There are at 180 Polish Jews yearning to learn more about their heritage; they range from 6-year-olds to a 94-year-old, and include Holocaust survivors.
This summer, they took lessons in Hebrew language and liturgy from four new graduates of Yeshiva University’s High School for Boys (also known as MTA). Two of the boys are from Teaneck, one is from Rockland County, and one is from Highland Park; the program was a highlight of this summer’s Lauder Foundation Educational Retreat/Camp, which met at a hotel two hours from Krakow.
The four young men volunteered to take part in the August 17-28 retreat as the result of their nine-day trip to Poland last March. Along with 17 other students in their elective class, “Names, Not Numbers,” they focused on documenting the oral history of survivors.
“This year was the first time we were able to arrange a Poland trip for the class,” said Tova Rosenberg, who created “Names, Not Numbers” 13 years ago and has been a staff member at YU’s separate high schools for girls and boys for the past 11 years.
Planned as a leadership training and chesed (good deeds) mission affording opportunities to meet with Jewish community leaders and Holocaust educators — many of whom are not Jewish — the trip offered activities designed to enhance the experience of the course.
In Warsaw, the students met with YU-ordained Rabbi Mati Pawlak and his wife, Hadassah, who run the Lauder Foundation School and an online Jewish education program for children elsewhere in Poland. It so happened that the weekend the visitors were in Krakow was to be the online program’s Shabbaton, and the boys were invited to join in.
They not only attended but took the initiative to lead services, deliver Torah talks, and head up lively rounds of singing and dancing. The Pawlaks asked the young men to return for an after-Shabbat party for participants and their parents that night.
“They taught them Hebrew songs and were just so amazing that the head of the program asked them to come back and be part of the Lauder educational camp at the end of August,” Ms. Rosenberg related. “One success led to another.”
The four who accepted the invitation were Shimmy Mandelbaum of Rockland County, CJ Glicksman and Eli Kahn of Teaneck, and Jason Blatt of Highland Park. After returning from Poland, they would have only a few days at home before taking off for their gap year in Israel.
“It is unbelievable that four young men agreed to take out of their precious time before going to study for a year in Israel, to go to an unknown place,” Ms. Pawlak said. “We had met them at our Shabbaton but didn’t really know each other. I asked them to come back and I was really surprised when they said yes.”
CJ, 18, said he was eager to learn more about the Jewish community in Poland and to help strengthen its members’ Jewish identity.
“I found that a lot of them are not affiliated with anything Jewish, but were very committed and involved in the camp program,” CJ said. “They were taking 10 days from their regular schedule and brought their kids and grandkids.”
The 28-year-old camp program chose “lashon hakodesh” — the Hebrew language — as its theme this year.
“They wanted our boys to teach four levels of Hebrew to each age group, and they did this formally and informally, using games and songs, and bringing all the spirit they had brought to the Shabbaton in March,” Ms. Rosenberg said. “They also taught an introduction to the prayer book to adults.”
CJ recalled that he taught one woman in her mid-30s to read Hebrew. “We started with the aleph bet and she went back to her room and practiced each night,” he said. “By the end, I was teaching her some grammar and conversation. She was very interested and committed to learning it, which was very cool.”
Ms. Rosenberg and her husband, Dov, flew over for one of the weekends, and spoke to an audience of 50 about the “Names, Not Numbers” curriculum.
The course, she explained, explores the history of the Holocaust through student-produced video testimonials. Students conduct the interviews, film, and edit their one-on-one encounters with Holocaust survivors. The clips become part of a larger film that includes the firsthand survivor accounts as well as interviews with concentration camp liberators and others. The composite film is included in the collections of the National Library of Israel and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, as well as Yeshiva University’s Gottesman Library in Manhattan.
“At the end of my presentation, my translator said to me, ‘Did you notice people walked out of the session with tears in their eyes?’” she reported.
Ms. Rosenberg observed her former students in action at the camp and said she was filled with “nachas” — pride.
“They were coming out of a bubble where there are shuls and kosher restaurants all over the place, and here they saw that one has to work hard to have a Jewish life,” she said.
CJ concurred. “Seeing Jewish people is not something they get to do often in Poland, and when they do, they feel a connection of brotherhood that we take for granted. In America or Israel, you don’t have to go out of your way to be Jewish, but when you’re a Jew in Poland you have to go out of your way if you want to maintain your identity.
“I found that very inspiring.”
Ms. Pawlak noted that many Jewish student groups representing different organizations come to Poland for educational programs, “but these students were the first I’ve seen who wanted to come back and help recreate the life that was destroyed here.
“Their energy and their personal engagement were amazing. And they were welcomed so warmly. An outsider looking in would think they had been there for years. They integrated so well.”
She said that the MTA graduates’ impact went beyond imparting skills.
“They were role models for our kids, a way for them to see they could build a Jewish life and continue to grow in their Judaism and also be a successful person and have fun,” she said.
The four young men hope to stay in touch with their campers. Eli even is setting up a daily Talmud learning session with one of the girls from the camp.
“You’re always proud of your alumni but these students are not out of MTA more than two months and look what they’ve accomplished!” Ms. Rosenberg exclaimed. “I was in absolute awe to see kids I knew from the classroom taking their Jewish education and giving back to the world.”