Opening Our Eyes to a Poland with Open Arms

The High Holidays and the Hebrew month of Elul that precede them are traditionally a time of intense reflection, repentance and atonement. We are charged with the task of repairing our interpersonal relations—to ask human forgiveness and to give forgiveness—before we seek Divine forgiveness on the Day of Atonement.

As many of you know, over the summer I participated in a historic event—the Cantor’s Assembly’s first ever visit to Poland. In addition to cantors from all across the United States, the group was joined by family members and congregants and totaled sum 400 people. The program included concert performances, a special memorial service at Auschwitz, and participation in the 19th Annual Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow.

The festival in turn attracts up to 30,000 participants who come from all over Poland, Europe, Israel and the United States to enjoy 10 days of art exhibitions, workshops, lectures and concerts by some of the worlds leading Jewish scholars and artists. But most importantly, the festival represents a unique opportunity for Poles and Jews to learn and celebrate together in spite of—or perhaps even because of—our difficult shared history.

The huge Polish attendance at these events is simply stunning. For instance, the night that the Cantors’ Assembly led services at the historic Templum Synagogue in Krakow, the standing-room crowd literally overflowed into the street. For many in our group this passionate interest in Jews and Jewish culture was difficult to square with the common stereotypes of Polish anti-Semitism. What do we make of Poles who are willing to travel across the country to stand in a hot and stifling room in order to attend a Kabbalat Shabbat service? Aren’t they supposed to be throwing stones through the windows instead of humming along with our prayers?

Reconciliation between individuals can be difficult—even impossible at times. But our experience in Poland posed an even greater challenge: that of national reconciliation and the potential to heal the rift between our peoples. Of course, anti-Semitism still exists in Poland, as it does throughout Europe and even here in the United States. But there is a large segment of the Polish population who are actively reaching out to us. The question now is can we reach back to them?

May you and your family be inscribed for a good year!

Shana Tova!