More than 90 percent of all Polish Jews were killed in the Holocaust. It was murder on a scale beyond human comprehension then and now. Centuries of Jewish life were wiped out in half the time it takes to be eligible to be called for an aliyah.
And yet, in the Kazimierz section of Krakow, Poland, a few blocks away from the Vistula, Jonathan Ornstein and a small group of Jews, young and old, are attempting something unthinkable: a revival of Jewish culture and practice.
“People find something very unexpected in Krakow,” Ornstein said.
Ornstein, 49, executive director of JCC Krakow, is on a speaking tour of the U.S., where 95 percent of the yearly budget is raised each year. Last week, he celebrated the 10th anniversary of the JCC’s founding in New York, which honored Ronald Lauder, the longtime patron of Central and Eastern European revival.
Ornstein will give a speech at a private residence on Rittenhouse Square and a public address at Congregation Beth Or on April 12 before he heads back to Krakow.
A native New Yorker, Ornstein did not grow up in a particularly religious milieu, but in 1993, when law school was becoming less appealing to him, he decided to make aliyah. He joined the IDF at a late age — 28 — before he moved back to a kibbutz and was faced with a choice: Stay on the kibbutz, or move to Tel Aviv?
The choice was made for him; he met a Polish woman, fell in love and, in 2001, moved with her to Krakow. He had never been to the city, let alone the country. Ornstein taught Hebrew to and with a group that was almost exclusively not Jewish at Jagiellonian University, an institution that dates to the 14th century.
Though the relationship with the Polish woman faded, his relationship with Krakow and the tiny group of Semites and philo-Semites did not. It was around 2008 when his commitment to that relationship faced its most serious test.
A JCC was being built, and they were on the hunt for an executive director. “I didn’t quite understand what the purpose was,” he said. “I didn’t really see the need or the potential for a JCC.”
And yet, he was “hounded” by a friend of his who insisted he apply for the job. He applied and “somehow got the job.”
Ten years later, JCC Krakow is the center of Jewish life for the city, a mishmash of survivors, their children and grandchildren, and Poles just finding out that they’re Jewish. The twin repressive forces of Nazism and communism, Ornstein said, created generations of silent Jews — Jews whose grandparents would insist that they refrain from drinking milk along with their pork chops, but didn’t quite know why.
Today, the JCC is the site of weekly Shabbat meals and services, holidays, classes and what’s almost certainly the first community Jewish preschool in Krakow since the Holocaust. It’s also the visitor center for Jews on their way through town; last year, 140,000 travelers made a stop at the JCC.
Ornstein is most energized by the native Poles who have reclaimed their Judaism. After decades of being unaware of their heritage, he said, the fact that they have made affirmative choices to live as Jews is an endless inspiration.
“Being Jewish is a gift that has been denied to them,” he said. “It’s something they never thought that they would have.”
It’s also been a chance for him to reevaluate his own sense of Jewish identity, given that he, like most American Jews, encounters Judaism as something received from birth. “There’s something really infectious about it,” Ornstein said.
One of the programs he’s most proud of, Ornstein said, is the yearly Ride for the Living, where participants make the 60-mile bike ride from Auschwitz to the JCC. It began a few years back with about 15 bikers; this year, they’re expecting between 200 and 300, and past participants have ranged from Holocaust survivors to three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond.
“It’s something that I’m incredibly proud of,” Ornstein said.
The guiding light of the JCC is the survivors that stayed in Poland after the Holocaust, according to Ornstein.
“I don’t think it’s a community that’s deeply affected by trauma,” he said. “But we, as a community, do not allow ourselves to be defined by tragedy.”