Recent converts offer a glimpse of Judaism’s appeal in Poland

Recent converts offer a glimpse of Judaism’s appeal in Poland

Though their ranks remain small, growing numbers of Catholic Poles are embracing a religion nearly erased from their homeland

Additions to Poland's tiny Reform community prepare to toast the end of their conversion process Oct. 11, 2012 in Krakow. (Photo credit: Nissan Tzur)
Additions to Poland's tiny Reform community prepare to toast the end of their conversion process Oct. 11, 2012 in Krakow. (Photo credit: Nissan Tzur)

The eight women waiting on the first floor of Krakow’s Jewish Community Center cannot hide their excitement. For many, the biggest moment of their lives, the moment they’ve studied and waited for, is about to arrive. The first of the women is asked to head upstairs, to the third floor, where three rabbis await. A few minutes later, she emerges with a huge smile. “I am a Jew!” she beams.

The others hurry to hug and congratulate her. Tears of happiness and excitement flow.

Later in the day, after all the women have been officially recognized by the beit din, or rabbinical court, they choose Jewish names and gather at the local mikveh to toast “lechaim” with glasses of kosher Israeli wine.

For these eight, the Oct. 11 celebration marks the end of a long personal process. For Poland’s tiny Jewish population, the ceremony means something more, signifying the conversion of another group of Polish-Catholics through a course organized by Beit Warsaw, the country’s Reform community.

Founded in 1995 by Severyn Ashkenazy, a Jewish-American businessman born in Poland, Beit Warsaw provides Shabbat services, Hebrew lessons, Sunday school and more to a core community of between 100 and 120 in its namesake city. Since it began offering conversion courses in 2003, more than 100 men and women from across the country have converted under its supervision.

Because Krakow is the only Polish city whose mikveh can be used for Reform conversions, each Beit Warsaw convert must make the journey to the city to complete the process. (Warsaw’s mikveh, the only other Jewish ritual bath in Poland, is restricted to Orthodox use.)

Ashkenazy, 76, survived the Holocaust by hiding in what is now Ukraine, then immigrated to the US after the war. After successfully managing businesses that included a hotel chain and a construction company, he returned to Poland in 1993 to recover real estate owned by his family, and began efforts to rebuild the Jewish community.

He expresses pride in its growth since then, and says Beit Warsaw has become a true home for Jews and converts. In addition to the city’s newly Jewish residents, the congregation counts among its regulars between 70 and 80 locals who aren’t Jewish, but who attend Shabbat services and other religious activities, typically because they have Jewish roots, a Jewish partner or a connection to Israel. For Ashkenazy, the most recent group of converts provides a reason to celebrate, but also an opportunity to outline challenges facing Beit Warsaw, and to raise funds.

‘You have to experience the whole year, with all the holidays, to learn about Judaism properly,’ says Anna Polat, a new convert

“All these activities cost a lot of money, and we do not get enough support from the official organizations,” he says. “I hope some organization or group of donors will help us to continue the revival of Jewish life in Poland.”

Jewish conversions performed through Beit Warsaw – a relatively rare, if now regular, phenomenon — sparked the interest of The Times of Israel, which spoke to several recent converts about their experience, as well as their reasons for making the decision and what it means in the shadow of Polish-Jewish history. We also spoke to the Israeli rabbi who oversaw the process, asking about the Reform movement’s appeal to Polish-Catholics, and why Polish converts are overwhelmingly women.

Among the new adherents to Judaism, Anna Polat, 35, says her decision to convert was motivated by her love of an Israeli, Tal Mizrahi, who she met through work. The couple are now planning their wedding.

Why did you decide to convert?

I work for Turkish Airlines and met Tal, who worked for the same company, on a flight to Istanbul. We fell in love and, after some time, he decided to quit his job and move to Poland with me. It was clear to me that I wanted to convert for him and for our future kids.

What did you learn in the conversion course? Why did you decide to convert through the Reform rather than the Orthodox process?

The course lasted for one year. At first I thought it was a really long time, but today I understand that what they taught us is just the minimum necessary. You have to experience the whole year, with all the holidays, to learn about Judaism properly. We learned about Jewish holidays, customs, traditions and more. I chose to convert in the Reform school because it is closer to my approach to God and to life.

Are you planning to tell your future children that you converted?

Sure. They will be Jews. They will be raised as Jews, and I will tell them that I converted.

For many Jews and Israelis, Poland is still associated with the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, and many people in Poland still have negative opinions about Jews. Are you afraid that people may respond in an inappropriate way when they hear that you have converted from Catholicism to Judaism?

I know that Poland is stereotyped as anti-Semitic, but I have never experienced anything like that personally. We live in a complex of small houses, and all our neighbors know that Tal is Jewish and that I’m going to become a Jew. Nobody has ever said anything [negative]. On the contrary, we have gradually learned that one of our neighbors has Jewish roots, and that another neighbor’s daughter is attending a Jewish school. She greets us with “Shabbat shalom” every Friday. Our experience has been completely the opposite of what we expected. On the other hand, there is a large [display] of anti-Jewish graffiti at the entrance to our neighborhood. People have fears and they feel a need to name them — some of them have decided to blame the Jews for all the evils in the world. But we have never experienced an anti-Semitic incident.

