Named not in hubris but in honor and memory of Austin M. Wright, who taught me critical thinking, and his teacher, Wayne Booth, who coined the phrase.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Week in Poland Is Not Enough

For nearly ten years, I have been involved with Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, an NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) founded by Andrzej Folwarczny, a former member of the Polish parliament, to promote Polish-Jewish relations.

Andrzej, who is not Jewish, is painfully aware that many Jews blame Poland more than Germany for the Holocaust.  Much of his adult life has been devoted not only to demonstrating this blame is not justified, but also to encouraging both Jews and Poles to understand that the histories of the two peoples are inextricably intertwined.  This is my belief:  that contemporary and recent Jewish history cannot be understood without an understanding of the history of the Polish people, and vice versa.

My involvement enabled me this month to spend a full week in Poland as a guest of the Forum and Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  While I went knowing that my personal narrative had shaped my positive feelings, I wanted also to understand the negative feelings on both sides as well as what I could do about them.

I was not disappointed.  Our six days were packed with presentations by government officials and academics; we met over lunch and dinner with young Poles – Jews and non-Jews – who have chosen to make their lives in Poland.  We examined the history – what several scholars referred to as “the two narratives” – and we looked to the future.

One of the high points of my week in Poland was a visit to the regional high school in Chęciny, a participant in the Forum’s impressive “School of Dialogue” program. 

Chęciny was a shtetl town before World War II:  in 1939 Jews represented about 60% of the population, but now there are no more.  As a School of Dialogue, administrators and a team of teachers from the school – as well as the regional officer responsible for education – have made a commitment to educate their students about Jewish life in Chęciny.  The implications of this commitment are wide and deep.

The Forum initiated its program in Warsaw schools and selected university students to be prepared as trainers.  The trainers go to cooperating schools to work with teachers and one class of teenagers who explore the Jewish roots of their town.  A school must agree to devote four full days of classroom time to research and study; at the end, students make a presentation to their families, classmates, and town officials. 

In Chęciny, as in most towns, the students have produced a “walking tour” of the former Jewish sites in the town as well as profiles of people who lived there.  Reality demands that they also research what happened to the Jews of their community in the 20th century and before.  In the cemetery, they found a 13th-century stone that predates the earliest records of Jews in the town. 

Chęciny has gone beyond that:  in addition to an annual three-day festival of Jewish culture, the high school has a relationship with a high school in Israel and students and teachers had visited two weeks earlier, so the Israeli flag still was flying.

Town leaders want to turn the former synagogue, used by the Russians as a stable but now a community center, into a Jewish museum and cultural center.

“Propaganda,” you may be saying.  Nevertheless, the evidence is that dialogue is always more effective than no dialogue! 

The required research includes asking one’s parents and grandparents about their personal histories relative to the Jewish community.  Parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents of today’s 16-year-olds were born during the 1945-1989 period of Soviet rule of Poland, an era marked by official anti-Semitic policies.

This 44-year Russian occupation of Poland is just one of the facts that shape the Polish narrative. 
  • Another is that when the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939 they captured and killed 20,000 Polish intellectuals. 
  • The Soviets “finished” the job at Katyn, a massacre for which the Russian parliament just took responsibility a few days ago. 
  • Hitler’s plan for the Polish non-Jews – leaderless and mostly uneducated peasants – was to create a slave labor force of untermenschen (sub-humans).
  • More officially designated “Righteous Gentiles” are from Poland than any other country in Europe.

While Jews were killed primarily by the Germans, the Polish people accept and share responsibility.  Their atonement has taken many forms over the years, both public and private.  Studying the Holocaust is part of the required curriculum; cities and towns have given land and erected memorials; countless exchange programs, including the Forum, have been funded by the government. 

The issue of reparations remains unresolved largely, the Poles maintain, because decisions made by the post-War Soviet government complicated the issue.

The implications of the School of Dialogue program are huge.  As Polish students learn about the contribution of Jews to their own communities, their participation reshapes their communities for now and for tomorrow.  “Never again” is not an abstract promise. School of Dialogue – with the Forum’s ambitious goal of expanding the program throughout the country – will ensure a future of mutual understanding. 

Are there Jews in Poland to benefit?  Read my next installment!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

"Living Reform" in Italy

While Reform Judaism in the US prides itself on inclusivity, the Orthodox community in Italy is tightly exclusionary.  The impact on individuals is the saddest part of this story.

In some Italian cities, only children of “community” members are allowed to attend Jewish educational programs.  Decisions about “who is a Jew” in Italy – after a long history of inclusion and acceptance – have become as restrictive and repressive as those in Israel.  Unless one can provide several generations of ketubot to prove one’s mother was Jewish, one will likely be rejected.  People who have been members of the community for years  would not be accepted if they applied today.  How many of us have our great-great grandmother’s ketubah from Poland or Lithuania?

Two weeks ago a student from California found her way to Shabbat services at Shir Chadash, the Progressive congregation in Florence.  A member since childhood of an Orthodox synagogue, she had gone on Kol Nidre to the Great Synagogue in Florence only to be turned away flatly and told no one who was not a member of the “community” was allowed to attend.

