The Jerusalem Post

Grapevine September 15, 2023: Chabad in Poland

 AYALIM youth cleaning tombstones in Jewish  cemetery in Sala, Morocco (photo credit: AYALIM)
AYALIM youth cleaning tombstones in Jewish cemetery in Sala, Morocco
(photo credit: AYALIM)

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

■ IT STILL comes as a surprise to see the intensity of Chabad activity in Poland, although Chabad created Jewish community infrastructures in Warsaw and Krakow almost three decades ago, following the death of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. While the Rebbe encouraged Chabad Centers wherever there were Jews, regardless of how few they were in number, when it came to Poland, he demanded that no Chabadnik set foot in what he called “the largest Jewish cemetery in the world.”

But as Poland emerged from oppressive Communist rule and introduced a free market economy, Jews who were born in Poland, or whose parents and grandparents had been born in Poland, began to invest or open branches of their businesses there. So-called “hidden Jews,” also began emerging from the woodwork. Chabad had no choice. Better to disobey the Rebbe and bring hundreds of Jews back to their heritage, than to let them sink so much further into assimilation that their progeny would be lost to the Jewish people forever, they reasoned.
In Warsaw, Chabad of Poland will mark Rosh Hashanah by bringing together hundreds of Jews – local community members and displaced Ukrainian refugees – for communal prayer, meals, and special celebrations. In addition to Chabad of Poland’s staff, 10 rabbinic interns, all currently studying in Israel, have joined the community for the High Holy Day period to help lead prayer services as well as blow shofar, at Chabad of Poland’s synagogue on Warsaw’s Słominskiego Street, and at an additional ballroom and in six satellite locations throughout the city (including its prison) rented to accommodate the influx of Jews in Warsaw over the holy days.
Coordinating the serving of 5,000 meals and distribution of food packages to needy Polish Jews and Ukrainian Jewish refugees, was no easy task.
Rabbis Sholom Ber and Mayer Stambler are the codirectors of Chabad of Poland.
“For over 18 months since Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, we’ve partnered with Klal Yisrael [the community of the entire Jewish people], as emissaries on the ground in Poland, to help tens of thousands of Jews still in Ukraine and those fleeing, “ said Stambler.
Chabad of Warsaw has provided refuge, transportation, kosher food, medical aid, financial and material assistance, childcare, educational and social services, communal activities, administrative and legal aid to thousands of Ukrainian Jews displaced by the conflict. Since the start of the war, Chabad in Poland has seen its expenses rise by more than $2 million.
Among the Polish Jews who in many cases did not discover until they were in their mid-teens or already adults, that they were Jewish, and who have reclaimed their Jewish identities with the help of Chabad of Warsaw is Mazal Barbas, born in Warsaw during the Communist era.
Until she was 16, she did not know that she was Jewish.
After she gave birth to her son, she did not want him to have the same spiritual emptiness in his life as she had experienced, and she found her way to Chabad, slowly but surely learning about Judaism laws and customs and how to pray. She became so immersed in Jewish life and living Jewishly, that her son is now studying at a yeshiva in Israel.
Meanwhile, among the directors of the various Chabad centers in Jerusalem, Rabbi Yisrael Goldberg who heads Chabad of Rehavia has put out his customary Rosh Hashanah notice: “We saved you a seat.” Services are conducted free of charge at Heichal Shlomo next door to the Great Synagogue.
■ GERMANY AND Israel: Is the relationship still special? This was the topic of an address given by German Ambassador Steffen Seibert to the Israel Council on Foreign Relations at a meeting at the Vert hotel in Jerusalem this week. It was his second consecutive day in the capital. On Tuesday, he had posted on X, previously Twitter, that he was at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on Tuesday, because he believed that this was the place to be as something important was happening for Israeli democracy, and as he is the ambassador of a country that counts itself as a friend of Israel’s, he thought he should be there. He’s also a former journalist, so he was probably driven by professional curiosity, as well.
He was introduced by retired diplomat Colette Avital, who is herself a former ambassador. Noting that the date was September 13, the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords, Avital, who was Israel’s Consul General in New York at the time, recalled standing on the White House lawn during the signing ceremony. Last week, wearing her other hat as head of the Central Organization of Holocaust Survivor Associations, she accompanied Yad Vashem Chairman Dani Dayan to a different ceremony in Berlin in honor of the 70th anniversary of Yad Vashem. A child Holocaust survivor, Avital said that relations between Israel and Germany had progressed “beyond what we ever envisaged.” Germany is Israel’s most important ally after the United States, she said, adding that relations between Israel and Germany are normal.
Seibert preferred “special” to “normal” because he did not want to draw a line on the past. He emphasized the importance of Holocaust remembrance and said that the reason that the relationship was special was because Germany had taken responsibility for Nazi atrocities. He was too young, he said, to feel guilty, but he did feel a sense of responsibility to ensure that what had happened would not be simply consigned to history books, and would not happen again.
His most meaningful experiences in Israel he said, were his meetings with German-born Holocaust survivors and listening to their stories.
In a wide-ranging address that included the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, democratic values, rising antisemitism, scientific collaboration, Ukraine, climate change, and other subjects, Seibert displayed a deep concern for each of the issues. At question time, he answered challenging questions without any attempt at evasion and even acknowledged some of the flaws in his country. He presumably belongs to the school that teaches that if you ignore it, you can’t fix it.
■ A SIDELINE to the historic convening of the High Court of Justice was the difference between the places of birth of its members, and those who graced its seats a quarter of a century ago. In the first half-century of the state, there was a very high ratio in the government, the Knesset, and the courts of people who were not born in Israel. In the current High Court constellation, only three of its members are foreign-born. Daphna Barak-Erez was born in the United States; David Mintz in England, and Alex Stein in the former Soviet Union.
■ LIKUD MK Tali Gotliv, a near-hysterical firebrand, known for her screeching outbursts in the Knesset plenum and in Knesset committees, as well as her unbridled attacks against the leader of her party, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was also in court. In a break with protocol, she put on one of her usual acts, screaming that the Knesset sanctifies democracy. This elicited a response from Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, who told her that as a lawyer, Gotliv knows the court is not a place for outbursts from the floor.

