Parshat Teruma: “Giving as a Basis for a Robust Community“
Rabbi Moshe and Chava Bloom are Straus-Amiel alumni who served in Warsaw, Poland, where Moshe was a community rabbi, head of the Torah MiTzion Kollel and Assistant to the Chief Rabbi of Poland
God demands of the People of Israel to open their hearts and contribute to the building of the Mishkan. “Speak unto the Children of Israel, that they take for Me an offering; of every man whose heart maketh him willing ye shall take My offering” (Shemot 25:2). In the portion of Vayakhel we see that the Children of Israel do indeed harken to the calling and bring all the necessary materials, so much so, that there was a great excess of donations and the People had to be told to stop bringing more: “And all the wise men, that wrought all the work of the sanctuary, came every man from his work which they wrought. And they spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘The people bring much more than enough for the service of the work, which the Lord commanded to make” (Shemot 36:4-5).
The way in which the People of Israel set themselves to the task and engaged in infinite giving is heartwarming, and attests to the fact that the People understood how important it was for them to have a spiritual center in the desert, at the heart of which would dwell the Shechinah, enveloped by the Israelite camp on all sides.
One of the greatest challenges of any rabbi in the Diaspora is creating a spiritual center that will serve as a haven to all those who seek it. How does one turn the synagogue and other Jewish institutes into places that draw to them all Jews, even those that are not observant?
One way to build such a spiritual center is to turn people into active partners who are required to give of themselves. When people engage in giving to a community, they feel it is theirs and are therefore present. If the rabbi and his wife do all the work while all others are passive, any success reaped will be short-lived. However, if the leaders of the community are able to cause people to give and contribute – the people will keep coming.
During the four years of our shlichut in Warsaw, Poland (2013-2017), we came to understand that the Jewish community of Poland was different from other well-established communities around the world, mainly because of Poland’s unique history. The Holocaust, with all its horrors, annihilated more than 90% of Polish Jewry, and following the war most of the survivors left the country – some to Israel, others to western Europe or other countries. The emigration from Poland took place in a number of waves: The first took place between the years 1945-46; the following one transpired between the years 1956 and 1960 and was known as the Gomulka Aliya, and the final wave of emigrants left Poland right after the Six Day War, in 1968. In fact, those who wished to hold onto their Jewish identity did not remain in Poland. However, tens, or maybe even hundreds of thousands of Jews still chose to remain in Poland. These were largely communist Jews who decided to relinquish their Jewish identity and keep their Polish one. This stemmed largely from the fact that they had experienced the atrocities of the Holocaust, and their subsequent resolution to never have to undergo another similar catastrophe. For their own sake and that of their children, they decided to start a completely new life in Poland, stripped of their Jewish identity, such that even their spouses and children were clueless as to their Jewish ancestry.
With the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, the situation suddenly changed. It was suddenly okay to acknowledge one’s Jewishness. Slowly but surely, more and more people came out with the secret of their Jewish roots, and infused new life into the Jewish community of Poland, much like the phoenix that is reborn from the ashes.
But this situation does have its drawbacks. Most of these newly-emerging Jews did not grow up as Jews, and so had no Jewish tradition to fall back on. They were also completely clueless about what it means to live a Jewish life (be it a religious one or not). I remember an incident in the Nożyk Synagogue in Warsaw (the city’s central synagogue and the only one which survived the Holocaust), when one of the worshippers said to me: “This is the tradition here in our synagogue.” I could only chuckle to myself at this statement. After all, the synagogue had no age-old traditions whatsoever. All the practices and customs could not have been around for more than 30 years, since they had all been introduced by non-local rabbis who had come to serve the community during the last three decades. When a more Hasidic-oriented rabbi took position, the synagogue’s customs were more Hasidic in nature; when a misnaged rabbi arrived on the scene, the “Polish traditions” got a Lithuanian flavor.
Another central problem we witnessed in Poland evolved around the concept of “giving”. In any normal community, the members know that in order to receive, one has to give in return. This can be done by means of membership fees and other forms of monetary contributions which enable the robust existence of the community and its upkeep (maintenance of the synagogue, salaries for workers, cost of activities etc.); or by taking on honorary positions (such as synagogue manager, treasurer, board member, committee member etc.); sending one’s children to study in the Jewish school even if it’s further away from one’s home; or by attending social activities organized by the community and so forth.
In the Jewish community of Poland, the concept of “giving” hardly existed. Membership fees were never paid, and the community was somehow able to upkeep itself financially thanks to the property it had owned before World War II, and which it retrieved following the war. Just to give a sense of the situation, annual membership fees were set at 50 Zloty (the equivalent of 50 Shekels or $15), a negligible sum, and yet people still complained. Most of those holding various positions in the community worked for pay, and there were hardly any honorary positions. Many of the activities were financed and put into motion by Jewish organizations from around the world and not by local bodies. Members of the community received a great deal; however, the need and desire to give, to be active and to be committed was not ingrained in them at all.
How does one create a community when its members have no sense of giving? How does one cause individuals to congregate around a spiritual center, when those same individuals take on zero responsibility and expect the rabbi or board members (who are all salaried workers) to do everything for them? How does one convey to people that the Mishkan became rooted in the hearts of the Israelites precisely because they were fully conscious of the fact that all the materials necessary for the Tabernacle’s construction were donated either by themselves or their parents? The Mishkan belonged to the people in all senses of the word – it was built with objects and materials that had actually belonged to individuals, and upon its completion it belonged to the entire People of Israel.
The Jewish community of Poland continues to be one which is neither big nor strong, although it bears a burden oh so heavy: a millennium of Jewish existence, on the one hand, and its traumatic destruction during the Holocaust, on the other. The community is in dire need of external help (in the form of rabbi emissaries, for example), but is slowly beginning to understand that the responsibility for its welfare lies in the hands of its own members, especially the younger ones. Only by not shying away from responsibility, committing to the community and engaging in giving can the future of Jewish life be vouchsafed.
Officially, the Jewish community of Warsaw comprises some 700 Jews, with additional Jews and Jewish organizations in the surrounding areas. The Nożyk Synagogue in Warsaw embodies the heart of the community, holding 3 prayers daily, Shabbat services, events and prayers during the Jewish Holidays, Torah lessons, preparation for Jewish conversion, Jewish marriage ceremonies, circumcisions, to name but a few.