the times of israel logo

Yes, there’s Jewish life in Poland –
A Photo Essay

by Laura Ben David

Not long ago, I joined a delegation for a very unique trip to Poland. When I told friends where I was going, the response I got — again and again — was similar to what people would say before Yom Kippur. A sober face and some version of: “Have a meaningful trip.”

No one, myself included, could imagine a Jew going to Poland for anything but a Holocaust tour. After all, as we are all only too aware now, the shades of anti-Semitism have never been far from the surface in segments of Polish society; why else would Jews travel there if not to remember what once was?

In fact, for most Israelis, visits to Poland are more likely part of a heritage tour, starting in high school. Exploring Jewish history, understanding the past, and learning about communities that were all but obliterated in the Holocaust are the standard focus.

Those are all important, but none of those things were what brought us there.

I was sent on the trip to Poland as an Israel educator and photographer, as part of a delegation from the Ohr Torah Stone network’s OTS Amiel Bakehila under the auspices of Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, to bring a taste of Israel and Judaism to Diaspora Jewish communities. Though most people might not have thought of cities in Poland to be included on the list of destinations, I was already aware that these communities are reemerging through my work at Shavei Israel. Still, I was unprepared for what I was to experience.

Arriving in Warsaw, I’ll admit I half-expected the city to be black and white, and very bleak. The truth is that nearly the entire city has been rebuilt and there are few remnants from those terribly dark days of the infamous Warsaw ghetto. Instead we found color and life. Such as the vibrant, colorful JCC that was packed with smiling, happy Jewish people. Not tourists, but locals! Singles, families, lots of children…It was incredible.  Most people simply have no idea about existing Jewish communities in Poland.

DSC 4095 3
The Warsaw JCC is a bustling hub of activity around a central cafe that is fun, has great food, and great atmosphere. (Laura Ben-David)

Indeed, the devastation and loss hang like a specter over the Polish Jewish community — in all three cities we spent time in, Warsaw, Lodz and Wroclaw, when we asked what we should do during time off, the first place we were always told to go to was to the local Jewish cemetery.

And though we did pay our respects, dutifully — this wasn’t a “roots” trip; our trip was about the living. We hadn’t come to see our past. We had come to see the Polish Jews of today.

DSC 4541
Warsaw Jewish Cemetery (Laura Ben-David)

In stark contrast to the cemeteries, we visited many Jewish schools. In fact, we were amazed at just how many there were. At the Lauder-Morasha school in Warsaw, the first school under Jewish auspices in Warsaw since 1949, the children entertained us with a colorful presentation of cities and regions around Israel.

DSC 4140
At the Lauder school in Warsaw, the children entertained us with a colorful presentation of cities and regions around Israel. A beautiful reminder of Israel’s importance to Jewish people throughout the world. (Laura Ben-David)

The school, which is bright, colorful and filled with beautiful light, is housed in a restored facility that was for Jewish senior citizens prior to World War II. The history of the city is very tangible there; butterflies, that the children made, dot the walls around the entrance. They are in memory of the local children who were killed during the Holocaust.

2018051209504819 IMG 6800
Butterflies outside the Lauder school were made by the students to remember the children there who were killed in the Holocaust. (Laura Ben-David)

No one knows how many Jews live in Poland today since people are still discovering their Jewish roots but the number is in the tens of thousands. As we went to each community, to synagogues, JCCs, kindergartens, senior centers and more, we met with many hundreds of people, of all ages, and formed real connections with dozens. We sang with them, shared stories and photos of Israel with them, ate with them, spent Shabbat with them and experienced their cities with them. And though security was exceptionally tight in every place we visited, we never felt uncomfortable walking the streets as Jews.

Mishael Dickman, the Israeli musician on the delegation, said it all: “I would never have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. Jewish communities are being reborn. What an amazing experience to contribute to!”

2C7DC990 F1F0 40F0 AD8C 8403D6205B58
Billboards around Warsaw announcing the commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The people are holding paper daffodils, a symbol of mourning for the Jews who died fighting as well as a poignant contrast with the stars the Jews were made to wear. (Laura Ben-David)


DSC 4025a
Chief Rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich (seated) and Shavei Israel emissary Rabbi Yehoshua Ellis in the beautiful Nożyk Synagogue, one of the few remaining structures from pre-war Warsaw. (Laura Ben-David)


2018060400261244 E8879EEB 50C7 44EF A7E1 67A72B961F07
Coffee with Rabbi David Basok of Wroclaw in the Ciz Cafe, a charming coffee shop and the only kosher place in the city. Impressively, Ciz Cafe actually won twice for ‘best coffee’ in the Wroclaw Coffee Festival! Note the words on the window; it means ‘Kosher! Won’t make you fat…’ (Laura Ben-David)


2018061101013112 IMG 7049
We were greeted so warmly at the Etz Chaim school in Wroclaw. One child came over to me after my presentation and spontaneously gave me a big hug. (Laura Ben-David)


DSC 4129
Rabbi Boaz Pash teaches a Torah class to members of the Warsaw community. (Laura Ben-David)


2018042708055280 DSC 4782 1
Enjoying a tour of Szalom Alejchem elementary school in Wroclaw, in a converted old mansion that was built by in the early 1900s by two Jewish brothers by the name of Ehrlich. (l to r: principal of Szalom Alejchem, Rabbi Boaz Pash, Mishael Dickman). (Laura Ben-David)


DSC 4948 1
A musical ‘kabbalat Shabbat’ in Lodz, led by musician Mishael Dickman. Absolutely inspiring. (Laura Ben-David)


2018060400311216 IMG 7663 1
Beautiful havdalah after a beautiful Shabbat with the Lodz Jewish community. (Laura Ben-David)


2018072200522687 IMG 7739a
During a break we took the opportunity to go to Manufaktura, a beautiful mall built in the former textile factory of Jewish businessman Israel Posnanski, as well as the amazing palace that was once his home. Seeing it all gave me a deeper perspective of Lodz and its former glory as well as a greater understanding of the immense loss of the Jewish community. Going from something like 3,000,000 to around 3000… (Laura Ben-David)


2018050107162833 696678b9 1ad5 4bc9 aa4b a51ec8d3665f
Our very last program was at a senior center in Warsaw. Their emotions were palpable when the residents saw the photos of Israel; for many it was a taste of a beloved place they had yet to visit, and might never get the chance. When it came to the songs, they sang along with surprising energy and great joy. (Mishael Dickman)



Latest posts

Join our Mailing List

Get weekly divrei Torah, news, and updates directly in your inbox from Ohr Torah Stone.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
.pf-primary-img{display:none !important;}