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North American cantors, wrapped in a Torah scroll, chant morning prayers on July 2 on the grounds of the Auschwitz death camp during their tour of Poland organized by the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture. Piotr Malecki

Poland was never on Cantor Faith Steinsnyder’s “top 10 destinations list.” Nevertheless Steinsnyder, of The Village Temple in Manhattan, was among 70 cantors, including four from Bergen County and hundreds of congregants from synagogues throughout North America, Europe, and Israel, who went on last month’s Cantors Assembly mission “Poland to Israel: A Journey Through Time.”

“It’s important,” said Steinsnyder. “It’s not a fun place to spend your vacation, but it was very moving, very challenging, and very enriching.”

Steinsnyder went on the mission – which visited Poland from June 29 to July 5 and Israel from July 6 to 12 – with her husband, Cantor David Perper, of Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah. Unlike many other participants, none of their parents are Holocaust survivors.

But the importance of introducing Jews to today’s Poland was not lost on any of the participants, regardless of the degree to which they were personally affected by the Holocaust.

“The most important thing I learned was the extent to which the current generations of Polish citizens really are a new country because it’s been only 20 years since the fall of communism in Poland,” said Cantor Sam Weiss of the Jewish Community Center in Paramus. “This generation of Polish citizens are discovering their own history, and with that, the Jewish component.”

The Polish attempt to re-create lost Jewish traditions is not an isolated one nor is it only restricted to the few Jews who live in Poland today.

“There are people whose grandparents told them it was more interesting when the Jews were here. You hear that a lot,” said Steinsnyder.

“Even though there are not many Jews, many Poles say ‘When the Jews were here, it was much more rich. We’d really like them back,'” Perper added.

Whether it be the faded wall paintings at Auschwitz by nameless Holocaust victims who most likely perished or the Nosyk Synagogue in Warsaw that has been in use since before the war, there is ample evidence that the Jews made a mark – and left a hole – in society.

Cantor Ilan Mamber of Franklin Lakes, who is affiliated with Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, was moved by the group’s visit to Krakow, in particular the 19th Annual Jewish Music and Culture Festival taking place there.

“There are only 200 Jews there now, but we were in the midst of this festival. Many of the performers were not Jewish, the people who came to this thing which was centered in what used to be the Jewish quarter were not Jewish, yet people flocked to it. A lot of music was Yiddish or based on it,” he said.

He found Saturday night of the Jewish Music Festival especially meaningful. The male cantors came to the stage and performed a 15-minute Havdalah service for the spectators.

“There were 15,000 people there, most of whom were not Jewish, but they were listening to us and they were awed,” Mamber said.

While this was a highlight of the trip for many, it was one of several performances in which Steinsnyder and the other female cantors could not participate because the majority of Poland’s Jews are strictly observant.

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Cantors David Propis, left, and Sam Weiss read from the Torah.

“When they see us, they want us to be like the Jews of old time, completely Orthodox and male-dominated,” Steinsnyder said. “There were moments in this historic trip that were men-only, which had a curious effect on the women in this group, because it’s tough to be disenfranchised just for the sake of making a historical event,” she said.

Still, the women were able to participate in some of the pinnacle performances of the trip, including a weekday morning service at Auschwitz, a concert at the Opera House, and a show at the Yiddish Theater in Warsaw. The Yiddish Theater was Steinsnyder’s favorite.

“To perform in the Yiddish Theater was insane. Now, I can get all emotional about it, but at the time I had to concentrate on remembering my lines. The show went well; I wish we could’ve done it again,” she said. (The cantors’ concert drew from musical theater, Yiddish theater, and American songs by Jewish composers.)

“The thrill for me, in getting to know about Polish culture, was being able to sing in the opera house with the choir and orchestra. It really was and has been a cultural center for so long. To be on that opera stage and the next day on the Yiddish Theater stage, that was intense.”

But in the midst of uplifting performances to celebrate the continuing existence of a vibrant Jewish culture, the group took the time to pay respect to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust by visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau. “Doing a simple morning, weekday service at Auschwitz was very powerful,” Mamber said. One of the most moving moments was after we read the Torah. There were 70 cantors and 230 congregants from across America. Anyone within the congregants or cantors who was a Holocaust survivor or a relative of a Holocaust survivor, we unfolded the whole Torah and circled around them with it. There’s never been a traditional morning service at Auschwitz,” said Mamber.

The scene in which the cantors led the service eerily reminded the group of where they were.

“There were swallows. I’ve never seen swallows like the swallows at Auschwitz. Black, shrieking birds. It was like a Hitchcock scene,” Steinsnyder said. “There we are, the Jewish people reading Torah, doing our thing, and we were still watched by a guard from Auschwitz.”

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The cantors perform a Shacharit service at Auschwitz.

The mission, including the Israeli portion, is still vivid for the Bergen County cantors.

“Besides thinking about what we personally got out of it, it’s important to think of what the communities we visited got out of the mission. We were constantly hearing how much our presence was appreciated, both in Poland and in Israel,” said Weiss.

As the cantors return to their home synagogues, they are all planning sermons or temple bulletin articles to share their newfound insight into the Polish people with their congregants.

Steinsnyder, who did not know much about Polish Jewish history before the trip, said that she learned a great deal and hopes that the stories she shares will persuade others to go on similar trips.

“The Poles have photographs and memories [of Jewish life in Poland] but it was three generations ago. Our people invested so much in that land and that area; we’ve got to go back and preserve what we can and see how much there was and what there still is – because there will be a time when people don’t believe it was there,” she said. “It’s a beautiful place, there’s so much of us in their history, and it would just be a shame to abandon that whole part of the world and let whatever evidence is left just go into the ground. You come back from a thing like this with more responsibility. I hope I get back. There’s work to be done there.”

The mission was sponsored by Jewish Heritage Initiative in Poland, founded in 2004 through the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture. It aims to foster the return of Jewish life and culture to Poland and increase interest in Poland, where many U.S. Jews have roots.