Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture
50 Broadway, 34th Floor
New York, N.Y. 10004

Tel: (212) 425-6606
Fax: (212) 425-6602
Email: office@mfjc.org

Memorial Foundation Board Briefings - Recent News April 2005

April 10, 2005

CULTURAL REVIVAL IN POLAND AND HUNGARY

This is a brief, hopeful report about a number of young men and women who are re-introducing cultural life in the Jewish communities in Poland and Hungary and leading the remarkable Jewish revival    there.  All were either Nahum Goldmann Fellows or recipients of the Foundation's Community Service scholarships, enabling them to return to their communities better equipped Jewishly to assume leadership roles.

 

The Bible in Polish

Sacha Pecaric earned both an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Media Studies at the Charles University in Prague.  While studying there, he was befriended by Leo Pavlat and Victor Feurlicht.  Both played important roles in Jewish life in Prague during the Communist era, Pavlat as a dissident, who subsequently became director of the Jewish Museum of Prague, and Feurlicht who served as cantor of the Altneu Synagogue.  They stimulated his interest in Jewish learning, which led him to pursue Jewish studies in Israel and the United States.

After his marriage in the U.S. to Ksenija, who he met in Prague, both Sacha and Ksenija decided to return to serve the Jewish community in Eastern Europe where their roots were.  Both commenced a multi-year program of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University, for which they received Community Service grants in 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1996.  During this time, Sacha also completed another M.A. in Analytic Philosophy at Columbia University.

In 1997 he was recruited to serve as the rabbi in Krakow by Michael Schudrich, who was serving as the rabbi in Warsaw.  Both were supported by the Lauder Foundation that had become active in Poland.

Sacha concedes that the early years of his rabbinate at the famous Rema Synagogue there were exceedingly tough. He organized a study group in Krakow that began to attract people from surrounding communities, some several hours away.  He also began publishing a Torah Newsletter, with extracts and commentary from the weekly Parsha that was distributed all over Poland.

At this juncture, he thought about undertaking a translation of the Chumash into Polish.  Someone offered to help him reprint a one hundred year old translation.  Subsequent research by Sacha led him to several other translations of the Pentateuch in Polish, by Spitzer, Silkov, Newfeld and the most recent, in 1932, by Rabbi Mieses, the chief Jewish Chaplain in the Polish Army.  Sacha found the language of these translations inadequate in his view for the current generation of Polish Jews.  In one case, the translation was too closely connected to Christian sources.

With considerable courage and chutzpah, Sacha and a colleague, Eva Gordon, began their own translation of the Pentateuch into Polish.  Genesis, with a commentary, was completed in 2001.  Five thousand five hundred copies have been printed to date and have been almost all sold out.  A very formidable and favorable review of the translation of Genesis appeared in the Polish edition of Newsweek in 2002.  Exodus, with a commentary, was completed in 2003.  The three thousand five hundred copies that were published have been sold out.

The reception to these volumes can, in part, be gauged by the response of Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish Nobel Prize winner in Literature, who returned from California where he had been teaching at the University of California, to spend the last years of his life in Krakow.  Milosz was present at the receptions organized for the publication of each of the two volumes, presenting a thoughtful essay at the first event.  Parenthetically, Sacha was honored to be among the personalities who eulogized Milosz at his funeral, which was carried on Polish television.

Sacha came to my office several months ago to present me with a copy of the translation of Leviticus, just published.  The translation of Numbers and Deuteronomy, he advised, will appear later this year.  The publication of the translations of Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus were supported both by the Memorial and Lauder Foundations.

Sacha also presented me with three other volumes that he helped edit and translate into Polish this year - The Song of Songs, The Book of Ruth, and the Siddur.  His earlier publications include the translation of the Haggada, and a Sabbath reader.

 

Other young Polish Jewish leaders

Rabbi Michael Schudrich, who was a recipient of Foundation fellowships in 1981 and 1982, has been one of the major actors in the revival of Jewish life in Poland.

After serving as a rabbi in Tokyo, he moved to Poland with his family in 1992 where he was employed by the Ronald Lauder Foundation, and served as rabbi of the Jewish community in Warsaw.  Rabbi Schudrich began organizing Sabbath dinners, adult education classes, youth clubs, and published a monthly magazine called Midrasj.  He was appointed Chief Rabbi of Warsaw and Lodz in 2000 and Chief Rabbi of Poland in 2004.  He has since played a vital role, either directly or indirectly, in the flowering of a plethora of Jewish cultural and religious programs in Poland.

There are many young Jews in Poland today whose families remained in Poland after the Holocaust but who kept their Jewishness a secret.  Assisting many of these young Jews to return to Judaism has been Rabbi Schudrich's major accomplishment.  Some of his students, described below, have assumed the mantle of future leadership for Polish Jewry.

Leszek Piszewski discovered his Jewish roots when he was a teenager but it was only in his 30s that he became more and more interested in learning and pursuing the heritage of his father's ancestors.  Leszek, who converted to Judaism about ten years ago, was a Nahum Goldmann Fellow in 1999 and 2001, and received two Community Service Scholarships, in 2000 and 2002.  He was very quiet at the two Nahum Goldmann Fellowships in which he participated. 

But as he reported to the Foundation's 40th anniversary meeting in Jerusalem last July, the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship had a profound impact on him.  It was through this program and his contacts with the other fellows from all around the world, he told the Foundation Board, that he discovered that he was not alone as a Jew, that he was a member of a larger entity, KLAL YISRAEL. 

