Jewish educational camps organized twice a year by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation in Poland, are very important contributions to enlivening and strengthening Jewish communal life in Poland. For many years these have been mixed camps that include children, adolescents, middle-aged and elderly persons. For many Jews, especially from the small towns and cities, they are the only opportunity to learn about Judaism and to participate in a traditional Jewish community.
“Jacob sent Joseph to join his brothers who were pasturing their flocks near Shechem. Joseph kept wandering, but he did not know exactly where to find his brothers. And on his road he came across a man who showed him the way.” The meeting with the stranger had a great influence on the history of the Jewish nation just as an encounter with Jewish life for a first-time participant in the Lauder camps.
This is the story told in Parsha Vayeishev (Gen 37:1-40:23), the very same one which was read during the Hanukah Seminar in Nowogrod (December 22-29 2005). For eight winter days the
“Zbyszko” hotel in Nowogrod was turned into “the island of Torah”, where the Jews from all over Poland celebrated the holiday of Hanukah together, some for the first time.
The theme of the retreat was: Torah is the light for Jews. The main goal was to gather all of us around the light of Torah and the light of hanukiyot and to show that light unites us all. The Hannukah candles were lighted in that area for the first time since the Second World War, and kindled an inner flame of knowledge and joy among the almost 100 participants.
The family camp program challenges our staff to organize appropriate activities for both new and veteran participants and for a wide range of ages and different levels of Jewish knowledge as well.
On “the island of Torah” children planted a palm which they decorated with all the commandments they knes and observed. It was great fun to see the kids combing through the hotel in search of the objects of the Temple. First, each child was given an instruction—the description of an object as presented by the Torah. Then, they looked for the corresponding pictures which were later used in building the objects of the Temple—the ark, the showbread table, the altar of incense and the menorah. All these objects were faithfully re-created from blocks.
However, of the many challenges, the lack of a common language among the children was not one of them. Polish, Hebrew, English, Norwegian and Russian–all melted into one as the children played and learned together.
The adults enjoyed the warm and friendly atmosphere, especially because of the fact that many of the projects were organized for the whole family. For example, each afternoon the entire camp met to light candles together. Each family had their own chanukiyah and the adults enjoyed singing together, the various competitions and the prizes jusr as much as the children. With the same joy they collected coupons distributed at the lectures in order to take part in the prize lottery. The more coupons someone collected, the bigger the prizes was. And the prestige! The winners received albums, books and chanukiyot. While the “coupons” are a fun incentive, nobody had to force the participants to attend the lectures or workshops.
Everyone was anxious to meet the new rabbi of Cracow, Rabbi Awraham Flaks and Rabbi Yitzhak Rapoport from Oslo, as well as their wives. It turned out that Rabbi Rapoport, born abroad, spoke Polish fluently. It was their first visit at the camp. For Rabbi Rapoport it was the first visit in Poland. Among the lecturers there were also: Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Rabbi Zelig Avrasin, Nurit Rapoport, Helise Lieberman and Miriam Gonczarska. The staff was made up of young adults and seasoned participants from past Lauder camps and programs. They shared their joy and knowledge and experience with young and old alike.
Apart from the customs and traditions connected with the Hanukah festival, other subjects were discussed. Yaakov Finkelstein from the Embassy of Israel discussed the political situation in Israel after the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza. Mr Alper, who provides Polish Jews’ community with kosher meat, revealed some secrets connected with production of kosher food, and Małgorzata Kordowicz, PhD student of Warsaw, gave a speech on Jewish medical ethics.
Before the Shabbath children prepared the cholent. They put mysterious ingredients into a big pot, which gave unforgettable taste and aroma to the dish. Earlier, they drew the vegetables on the paper and plastered them with Plasticine. They stirred all the ingredients with wooden spoons with inscription "likwod szabat kodesz”. Cholent tasting was accompanied with pantomime acted out by the children: about the just Joseph and his deceitful brothers who threatened Joseph’s life; they sold him to Midian merchants and then, they returned home and lied to their father that Joseph was dead. One-act drama.
Since the Second World War nobody celebrated the Shabbath in Nowogrod. No Jew from Nowogrod managed to survive the war. It is difficult to find any reminders of the past in the town destroyed by the War. Jewish gravestones (macewa) disappeared from the cemetery at Piekarska street. What happened to them? Nobody knows. We found a few of them in ashes of the house that burnt a few years ago. It was a terrible view – gravestones with blurred Hebrew engravings, washed by the river, the only trace of Nowogrod Jews, were stuck in the foundations of the house. The local baker who built his house near the cemetery suffered a terrible fate. When he levelled the slope (the cemetery was situated on the slope at the river bank) the bones were dug out and they fell into the Narew River. The baker did not manage to move into his new house.
Before the War Nowogrod was multinational and multicultural town. At the end of 19th century the population of Jews reached the number of 1608 people (more than a half of inhabitants of the town).
They traded raw and tanned leather, clothes, ell fabrics, animals, dairy products, honey, wax, mushrooms, linen, carpets and canvas. The rabbi of Nowogród was Paltrowicz. “He was a great grandfather of Gwyneth Paltrow”, says Yale Reisner, the director of Genealogical Project of Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. “Now she is a well known Hollywood actress who advertises Estee Lauder perfumes”.
The snow melts, thin layer of ice covers boggy mud. With the common effort of the camp participants we brought one of the gravestones to the cemetery on the sledge. The sledge on which we transported the gravestone was so heavy that it was difficult to pull it.
The Rabbi Zelig Awrasin, the Rabbi Abraham Flaks, Przemyslaw Szpilman,
the director of Jewish cemetery in Warsaw and Albert Stankowski from the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage, dug a hole in the frozen ground.
At least one gravestone shall return to the cemetery. Placing the macewa of a woman who died in 19th century is a symbolic act of reviving the memory of Jewish community in Nowogrod.
The Rabbi Flaks commented on the tale of Joseph looking for his brothers: “We do not know why we have appeared in the world. Maybe for some short moment. We often do not even know that the moment approaches. Just like the man who guided Joseph. Did he know that he would change the course of history?”.
We arrived at Nowogrod to spend some time in nice atmosphere at the camp.
Or maybe to place the gravestone back at the cemetery?
Creating truly homelike Hanukah atmosphere was possible only because of
cooperation and energy of all the staff and also due to serving tasty dishes. All that contributed to the success of the winter camp of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation.
Michael Schudrich Chief Rabbi of Poland Rabbi
Zelig Awrasin Rabbi from Warsaw
Yakkow Finkelstein Embassy of Israel Rabbi
Rabbi of Oslo
Abraham Flaks Rabbi of Cracow
We are grateful for the dedicated efforts of: Ola i Paweł Bramson, Magda i Przemek Szpilman, Iwona Lewandowska, Iwona Skrzypczak,
Małgosia Kordowicz, Agata Rakowiecka, Maria Gonczarska, Jakub Kowalski, Jakub Staszewski, Tal Altar i Marta Łokietek.