(JTA) – Seven decades after Warsaw’s renowned yeshivas were wiped out by the Nazis, a new Talmud study kollel has opened in the city as part of ongoing attempts to return Jewish life to Poland.
It only has two students, but the group behind the kollel says it’s merely a beginning.
Torah Mitzion, a 10-year-old, Jerusalem-based organization, has 34 “religious Zionist” kollels around the world and decided to launch its first in the former Eastern bloc.
Warsaw is perhaps an odd place for a kollel, a collective of scholars – usually married men – who spend their days learning Torah and studying Talmud. They are subsidized by the community.
Only about 5,000 Jews live in the Polish capital, and few are religiously observant.
“The idea is to bring Israel to communities with the hope that their identity will be strengthened,” said Michal Natan, an assistant to Torah Mitzion’s executive director.
Aside from its size, the Warsaw kollel is a bit different than most run by the group in cities like Moscow or London. Rather than study full-time, the kollelniks in Warsaw receive a $350 monthly stipend to study four hours per day, five days a week. On weekends, they and the Israeli rabbi who directs the kollel visit other Jewish communities in Poland to conduct Shabbaton seminars and teach classes.
One of the two Warsaw scholars is Tomek Krakowski, 35, who returned six months ago to his native Poland from an Israeli yeshiva to become engaged to a Polish Jewish woman. He works part time for the Warsaw, Gdansk and Lodz Jewish communities while attending the kollel.
“It’s important that we finally have some kind of advanced Jewish education,” Krakowski said. “There are people here who are ready to go to the next level and study the Talmud, but because of family or job can’t just move to Israel.”
Torah Mitzion kollel students typically include a fair share of Israelis, but Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland, made sure the Warsaw kollel was geared toward Poles.
“It’s important to show that a local can learn at such a high level,” Schudrich said.
Three students enrolled when the kollel program was launched in September; one has since moved to Israel.
Despite its minuscule enrollment, many others are studying occasionally with kollel director Rabbi Efraim Meisels in weekly classes and at his home on Friday nights.
“At first it was very strange being here, since everyone thinks there are no Jews left in Poland and that the community is destroyed,” Meisels told JTA.
But like many who Jews who visit Warsaw today, Meisels discovered a small, dedicated group of Jews who since the end of communism have been rediscovering their roots and taking up religious observances with the help of myriad international Jewish organizations. The Warsaw kollel is sponsored by Israel’s Pincus Fund and the Safra Fund.
Along with leading weekly evening classes in Warsaw, Rabbi Meisels travels to Lodz every Tuesday for a four-hour class that draws 10 to 15 students every session. His latest lesson featured the finer points on how Jewish law regulates private and public carrying on Shabbat.
One of Meisels’ Warsaw students is Yisroel Szpilman, a new father to twin girls and the director of the Warsaw Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street.
“Having a kollel is wonderful because we’re insufficiently educated,” said Szpilman, 36. “Don’t forget that no one really was opening up about their Jewish identity here until the 1990s, and there are still plenty of people making that discovery.
“The other advantage is that we have one more religious family here in Warsaw. It’s like a blessing from heaven, we have so few. The rabbi has people over for Shabbat each week so they can see how real Jews practice.”
For those who believe it might be preferable to send students from tiny Jewish communities in the former Eastern bloc to Israel rather than establishing kollels in the communities, Meisels says this is part of the process.
“This community is still working on development, and before people come to Israel you need to make them stronger and give them a sense of Jewish community where they are,” said Meisels, who plans to stay in Warsaw for at least two years. “It’s one step at a time.”