The Polish Jewish community faces a somewhat different struggle with assimilation or acculturation that other Diaspora communities face. According to Rabbi Yona Daniel Simons, former Rosh Kollel of Poland who was an emissary in Warsaw for three years, Poland’s communist past has had just as profound an effect on reassembling Jewish communal culture as the Holocaust had.
“I had one Kollel student who grew up in a smaller Jewish community where the only local Jewish group was a Jewish literature group. That was the only Jewish group. That was the Jewish community.”
“Membership carried with it a political message. For the majority of other groups, Jews did not join.” Thus, cities with multiple Jewish organizations might not see members mix. The concept of ‘membership’ in a community in the sense of the American Diaspora is thus problematic when trying to launch things like membership drives.
When hosting Jewish community events, he would see fathers, sons and sometimes grandparents come together, but he said that it was a rare occurrence. When it did happen, he noted a disconnect that might seem odd even to some familiar with unaffiliated Jews in places like the United States.
“There aren't many families with Jewish grandchildren and Jewish grandparents. It’s almost unheard of. I would see some people from different generations” in the same family, says Rabbi Simons, but notes that “someone from one or another generation was not really so interested to be there.”
“They would say how nice it was that someone from the younger generation would come to an event. I would say to them, ‘You can invite your kids or grandkids as well.’ But they would often retort, ‘But my children aren't Jewish.’”
Rabbi Simons refers to a “self-fulfilling prophecy” of assimilation among Polish Jews.
“There was no ‘pulling of the ear’ as it were. There was none of that” which you might expect from Jewish families in other places. Here, there was “no connection” in many cases and “no attempt at all the pass on the mesorah (tradition).”
Despite the aforementioned political legacy of associating with organizations, Rabbi Simons and community had a successful membership drive for the community in his final year in Warsaw. The scars of communism might be present, but the times are changing. When asked if the lack of family coherence though was a hindrance to such a project, Rabbi Simons said it was a mixed blessing.
“I don’t know if it is a challenge, but it is certainly a factor. Things are very individualistic, but there is a positive side to that. Someone might decide on his own to attend a shiur (class) or go to events.” But he notes that “Judaism without family is sterile. You don’t go back home and live with friends or live by yourself in your room like a monk and practice Judaism. It can’t work like that.”
There is a recognizable segment of Poles who are entering the Jewish community via conversion, or at least attempting to. Rabbi Simons says that in his first two years on the job he “only saw two or three conversion candidates.” But in the third year that number dramatically increased because of something that might be very familiar to American Jews – the fall of Rabbi Leib Tropper in Monsey.
“There had been political bureaucracy in Israel and London. It was very much instigated by the fall from grace of Rabbi Tropper in Monsey who was trying to get a monopoly on conversion and which had delayed batei dinim (Jewish religious courts) from visits across Europe for a year and a half.”
“The batei dinim simply started showing up again.”
Still, Rabbi Simons finds that there was an issue with Jewish conversions in Poland that had a particularly detrimental effect on the community’s prospects – their length.
“If you know it will take them a long time then you don’t want them going through the motions for too long. You have to have them slow down before it becomes serious.”
His reasoning is that he found conversion was framed too often as an end in and of itself rather than another stage in a longer process of developing religiosity.
“When someone spends a certain serious amount of time becoming religious, only to have a finishing party (at the end), it can be very destructive.”
“I think it is something that many people involved in the mechanics of conversion don’t really understand,” says the Rabbi. “It is not the end of a long road. It needs to be the second or third step in a longer process.”
Rabbi Simons highlights what he calls a detrimental attitude that can arise from certain Polish Jews which he points out also might show up in other places, yet have particularly amplified effects in the sensitive circumstances of Poland’s small and re-nascent Jewish community.
"They will say things like, ‘I was born Jewish so I don’t have to keep the Torah or the mitzvot. You do, otherwise you are not a Jew.’"
Rabbi Simons though is optimistic. He says it would be easy to say that other emissaries before him were not as accomplished as he was, but he hardly makes that kind of argument.
“They started working in 1991. I got there after 18 years of work,” says the Rabbi, who says the current emissary is likely succeeding beyond what he could have accomplished in his own three years. “I could not have done what I did without the things that they managed to do.”