THE MOST natural place for visiting Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt on Wednesday – the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords – was the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. Shimon Peres was one of the signatories to the accords on behalf of Israel.

Although Shimon Peres is no longer alive, his legacy of the pursuit of peace and dialogue remains constant and is being furthered by his son Chemi Peres, who is the chairman of the Peres Center.
“In this centenary year since Shimon Peres’s birth, we are dedicated to renewing our commitment to his visionary ideals and honoring partners worldwide as we invigorate and advance all our initiatives,” said Chemi Peres. “My father’s legacy is one of forward-thinking, shaping the future, and that is precisely the mission of the Peres Center.
Our focus lies in people-to-people engagement, which remains our proudest endeavor. We firmly believe that peace should be a strategic achievement. My optimism stems from the realization that when we reflect on the past 30 years, we must acknowledge the positive strides made. While the Oslo Accords may have been ahead of their time or ambitious in attempting to rapidly transform the status quo, their historical significance remains undeniable.”
Huitfeldt lauded “President Peres’s unwavering commitment to daring dreams and bold visions,” which she said “continues to resonate. The Abraham Accords stand as a testament to his legacy of forging peaceful relations with neighbors. I sense a renewed spirit in the region, one that can pave the way for further cooperation grounded in his visionary principles, particularly in the realms of technology and innovation. In the 1990s, as a young activist, I believed in his dream of unifying Israelis and Palestinians in pursuit of peace, and that belief continues to this day.”
■ CONGRATULATIONS ARE in order to former Foreign Minister David Levy, the only politician to have held that office three times. Levy, whose life in Israel began as a menial laborer, rose to be a union leader and from there continued to the Knesset. Despite his gift for oratory, he was often unfairly ridiculed because of his Moroccan origins. While building his political career, Levy and his wife built a tribe of 12 children plus many more grandchildren and great-grandchildren. This week Levy welcomed yet another great-grandchild when he was sandek (godfather) to Yaari Yehuda Levy, who is a grandson to the former minister’s son Jackie, who is the mayor of Beit She’an and a former Likud MK. The circumcision ceremony was a particularly emotional occasion because it was the first time that David Levy, 85, had come out in public since suffering a heart attack in July, and all four generations of the Levy tribe were on hand to celebrate.
■ IN ADDITION to the various Israeli aid delegations that went to Morocco primarily on rescue missions and to provide medical aid to survivors of the Marrakesh earthquake, there were also Israelis engaged in another form of holy work.
Student members of the AYALIM association and directors of youth centers restored and renovated the Jewish cemetery in the city of Sala as part of the association’s activity during its seventh trip to Morocco.
Despite the traumatic ordeal that everyone in Morocco experienced in one way or another as an outcome of the earthquake, it was decided that the AYALIM delegation would continue cleaning and restoring Jewish cemeteries around the country, and would not go home.
At the Jewish cemetery in Sala, they removed dust, dirt, and brambles from headstones, revealing the names of hundreds of deceased people. Over the years, inscriptions have faded, but since the restoration process, they are all visible and legible.
Nahmi Gainis, CEO of the AYALIM Association who was present in Marrakesh during the earthquake said: “Despite the shocking event we experienced in Marrakesh during the earthquake, we decided to continue the journey and complete the task for which the association’s village managers and the directors of the youth centers in Israel came here. Together we renovated and renewed the Jewish cemetery in Sala. We have been engaged in this important work for 7 years. We feel great pride and privilege to complete another part of the mission. This year, when we are with our partners from the youth centers and against the background of the experience from Marrakesh, these feelings of pride and privilege intensify even more.”
During the trip, he added, the students got to know the city of Marrakesh and were exposed to the heritage and history of the Jewish community that lived there. At its peak, 35,000 Jews lived in the city and another 40,000 in its vicinity.
■ THERE IS a move afoot amongst banks for closer relations with their customers. While proud of their advanced digital banking services, the boards of the banks realize that human contact is necessary. In the spirit of that realization, Dov Kotler, the CEO of Bank Hapoalim, and Dalit Raviv, the deputy CEO and Executive Vice President of the Retail Division hosted hundreds of the bank’s PRO customers at a festive pre-Rosh Hashanah gathering at the Hangar Club at the Port of Tel Aviv. PRO offers premium professional investment advice, private banking services, and many other valuable services that are given online. The event enabled people whose connections with the bank have been largely via digital platforms, to meet their consultants face to face.