Poland. Cracow’s Jewish population prior to the Holocaust was some 60,000. It is now several hundred.

Korzenick explained that Polish Jewry is not in a desperate state. They have chosen to stay, she said, though many have family elsewhere, including in Israel. As for Eric, Korzenick said, “He understood he was there as a symbol of joy.”

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