17 Days in Poland

by B. Olidort - WARSAW, POLAND

August 6, 2003

Yossi Stein 24, of Detroit, Michigan, and Sender Kavka, 23, of Seattle, Washington had two and a half weeks in which to seek out as many Jews as possible. Dispatched to Poland, they mapped out the cities they believed would prove most fertile: Gdansk, Krakow, Poznan, Rzeszow, Walbsheich, Warsaw, Wroclaw . . .

On a mission for the Jewish Peace Corps program sponsored by Chabad-Lubavitch, they visited all of Poland’s major cities, as well as Auschwitz, where the greatest tribute to the murdered, explains Yossi, “would come through connecting with other Jews on the site.”

Estimates place the number of Poland’s current Jewish population at around 2,000. Scattered throughout the country are war survivors with a bank of Jewish memories to keep them going. But among the younger generations, the degree of assimilation and Jewish ignorance is so pervasive, explains Yossi, “that many of them aren’t even sure whether they are Jewish, or what that means.”

The rabbis did their legwork, planning effectively to maximize their outreach in the short time they had in Poland. But, say Yossi and Sender, they are the chance encounters, serendipitous moments that are most illuminating. Arriving at the Poznan railway station, the rabbis were approached by someone offering to help with their luggage. Getting by on a shoestring budget, they politely declined, preferring to manage on their own. “The guy insisted, and in the course of conversation told us about PUSZ, Poland’s Jewish student union.” Subsequently, the rabbis met many Jewish students through PUSZ, which has chapters throughout Poland.

Calling as well on contacts from prior visits by Chabad, the rabbis arranged to meet with as many Jewish residents as possible and addressed the gamut of issues. And always, they made sure to involve everyone present in the actual participation of a mitzvah. “Some of these people have never worn tefillin,” observes Yossi. The thought that “they may never do so again,” trails inaudibly, but it’s clearly a possibility that drives the rabbis to connect and maintain contact well after they have returned to the U.S.

As always, there is the irony of tourists from the West connecting with their Jewish roots while on vacation. “Many of the people we spent time with were tourists who never bothered with Judaism at home—where it is usually much more available,” says Yossi. They come for Auschwitz, they come to tour Poland, and some even come for the historic Jewish landmarks. But outside of a Jewish cemetery in Poland they do not expect to bump into a live rabbi extending an invitation to participate in a mitzvah. The encounter is usually enough to give them pause and, says Sender, “hopefully tap into the Jewish resources they have in their own hometowns.”

In a maximum security prison in Rzeszow, Poland, Yakov Mothaba is a very lonely man. The only Jewish prisoner in this facility and probably in all of Poland, Yakov, an Israeli, is surrounded by hard-core Polish convicts. Arrested by Interpol five months ago while on a visit to Poland, he serves time for a drug deal he was involved with years ago—before he turned to Judaism and became Torah observant. While Yakov’s wife and child wait in Israel for him as U.S. courts decide his fate, his isolation is profound.

Yakov’s uncontained elation was understandable, then, when he was informed of a surprise visit by two Chabad rabbis unknown to him. Yossi and Sender had learned about Rzeszow’s only Jewish prisoner the day before, and bearing gifts of kosher food and encouraging messages—painstakingly scrutinized by prison wardens—from Mothaba’s legal advisors in Israel, they spent several hours with Yakov.

Back in New York now, Yossi and Sender are resuming their rabbinical studies at the central Lubavitch Yeshiva in Brooklyn. Having exchanged email addresses with most of the people they’ve met, they will continue reaching out long distance.

I ask Yossi how he evaluates the success of his mission: “We came to Poland to find as many Jewish people as possible and do mitzvot with them. And we did that.”

Then, echoing the mantra of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Yossi adds, “But it’s never enough.”

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