Karolina Chojnacka, 23, from Lodz, chose the Hebrew name Kalanit as part of her conversion. She is a professional dancer, and also converted because of love. Unlike Polat, however, she fell in love with Israel itself, rather than with an Israeli. Her interest developed over the course of a year she spent training in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

‘When I came back to Poland,’ Chojnacka says, ‘it was difficult to get used to life here, and I began looking for a way to feel this bond with Israel and Judaism again’

“The main reason for my decision to convert was the year I spent in Israel after I was accepted into the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. I spent six months in Jerusalem and became involved in activities outside my studies, such as volunteering at a hospital. I then moved to Tel Aviv and spent another six months there, dancing Jewish and Israeli dances as part of a professional group. I became very close to Jewish culture and traditions. When I came back to Poland, it was difficult for me to get used to life here, and I began looking for a way to feel this bond with Israel and Judaism again. That’s how I found Beit Warsaw and decided to convert.”

How did your family react to your decision?

My parents are open-minded. My mother visited me in Israel for two weeks and realized how much I was in love with the country. It wasn’t a decision made in one day — it was a long process during which my parents saw that I was looking for my true identity. They were surprised when I told them about my decision to convert, but not too surprised. They are fine with it.

When I ask Izabela Foremniak, 35, outside the beit din whether she’s Catholic, she quickly corrects me: “I was Catholic.” Her reasons for converting are rather different from her classmates’, and have more to do with disappointment in the Church than with love. As a formerly devout Catholic, her conversion was an extreme step.

“I was always very involved in the Catholic church,” she said. “Twelve years ago, I began to read the Bible, the Old and New Testaments, and became very disappointed and angry. I felt that the Catholic Church had lied to us. I wanted to know why Jesus was so important — why he is more important than Janusz Korczak [a Polish-Jewish hero of the Holocaust who tried to save children from the Jewish orphanage he directed], for example. I asked in the church, but they never gave me a good answer. I started to search for answers on my own. I made contact with Muslims, Protestants and Jews, and simply started to explore. I went to Beit Warsaw two years ago, and several months later, I decided to participate in a shlichat tzibur course [to learn to lead services]. After a short time, they invited me to convert. At first, I didn’t feel completely ready for it, but that changed a few months ago, and I knew that I had done the right thing.

How have your family and close friends reacted to your conversion?

Foremniak sighs. ”My mother is a very devout Catholic. My father asked me not to tell her about my conversion because we are worried about her health and how she will react. I think it will be too stressful for her, and that she will not accept it.”

What did you learn in your shlichat tzibur and the conversion courses?

I learned how to lead Shabbat services in the shlichat tzibur course. During the conversion course, we learned about the Jewish holidays, Shabbat, Jewish life and traditions.

What does it mean for you to be a Jew?

To be a Jew means for me to be in the right place. It is also important for me that my husband will be a Jew and that my kids will grow up as Jews.

Why did you decide to undergo a Reform rather than an Orthodox conversion?

I attended Orthodox community services more than 15 times and understood that it was not the right place for me. I didn’t feel like a human being there. I felt much more comfortable with Beit Warsaw and the Reform community. I want to share my talents, to lead services, and I can’t do this in the Orthodox community, simply because I am a woman.

‘Once we are convinced that these individuals truly want to be part of the people of Israel and Jewish culture,’ Rabbi Gil Nativ says, ‘we accept them’

Rabbi Gil Nativ came to Warsaw with his wife, Ziva, in August to serve as the rabbi for the Reform community, and has led conversion courses since. He sat on the beit din to test the women’s knowledge of Judaism.

Originally from Haifa, Nativ was ordained at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, and has served as a rabbi to Progressive communities in Israel and abroad for more than 30 years. He has helped more than 40 people convert in Israel, but this was the first conversion course he led in Poland.

“It’s a very special feeling,” he says. “The converts’ backgrounds are varied, but the special thing is that some of them have only discovered that they have Jewish roots later in life. I guess this is a result of the history of Jews in Poland, which meant that some Jews had to hide their identity and religion until their old age, or discovered only when they were older that they had been adopted by Catholics when they were children.”

Do you think that conversion has become more popular in recent years?

There was a period of decline in requests for conversions after the [Israeli] government adopted [more stringent rules about which overseas conversions it would recognize]. But in recent years, we have definitely seen a rise in the number of requests.

Why are most of the converts women? Why do they choose to convert in the Reform rather than the Orthodox community?

Most of the converts in Israel are also women because, according to the halacha, children inherit their mother’s religion. I believe converts choose the Progressive way not only because it offers equal status for women, but because we offer them the opportunity to learn all the Jewish traditions, and because we are not constantly checking to see if they are keeping Shabbat or kosher. Once we are convinced that these individuals truly want to be part of the people of Israel and Jewish culture, we accept them.

Less than 70 years after almost all of Polish Jewry died in the Holocaust, how does it feel to help revive Jewish life in Poland and bring people to Judaism?

It’s definitely a special feeling. It’s the feeling of a special mitzva. Here, in a place where Jews were forced to hide their Jewishness and identity for many years, we are ensuring that historical justice is done.

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