A few weeks ago, I sent an email to the main synagogue in Milan, inquiring about the times of Shabbat services.  I never received a response.  Last Saturday morning, we went anyway.  The security agents outside the building didn’t bother me; in fact, in contrast to the grilling we’ve gone through in other cities, it was nothing.

What did bother me – us – was that once inside the building, there was no sign, no person to tell us where to go, how to enter the sanctuary, which of several doors to walk through.  We had been at the synagogue in September for the European Day of Jewish Culture, but we hadn’t come in the same entrance, and it was confusing.

I knew women had to sit upstairs, so I headed there.  In the balcony, I saw no prayerbooks.  A few women were scattered around, mostly in pairs, and they all stared at me.  No one came over.  Finally I went over to one woman who was studying a prayerbook and asked her where they were kept; she pointed vaguely to the other side of the balcony.

We left after an hour.  There were about 80 people there by the time we left, at the end of the rabbi’s sermon:  about 40 men and 40 women.  No one greeted us, no one said “Shabbat shalom” till some teenagers, running into the building as we left, mumbled it to Fred.

Not only is the community unwelcoming.  This past summer, a Chabad rabbi in Milan publicly made the outrageous and totally unfounded charge that Progressive congregation Lev Chadash had served lobster at its seder.  As the battle raged in the Italian media – which couldn’t quite grasp what was happening – he finally retracted his charges around Yom Kippur, but refused to apologize for his preposterous claims.

“We are Orthodox in our traditions,” one member of an old Italian family told me, “but Reform in our daily lives.”  Not really.  Such thinking unfortunately reflects a gross misunderstanding of Reform Judaism.

If the Jews of Italy were truly “living Reform,” they would comprehend and embrace the idea that there is more than one way to be Jewish.

If the Jews of Italy were truly “living Reform,” they would be concerned about the disenfranchisement of other Jews in their midst.

If the Jews of Italy were truly “living Reform,” they would advocate for religious equality of all Jews:  men and women, Ashkenazic and Sephardic, rabbis and lay people.

If the Jews of Italy were truly “living Reform,” they would welcome the non-Jews in their midst, whether married to Jews or seeking a path to spiritual fulfillment through Judaism.

If the Jews of Italy were truly “living Reform,” they would demand religious freedom and cultural pluralism for all Jews.

If the Jews of Italy were truly “living Reform,” they would acknowledge that through community they will strengthen one another.

“Schwer tzu zein a yid.” – It's not easy to be a Jew.  To be a Reform Jew in Italy is to struggle daily with invisibility.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Community Divided Against Itself

My husband and I are at the halfway point in our five months of volunteer service to two of the three Progressive Jewish communities in Italy:  Congregazione Beth Shalom in Milan and Shir Hadash in Florence.  We have visited Lev Chadash, here in Milan, also a member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).  And WUPJ is also trying to grow a group in Rome.

Both congregations we serve are made up of a mix of U.S. and British expatriates and native Italians.  Both congregations include Jews married to non-Jews and Jews-by-choice, many of whom grew up in Italian Catholic families.  Both function, with difficulty, on the edge of the recognized Jewish communities in their cities.

About 50,000 Jews lived in Italy in 1933; 40,000 survived the war.  The European Jewish Congress now estimates the Italian Jewish population to be about 30,000, including a large number of Libyan Jews who came to Italy in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Holocaust is very much a current issue for today’s Jewish community.  Last week, RAI-TV, a state-sponsored channel, showed a docudrama, “Under the Roman Sky,” portraying Pope Pius XII as responsible for saving 10,000 Jews.  Rome's Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni described the series as "junk.

At the same time, there is intense interest in Jewish thought, philosophy, history.  Hardly a day goes by that the Corriere della Sera doesn’t have an article on – to paraphrase Saul Bellow – the Hart, Shaffner, & Marx of contemporary Israeli writers:  David Grossman, Amos Oz, or A.B. Yehoshua.  In fact, yesterday’s Corriere features the new book of Bellow’s letters on its front page, and today’s paper includes a long feature article about I.B. Singer’s The Family Moskat; you don’t find that kind of coverage in The New York Times.
The issue that threatens the community the most is not anti-semitism.  Nor is it intermarriage, which now exceeds 50 percent; nor is it the declining birthrate.

Rather – as Ruth Ellen Gruber wrote in an excellent article this past June – it is “a lack of pluralism and increased Orthodox rigidity in the official community” that is alienating and turning people away.

I have written before about the state of Reform/Progressive Judaism in various countries.  Italy is typical of other European countries.  All citizens have the option to pay a “religious tax” that is then credited to their own religious community, which they designate.  For Jews who are considered part of the “official” Jewish community, these revenues are then returned to the Jewish community via the UCEI (unione delle comunità ebraiche Italiane).  The problem is that the UCEI, though its mission statement claims that it represents the Jews of Italy, doesn’t recognize nor accept all of them.

No money goes to the Progressive congregations in Florence or Milan.  These congregations must shoulder their entire financial burden themselves.  They are not listed on the communities’ websites of Jewish organizations.  They spend much of their energy trying to let people know they exist.  The Internet has helped a bit, but the vast majority of Italian Jews know nothing about Progressive or Reform Judaism.  (To be continued.)