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First Hillel house in Poland opens on anniversary of Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Trinity College Hillel director among those in attendance

By Cindy Mindell

Seventy years after Poland lost more than three million Jews to the Holocaust, Hillel International has opened its first center to serve a growing Jewish population. And among the Hillel International leaders and Jewish dignitaries from around the world who gathered for the festivities marking the momentous event was Lisa Pleskow Kassow, longtime director of Trinity College Hillel in Hartford.

Hillel Warsaw was dedicated on the evening of April 18, the 73rd anniversary of the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The ceremonies highlighted the rapidly growing Jewish infrastructure in Warsaw with a visit to the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews and the Warsaw Jewish Community Center, which both opened in 2013.

The new cultural and educational center serves Jewish students, recent graduates, and young adults from throughout Poland with diverse programming, social events, and educational and professional-development opportunities, and is also open to Jews who travel to Poland to engage with the local Jewish community.

Post-war Poland saw its first Jewish center open in 2005, with the launch of a Chabad House in Warsaw. Chabad of Krakow followed in 2008, built in the 350-year-old Isaac Synagogue.

Kassow recalls the moment when the idea for a new Jewish center first emerged, at the soft opening of the POLIN Museum in 2013. Her husband, Professor Samuel D. Kassow of Trinity College, had served as a consultant for “On The Jewish Street,” the museum’s interwar gallery, and the couple was attending the opening. As a Hillel director, Kassow was sought out by several local communal leaders, including a representative of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute who had been involved in designing the museum and hoped to draw American Jewish students to Warsaw to learn about the country’s Jewish community.

Kassow also met with Helise Lieberman, the Polish director of the Taube Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland.

“Everybody started talking about ways to engage students and young people – Jews and non-Jews – who live in Poland and who want to preserve Jewish history and legacy and take part in Jewish life,” Kassow says.

The following year, the Kassows and the Adam Mickiewicz Institute brought a group of 12 Trinity College students to Poland, where the group met with Jewish peers in Krakow and Warsaw.

“We realized that there was so much potential for Jewish relationship-building among all of these young people and the idea for Hillel in Warsaw began to percolate,” Kassow says. “I was the shadchanit (matchmaker) who introduced everybody to everybody and I discussed the idea with Rabbi Yossie Goldman, who ran with it. That eventually set the ground for the really good work that Hillel International did in fundraising and creating a Hillel organization in Warsaw.”

Goldman, associate vice president of Hillel International, is director general of Hillel Israel and founder of Hillel in the former Soviet Union.

Funded in part by grants from UJA-Federation of New York, Taube Philanthropies, and the Koret Foundation, Hillel Warsaw builds on decades of work by Hillel International in communities of underserved Jewish students and young adults. With the addition of Hillel Warsaw, Hillel houses now operate in 15 countries, including Argentina, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Georgia, Israel, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, Uruguay, the U.S., and Uzbekistan.

Hillel kassow

At the dedication ceremonies: (l to r) Jim Shane, Hillel International (HI) Board of Governors; Tom Blumberg, HI Board of Directors; Yasha Moz, HI director of Global Relations; Helise Lieberman, director of Taube Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland; Rabbi Yossi Goldman, HI director of Global Expansion; Magda Dorosz, Hillel Warsaw director; Eric D. Fingerhut, HI president/CEO; Sidney Pertnoy, HI Board of Directors; Lisa Kassow, Trinity College Hillel director; Jeremy Moskowitz, HI associate vice president for Leadership and Governance.

“Dedicating a new Hillel community in Poland is the best way to build on the foundation Hillel International has laid in our work in Germany, Ukraine, Russia, and the former Soviet Union,” says Goldman. “Too often, the international Jewish community remembers these places only as dark moments of our history, ignoring the vibrant Jewish communities that live there today. Hillel Warsaw is just one more example of Hillel International’s commitment to reach out to young Jews in these countries and help them thrive.”

In contrast to North American Hillel houses, which serve individual campuses, most international Hillel centers serve the entire population of Jewish young adults in a particular city. Hillel’s Schusterman International Center recently hired Magda Dorosz as its executive director of Hillel Warsaw. A 30-something “millennial” native of Wroclaw, Poland, Dorosz only discovered her Jewish identity at age 16 – a legacy shared by many young Polish Jews today. Dorosz is spending her first several months at Hillel Warsaw meeting with young Jews and discussing the programs and services that can best meet the unique needs of Poland’s Jewish community. She will also work to establish formal relationships with the Polish government and several of the larger universities in the Warsaw area.

“Young Jews in Poland today carry with them both the tragedies our parents and grandparents endured and the flourishing community our generation has witnessed,” says Dorosz. “We have particular needs as a community and a unique story to share with the rest of the Jewish world. The recognition and resources that Hillel International is committing to young Jews in Poland is a fantastic benchmark for our community’s growth.”

Founded in 1923, Hillel has worked to reach Jews outside North America since 1954, when Hillel Israel opened at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Forty years later, shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Hillel opened in Russia to serve Jews who had long struggled without an organized community. Today, as the largest Jewish student organization in the world, Hillel engages students and at more than 550 colleges and universities throughout the world and young adults at 20 Hillel centers in seven countries of the former Soviet Union. Most recently, Hillel founded its first “hubs” in Germany, reaching more than 2,000 students and expanding in a short time from Berlin to a dozen different communities across the region.

“At Hillel International, our mission is to enrich the lives of Jewish students everywhere so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world,” says Eric D. Fingerhut, president and CEO of Hillel International. “Jewish life in Poland has seen a remarkable revitalization in recent years, but that progress can only be sustained if we ensure that young Polish Jews have the community and the resources necessary to thrive.”

While there is no reliable official census of Polish Jews, unofficial estimates range between 7,000 and 100,000, with new adherents emerging every day.

“Poland has a small and vibrant reemerging Jewish community wanting to rejoin the Jewish world which it nurtured and enriched for nearly a millennium,” says Rabbi Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland.

“Hillel in Poland is a case study of engaging students in a Jewish life that was forbidden for their parents and grandparents. We need Hillel in Poland now. It’s the right time; it’s the right place.”

CAP: Members of the Hillel International delegation lay a wreath at the Warsaw Ghetto memorial at the dedication ceremonies for Hillel Warsaw, which fell on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising: (l to r) Aryeh Furst, Diane Wohl, Yasha Moz; Rabbi Yossie Goldman; Magda Dorosz, executive director of Hillel Warsaw.

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