By Michael Gros
After the Iron Curtain was lifted in Europe twenty years ago, a surprising thing occurred – thousands of people who had been raised as gentiles came to the startling realization that they were actually Jews. Poland is home to thousands of such stories. During the Holocaust and under Communist rule, many Jews there hid their identities and continued to conceal them even after the fall of Communism. On their deathbeds, some of them have revealed their true identities to their children or grandchildren. Other people found out from old family records or through other means.
Once they discover their roots, people often turn to Rabbi Michael Schudrich, an American who has been the Chief Rabbi of Poland since 2004. Rabbi Schudrich has been the guide for multitudes of Jews to return to Torah Judaism. They turn to him for guidance and direction, and he tries to help them to reclaim their proud heritage that had been hidden for so many years.
Several years ago, Zbiszek, a 52 year-old man from Bialystock, came to Rabbi Schudrich’s office in Warsaw. Zbiszek told him that his mother had passed away four months earlier. Following the funeral, Zbiszek was approached by several neighbors who told him astonishing news – this woman who had raised him, whom he knew to be his mother, was not his actual biological mother.
They told Zbiszek that he had been born Jewish. In 1942, as Jews throughout Poland were being exterminated, Zbiszek’s Jewish parents gave him to the woman for adoption in case they were killed. His biological parents did not survive the Holocaust, and so the woman raised Zbiszek as her own son.
She had risked her life to save him during the war, and so she never wanted him to know the truth. She swore her neighbors to secrecy, and they dutifully remained silent for five decades. Now that she had passed away, they decided it was time to reveal the secret.
Zbiszek trembled when he first heard the news and didn’t know what to do. He spent a long time in deep introspection. Should he continue living his comfortable life as a Christian, as he had been raised, or should he embrace his newfound religion, of which he knew nothing?
Zbiszek decided he wanted to live proudly as a Jew, but didn’t know how. So here he was in Rabbi Schudrich’s office, looking for answers. Zbiszek told the rabbi that he felt most guilty that he never had a “Jewish baptism.”
Rabbi Schudrich calmed his fears and taught him the basics of Judaism. Zbiszek spent the next few years studying together with Rabbi Schudrich and attending classes in the community. Today he goes by Zecharya Asher, and is an active member of the Polish Jewish community.
Another unique story is that of Pawel Bramson. He was raised in an observant Catholic family. As a teenager, he joined a skinhead gang. He was virulently anti-Jewish, anti-black and anti-Gypsy.
At age eighteen, Pawel married his Catholic high school girlfriend, a fellow skinhead, and they had two children. Four years later Pawel’s wife decided to investigate some nagging questions that she had about her family’s background. She eventually found her maternal grandparents listed on a register of Warsaw Jews, along with Pawel’s maternal grandparents.
The news shook Pawel. The Jews that he had always reviled were actually his own people!
Pawel’s wife decided to begin serving Shabbat meals and introduced other mitzvot into their home. Pawel confronted his parents and although they acknowledged the truth, they reacted with unease. They even pressured Pawel to urge his wife stop serving Shabbat meals, and to sweep her Judaism back under the rug. They had hidden their Judaism from their own children out of fear of anti-Semitism, and the religious life that Pawel’s wife was beginning to explore represented what to them was profound danger.
It took Pawel a long time to accept the reality of his identity. He struggled with it, unsure of whether he wanted to embrace Judaism or not. But eventually he and his wife decided to live as Orthodox Jews. Pawel now goes by the name Pinchas and is studying to become a schochet, a ritual slaughterer.
Pawel has three brothers, one who is his twin. The twin still believed in many of the anti-Semitic myths that Pawel had rejected. And yet he has been influenced by Pawel’s religious growth in some small ways.
One Friday night, Pawel’s twin brother tried calling him on his cell phone but could not reach him. The twin went to the synagogue to try to find him, but Pawel was not there. That Friday night the synagogue had only nine men in attendance, just one short of a minyan. So when Pawel’s brother walked in, Rabbi Schudrich asked him if he could stay in the synagogue to be the tenth man. He said yes.
Such is the rebirth of Jews in Poland. Even Jews far removed from Judaism, with seemingly no connection, still have a tiny spark of Judaism deep inside them. With the right impetus, that spark can ignite into the beautiful fire of a proud Jewish soul.
This article originally appeared in The Jewish Press.
by Shlomo Yaffe
In this week’s Torah reading, Aaronand all subsequent High Priests are warned to only enter the Temple’sHoly of Holies on Yom Kippur. This is preceded by the statement that this caution followed the deaths of Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, who entered the Tabernacle and the Holy of Holies, “and drew close toG‑d and died.”
Death is the separation of soul and body. As such, on a deeper level we are being warned that coming close to G‑d cannot involve the separation of body and soul.
If while praying or when involved in any other holy experience we feel uplifted, but only the soul makes the trip while the body remains behind, we are making the same holy error as the children of Aaron.
Practically speaking this means that after the spiritual experience our bodies’ desires and weaknesses should not remain the same. Our practical, everyday lives should be more virtuous and ethical than before our “drawing close to G‑d.” If this is not the case, then the whole experience is “dead”—it adds no life and holiness to our world as we live in it.
And the entire purpose of Judaism is to make the Divine a normative presence in the context of our ordinary, everyday, frames of reference.
Introduction ”When you take this people out of Egypt,” said G-d to Moses when He revealed Himself to him in a burning bush at the foot of Mount Sinai, “you shall serve G-d on this mountain.”
Lag BaOmer — this year, May 2, 2010 — is a festive day on the Jewish calendar, celebrating the anniversary of the passing of the great sage and mystic Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, author of the Zohar. It also commemorates another event. In the weeks between Passover and Shavuot, a plague raged amongst the disciples of the great sage Rabbi Akiva. On Lag BaOmer the dying ceased.
So join us for Barbeque, Music, Refreshments, Drinks! & deep Zohar teachings with Rabbi Ari Kirschenbaum
Sunday Night, May 2 at 6:00pm – Hosted by Eitan & Joanna Baron roof top terrace. 695 Degraw Street Unit #3 between 4/5th Ave
No reservations necessary, please feel welcome to bring friends
$10 cover please – Sponsors Welcome 347.787.0864 firstname.lastname@example.org
Looking forward to seeing you and celebrating Lag B’Omer together!
Thank you Eitan & Joanna for Hosting.
A grassroots movement of Jews appealed to Moses when disqualified from joining the national Passover observance. G-d granted them an extension and the Second Passover was born, embodying a poignant message… it’s never too late!
Led by Rabbi Ari Kirschenbaum, join us as we take an in depth look at this ancient story and explore its timeless relevance
Date: Wednesday, April 28 8:00pm
Location: Loft of Joseph Levy. 626 Dean St Lofts #2a between Vanderbilt/Carlton Ave.
All welcome. No cover fee. Light refreshments served. For more info 347.787.0864
Thank you Mr. Levy for hosting.