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Refugee seders in Poland: ‘Next year in Ukraine’

In a normal year, the conference rooms and social hall of the Jewish Community Centre of Cracow, in the city’s historic Kazimierz district that is now the center of the city’s Jewish life, serve as the venue for concurrent communal seders on the nights of Passover.

Ukrainian refugees outside of the the JCC in Cracow, Poland.

In a normal year, the seders bring together some 150 to 200 people, a combination of members of the local Jewish community and foreign visitors who are away from home.

In a normal year, the seders for different demographics are conducted by, respectively, a rabbi from the US, a young member of the Jewish community and a Holocaust survivor paired with the head of the JCC, in a combination of Polish, Hebrew and the visitors’ preferred tongues.

But 2022 is not a normal year.

More men and women and children will probably attend the JCC’s seders next week, says Jonathan Ornstein, the US-born executive director. It was too early to provide an exact count, he told the Intermountain Jewish News in late March.

The seders, and model seders at other nearby venues in the days before Pesach, will include translations into Ukrainian for the sake of the refugees who will sit at the tables of the holiday religious meal.

Their presence will be a sign of Poland’s open-borders policy to the displaced people from their eastern neighbor, and of the continuing non-sectarian outreach of the JCC, founded in 2008.

Along with several other Jewish institutions in Poland — and several other religious, secular and governmental organizations — the JCC has welcomed, and helped temporarily settle in the southeast part of the country a few hundred of the estimated two million-plus Ukrainians who have flooded into Poland since Russia’s war on Poland began on Feb. 24.

“JCC Krakow is a key provider of services, a strategic partner, and a convener” of assistance to the refugees, the JCC stated recently — it has “already helped directly and via our partners many thousands of Ukrainians . . . We are operating in Cracow, on the Ukrainian side of the Ukraine-Poland border, and inside Ukraine.”

One example:

“We are currently directly housing and feeding [approximately] 220 Ukrainians, Jews and non-Jews, in hotel rooms and apartments in Cracow we have secured for that purpose. We call and visit them regularly and help them with their daily needs, including cash.”

These are the Ukrainians who will be guests at the seder.

“We’re doing everything we can to help everybody,” no questions asked about the refugees’ religious affiliation, he says.

Some of the non-Jewish refugees express surprise at the amount of care they are receiving from the Jewish community, Ornstein says.

“But we are not Jewish,” some will point out.

“There is no difference between Jews and non-Jews” in what the JCC is providing, he answers. “We try to help everybody.”

The JCC had hired 11 employees in recent weeks to handle the institution’s new responsibilities. In addition, some two dozen volunteers are pitching in.

“A long time ago [in ancient Egypt], we were the people who were enslaved,” Ornstein says. In a more recent time, the Nazi era, “the world stood silent” while Jews were killed. “The world allowed the Holocaust to happen. We must not be silent [now]” — especially “the Jewish community next to Auschwitz.”

To pay for the sudden, additional services, the JCC — the oldest one in Poland, in the country’s one-time capital — has mounted a $3 million fundraising campaign. The institution’s usual annual budget is under $2 million.

The JCC’s outreach to the influx of refugees is the latest sign of the maturity of Polish Jewry, which was decimated by the Holocaust and persecuted by the subsequent communist governments.

Many Polish Jews discovered their Jewish roots only after communism fell three decades ago and open practice of Judaism became possible. This allowed them to take part in a post-communist Jewish revival.

Passover is an annual highlight, a chance to spend some time with a roomful of fellow Jews and to celebrate freedom.

For the still-traumatized Ukrainians, many of whom left their homeland on short notice, with all their worldly possessions stuffed into a suitcase or two, still worried about their fathers and sons and brothers who remain behind in Ukraine fighting the invading Russian soldiers, the seder will offer a respite from the pervasive gloom. It will be an opportunity to reflect on the holiday’s theme of resilience, of deliverance from a powerful enemy.

‘It’s a universal story,” Ornstein says — “a story of redemption, of freedom, of hope.”

With the cooperation of the aliyah-oriented Jewish Agency and others, which often work with Poland’s extant Jewish organizations to foster the country’s renewed Jewish life communal seders to which Ukrainian refugees will be invited will take place in at least 16 sites across the country, according to Michael Schudrich, Poland’s Long Island-born chief rabbi.

The JCC, whose founding patron was Prince Charles, offers a variety of religious, educational and social programming. Since the arrival of the refugees, part of the biggest wave of refugees in Europe since WW II, the JCC has expanded its reach to people who hope eventually to return to their homeland.

What is the mood of the women, children and seniors who comprise most of the refugees?

“People are nervous,” Ornstein says. “Very stressed. Worried about their country, about their family” back in Ukraine.

Surprisingly, he says, many have arrived with pets, requiring the JCC to supply pet food and other pet supplies and veterinarian care. “We did not expect this.”

Ornstein decided in recent weeks that Passover 5782 would not be like all other Passovers — Ukrainians of all religious backgrounds, including members of the country’s Orthodox Christian church, would be welcome at the seders.

In addition to the standard holiday night events at the JCC, separate model seders will be held at other venues where refugees are staying.

“What better time” to share Judaism’s celebration of the Festival of Freedom?” Orenstein asks.

Will the leaders of seders bring up the conflict that turned citizens into refugees?

“Absolutely,” Ornstein says. “That will be the main focus.”

He tells of one refugee, an English teacher from Kiev, who told her aging grandmother still in Ukraine the extent of the help being offered by the Jews of Poland. The woman’s grandmother responded that her family had hid Jews from the Nazis for three years during WW II; the Jews are returning the lifesaving favor, she said.

Ornstein says he will probably lead one of the seders; a bi-lingual women’s Haggadah is being prepared; a Ukrainian translation is also in the works.

The connection between past times of slavery and the current threat posed by Russia will be readily apparent to the people who attend the seders, he says. “We are living history. We are making history.”

Steve Lipman led a seder as a volunteer at the JCC in Cracow in 2012.

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IJN Contributing Writer

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