Since 1986, United Synagogue Youth has brought thousands of teens to Poland to explore Jewish life, past and present. Now, says Jules Gutin of Teaneck, USY’s former international director, adults can take the same trip.
USY is run by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
“For a long time, we had considered running a Poland program for adults, modeled after the week in Poland for USYers,” Gutin said. “Parents of kids who have gone said, ‘Why not run a program for us?’ And alumni from the 1980s said they wanted to go back and see what’s changed. It’s a completely different experience now.”
The adult trip, scheduled for July 1-8, will include visits to Warsaw, Crakow, Lublin, and Lodz, as well as to concentration camp sites in Majdanek, Auschwitz/Birkenau, and Treblinka. Unlike the teens, who participate in Israel Pilgrimage/Poland Seminar and Eastern Europe/Israel Pilgrimage, the adults will not go on to spend a week in Israel.
“There’s a dual purpose to the trip,” said Gutin, who will lead the Poland visit. “You can’t avoid the Shoah side, because the most prominent Shoah sites are in Poland. It’s an important part of the overall experience. But the other area of emphasis is the rich history of Judaism up until that point.
“There’s centuries of history – a lot more so than in most places,” he continued, citing preserved synagogues dating back to the Middle Ages. “And more are being restored by Jewish organizations and the Polish government.”
Tour members not only will visit synagogues and other Jewish historical sites, but they also will go to Crakow’s annual Festival of Jewish Culture, including a klezmer concert in Szeroka Square.
“It’s in the square in the heart of the old Jewish quarter,” Gutin said. “It attracts thousands and features klezmer musicians from all over the world.” The adult group will also get to spend Shabbat with USY’s Eastern Europe/Israel Pilgrimage cohort.
Gutin pointed out that Poland has changed dramatically since 1986.
“Access to Jewish historical sites is much more significant, and the country has become much more westernized,” he said. He noted that a new Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which is inside what had been the Warsaw Ghetto, is scheduled to open in April, marking the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Gutin said that the itinerary of the Poland seminar has changed each year since its inception, broadening as new sites become available. While every group visits the concentration camps noted above, some also go to Sobibor. All trips include stays in Warsaw, Lublin, and Crakow.
The July trip will bring adults to those three cities as well as to Lodz, “where there are amazing things to see,” Gutin said.
According to Gutin, the Jewish community in Poland is relatively small, with different estimates placing it between 6,000 and 10,000. Still, he said, “There’s a lot going on in major cities, especially Warsaw and Cracow. The JCC in Cracow is affiliated with the world JCC movement and is housed in a beautiful modern building.”
He said he hasn’t seen a change in the trip’s emotional impact on participants over the years, “though we’ve never done it with adults.”
“We don’t play on the emotions,” he said. “We guide, but we allow the sites to speak for themselves. Everyone reacts differently. We make sure the kids feel comfortable, but we know that some will react more strongly than others.”
“We can’t predict how the adults will respond,” he said. “That will depend on age and experience.” Like the teens, it is likely that most of them were not born until after the Shoah, but some are likely to have immediate family members who either died or were survivors of the Holocaust.
“That will personalize it more,” Gutin said.
Gutin said that while other groups conduct Jewish heritage tours, and many visit Poland, it appears that the people most interested in his trip are those who have a connection to USY programs, whether personally or through their children . Still, he stressed, the trip is not limited to that group. The minimum age for participants is 24, and there is no upper age limit.
Gutin said the adult tour will build on the experience USY has gained over the years.
“We don’t have to tweak it so much,” he said, adding that he has often taught the same material to both teens and adults. “They respond differently, but they are just as eager to absorb information.”
He noted that different people will have different reasons for wanting to make this trip.
“Many can trace their ancestry to family members who lived in what is now Poland,” he said, and – time and schedule permitting – there may be an opportunity to fit in visits to shtetls of particular interest to participants.
In addition, he said, “There aren’t all that many places where one can have a three-dimensional connection to the Shoah, as opposed to reading about it in books. It’s one thing to see physical evidence of the horrors of the Shoah, but one gains a much greater appreciation of that event beyond cold numbers when one understands to some degree what was destroyed,” he said.
“It gives a greater appreciation of what can exist in a Jewish community. It was so diverse – there’s so much to learn from it.”
For more information about the trip, go to www.usy.org/escape/poland/adults.