ROME, May 29 (JTA) — The Holocaust survivor generation has ceded the helm of Poland’s Jewish community to a new, younger generation of leaders. It is a move that could prove a landmark in the revival of Jewish life in Poland. Meeting in Warsaw Monday, May 26, the newly elected board of the Union of Jewish Congregations in Poland chose as its new president 49-year-old Jerzy Kichler, from the western city of Wroclaw. Kichler, the first person to hold the post who was born after the Shoah, replaces Holocaust survivor Pawel Wildsztajn, who has been named honorary president. Three of the four other newly elected officers were also born after World War II. Half the members of the board that was elected earlier this month were born after the Holocaust, too, and some are just in their 30s. “It marks a pivotal change in the community,” said Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the Warsaw director of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, which sponsors Jewish youth and education programs in various Polish cities. “This is not a revolution but a passing on to a younger generation which will now take its place in the community,” he said in a telephone interview. “Not only does it show that there are young Jews in Poland, but it shows that there are young Jews who want to be Jewish and want to work for their Jewish community.” Stanislaw Krajewski, a board member who was born in 1950, said, “Our main objective is to change the image of the Polish Jewish community from that of a remnant to that of a living reality looking toward the future.” The move is more important because it came on the heels of legislation passed earlier this month that regularized the relationship between the Polish state and the Jewish community. This new law — which is similar to legislation regulating the state’s relationship to other religions in Poland, including the Roman Catholic Church — recognizes the Union of Jewish Congregations in Poland as the official representative Jewish body. The law also calls for the recognition of the rights of Jews to take off from work on Jewish holidays, and sets guidelines for the restitution of Jewish communal property. “We must see how to put this law into practice,” Kichler said in a telephone interview. The passing of the torch of leadership to the post-Holocaust generation testifies to a remarkable process of Jewish revival that has occurred in Poland for nearly two decades and has mushroomed since the fall of communism in 1989. A decade ago, few would have predicted such a seemingly natural generational transition in a country that before World War II was home to 3.5 million Jews. Three million Polish Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Tens of thousands of survivors left Poland after the war, many fleeing lingering anti-Semitism. Most of the Jews who remained in Poland under the Communist regime chose to assimilate, and many hid their Jewish identity. An anti-Semitic campaign by that regime in 1968 forced at least 20,000 Polish Jews to emigrate, leaving behind a Jewish community whose few thousand openly identifying members were mostly elderly Holocaust survivors. Starting around 1980, younger Jews born after the war began rediscovering their Jewish roots and identity. “I always knew I was Jewish,” said Kichler. “But after 1968 I hid it. Then, at the beginning of the 1980s, I got involved. I came back to Judaism.” A key catalyst in this Jewish revival was the Lauder Foundation, which set up youth clubs and educational centers, including a Jewish kindergarten and day school in Warsaw, as well as summer and winter camps for whole families. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which supports the Jewish religious community, also began focusing on Jewish education and revival as well as social welfare. These newly affiliated Jews number in the thousands, but until recently friction existed between many of them and the older, survivor generation. Some older people, who dominated the Jewish religious community, refused to accept the newcomers as Jewish. “The new, younger leadership may make it easier for unaffiliated Jews to come forward and join the community,” said Manlio Dell’Ariccia, the JDC country director for Poland. “We hope that a new era will open.” Krajewski said that with the election of the new, post-war generation leadership, “We understand that a new chapter of the Jewish community, the Jewish religious community, has to be made.” This chapter “will not be a repetition of pre-war patterns, but will be the creation of Jewish life that fits the nature of present-day Polish Jews — who are as Polish as French Jews are French,” said Krajewski, who also is the Warsaw consultant for the American Jewish Committee. “This means, for example, that neither Yiddish nor very Orthodox forms of ritual will predominate,” he said. “We are much more similar to our peers in the West.” Kichler, who is married to a doctor and has two children, was trained as an electrical engineer and recently taught Judaism at the University of Wroclaw. He is the representative of the Lauder Foundation in Wroclaw and also served as vice president of the local Jewish religious community there. “The Lauder Foundation taught us to be young Jews in Poland at this time and how to build a future,” he said. “We spent night after night sitting and talking about this. Now we have to make it real. “We are prepared to take the situation into our hands, but there are many challenges,” he said. “We have to make plans and confront the future.” A priority, he said, would be to create a Jewish center for each of the 12 congregations around the country, “with a synagogue, an education center, and care for seniors.” “Charity and social welfare problems are important challenges, as is education,” he said. “We have to establish an effective fund-raising system.”
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