This strengthened his commitment to undertake leadership responsibilities in rebuilding the Jewish community in Warsaw, where he was elected president of the community.  Leszek also served on the board of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland.  He is currently the executive director of the Atara Foundation, active in adult education and outreach programs in Poland.

Monika Krawczyk, a lawyer by profession, also became deeply interested in Judaism while studying with Rabbi Michael Schudrich.  In 2001, the Foundation invited her to attend the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship in Sweden and she subsequently studied at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem with the help of two Community Service Scholarship grants in 2002 and 2003.  Monika was appointed last year as the executive director for the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Culture, which is responsible for the restitution of Jewish communal property in Poland.

Lena Bergman, an architect by training, who I met during a visit to Poland in the mid-nineties, shared with me her strong desire to learn more about her Jewish roots.  She received a community service grant in 1996, after which she returned to Poland to work in the Jewish community.  She is now the assistant director of the Jewish Historical Institute where she is helping to shape the future of that institution as well as the field of Judaic studies in Poland.

 

Modern orthodoxy in Hungary

In the revival of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, in which the Memorial Foundation has been active for the last four decades, modern orthodoxy as a movement has not been a major player.  There have been several orthodox groups in the United States and Israel who have sponsored young orthodox Jews from abroad to teach and organize summer camps in the former Soviet Union.  Individual orthodox Jews had been very active, and some had played leading roles, in the Soviet Jewry movement. 

The absence of modern orthodoxy as a movement is both surprising and sad considering the dynamic contributions modern orthodoxy has made in both Israel and the U.S.   It is hard to understand this aloofness from the historic effort to reestablish Jewish cultural and religious life in Eastern Europe, decimated in the Holocaust and  repressed during the Communist era.

One welcome and notable indigenous exception is the recently established Pesti Shul Association in Budapest, organized by two young Jews of Hungarian origin, Agnes Peresztegi, a lawyer, who serves as co-president of the group; and Gabor Balazs, its educational coordinator.  Both received Foundation scholarships for their Jewish studies;  Agnes received four scholarships and fellowships in 1991, 1995, 1997 and 1999, and Gabor, two Community Service Scholarships in 2003 and 2004.  Both have returned to Budapest with the aim of introducing modern orthodoxy there.

Orthodoxy in Hungary, which was very strong before World War II, was almost completely destroyed in the Shoah.  The Pesti Shul Association, dedicated to ensuring the continuity of Hungarian Orthodox Jewry, is working to establish a modern Orthodox beachhead within the autonomous Hungarian Orthodox community.

Officially started in 2000, the Pesti Shul Associaton was registered in 2003.  It currently offers weekly classes on the elementary and advanced level in a variety of religious Jewish texts, and organizes monthly Shabbatonim and academic lectures by visiting Jewish university professors.   It also seeks to reach out to university students and young adults to introduce them to university level Jewish learning.  Realizing that only a small group will become observant modern orthodox Jews, it is nonetheless committed to sharing the relevance of Jewish tradition and texts with young non-observant Hungarian Jews.

This month the Pesti Shul Association is opening their own library and are making it available as a place of study for students from the ORZSE and ELTE Universities in Budapest.

The Pesti Shul Association received its own Sefer Torah recently, and organized a Hachnassat Sefer Torah that was a major celebration for the Hungarian Jewish community.   May it go from strength to strength.

All of the above young men and women are excellent examples of the several thousand recipients of the Foundation's International Community Service Scholarship and more than five hundred Nahum Goldmann fellows who have returned to serve in dispersed Jewish communities around the world.  Their names and contributions may not be widely known in Jewish life, but they make an invaluable contribution in the creation, dissemination and intensification of Jewish cultural life, similar to what the young Jewish leaders that I have described in this report have accomplished in Poland and Hungary.

 

NEW NAHUM GOLDMANN FELLOWSHIP ONLINE COURSE

The Nahum Goldmann Fellowship is currently offering a new on-line course at its website: www.ngfp.org.  The course, The Bible As It Was is being taught by Prof. James Kugel of Harvard and Bar Ilan Universities, based on his recently published and highly acclaimed book of the same name.

Prof. Kugel, as you may recollect, served as a member of the faculty at the recently concluded Indian Nahum Goldmann Fellowship.  His course follows the highly successful one taught by Prof. Ruth Wisse, a colleague of Prof. Kugel, at Harvard, on The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey Through Language and Literature.

 

NACHAS DEPARTMENT

Grigory Lipman, a Nahum Goldmann fellow and recipient of a number of Memorial Foundation scholarships, received the prestigious President of Israel's Prize for Jewish Education in the Diaspora.  Grisha, as he is known to us, a pioneer in the field of Jewish education in the CIS,  served for more than a decade as chairman of the Association of Jewish Schools in the CIS and the Baltic States, which the Foundation founded in 1991, and where he provided outstanding leadership. 

Some of you may recollect that when the Memorial Foundation's Executive Committee met in Moscow in July, 2001, we spend a moving evening at Grisha's school. Dr. Alvin Schiff, a reader for the Foundation in the field of Jewish education for several decades, received a similar award.

Dr. Elisheva Baumgarten, recipient of an Ephraim Urbach Fellowship in 2002, and Doctoral scholarships in 1996 and 1997, has been awarded the Koret Book Prize in Jewish History for 2005 for her volume, Mothers and Children: Jewish Family Life in Medieval Europe, based on her dissertation. Best wishes for a joyful Passover.  

Best wishes for a happy Pesach.

Warm regards.
Sincerely yours,

Dr. Jerry Hochbaum
Executive Vice President