My Journey to Hillels of Poland



December 22, 2023

Rebecca Weiss, Hillel International Student Cabinet Member and student leader at Hillel Israel, traveled to Poland in November to learn about the growing Jewish community there and to make new connections at Hillel Krakow and Hillel Warsaw. Rebecca was joined by fellow Student Cabinet Member Radek Pintara, who introduced Rebecca to the rich history and hopeful future of Polish Jews. Follow along with Rebecca’s journey below:

Did you know that sufganiyot, jelly doughnuts that we customarily eat during Hanukkah, have Polish roots? Ponchkas, as they are called in Yiddish, were just one of the things I discovered and, of course, tasted during my trip to Poland this fall.

Day 1:

Sitting on an early morning flight to Krakow, Poland, I didn’t anticipate that this journey would become one of the most meaningful weekends of my life. I went straight from the airport to meet Radek, who greeted me in Krakow’s old town where we spent time roaming around what used to be a thriving center of Jewish life. Now, there is little trace of that history and I was struck by the many synagogues that have been turned into cafes. Despite that, the Krakow Jewish Community Center (JCC) and Hillel Krakow have emerged as centers of Jewish life and an anchor for the future for young Jewish Poles.

We walked towards the JCC and Hillel and on our way I spotted an Israeli flag in the distance, which prompted feelings of familiarity and joy, as I am currently studying abroad in Belgium, a difficult place to be Israeli at the moment. As we sat down for lunch at Hillel Krakow, one of their remarkable program directors shared his personal journey of discovering Judaism and shared his insights into Hillel Krakow’s community. He spoke about how Jews in Poland actively pursue their Jewish identity, but many are unsure of how to live a Jewish life or what that might mean. Hillel Krakow works with Jewish young adults to provide a safe, inclusive, and open space to explore what Jewish life means to them. We came up with an idea for a joint program between Hillel Israel and Hillel Krakow, where we will discuss our similarities and differences as Jewish Israelis and Poles. 

This work is familiar to me from my involvement with Hillel Israel, where we create similar programs for Israelis to connect with their Jewish identity and gain a deeper understanding of Judaism beyond just as a religion, but a culture that binds our people together.  

Day 2:

Friday morning, Radek and I boarded a two-hour train to Warsaw for Shabbat. We went straight to a Mincha service, the Jewish afternoon prayer service, followed by Kabbalat Shabbat , a joyful prayer service that welcomes the beginning of Shabbat.  Following services, and a talk from the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Shabbat dinner took place in the only building that survived the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, where I had the privilege of introducing myself to the community and sharing my story of living in Israel during these challenging times. Every moment of that experience felt uplifting and meaningful. 

What could be better than a Shabbat dinner? Two Shabbat dinners! 

Radek and I made our way to Hillel Warsaw, where we met students, young professionals, and community members. A delicious dinner was accompanied by explanations of Shabbat minhagim, which are traditions and customs passed down through families and communities. Jews from all kinds of backgrounds—from those who recently found their Jewish identity to those who had hidden it for most of their lives—bonded together over deep conversation and laughter. 

As a Hillel Israel student leader, I provided insights into the ongoing war with Hamas, encouraged everyone to visit Israel through Birthright, and reminded them that they are part of a global organization offering a home for Jewish students and young professionals worldwide. We are not alone! 

Day 3:

On Shabbat morning, I woke up to the first snowfall of the year.  Radek and I walked through what was once the Warsaw Ghetto and headed to the Museum of Jewish Poles where we spent five hours exploring the museum. While I had learned about the thriving Jewish life in Poland before the Holocaust, including about the Jewish villages known as shtetls, and about the Yiddish language, I hadn’t delved into the details of post-war Jewish life.

Radek and the museum opened my eyes to the journey Warsaw Jews have been on since 1945, from continued oppression and pogroms, to the remarkable revival of Jewish life through organizations like the JCC and Hillel. I grew up thinking about Poland in a way that solely portrayed its dark past.  For me, witnessing Jewish joy and practice in a country marked by a tragic history for Jews underscored our resilience, our ability to persist, and our constant pursuit of community. 

My three-day trip culminated on the 10-year anniversary of the JCC Warsaw’s founding, where over 300 guests danced to Hebrew music and celebrated an essential component of Judaism: community.

My time in Poland deepened my connection to my Jewish identity and instilled a profound pride in being part of such a vital organization as Hillel International. I encourage anyone who has the opportunity to draw inspiration from the Jewish community in Poland, as I did, and to explore their Jewish heritage wherever they are in this world. Our Jewish tradition brings so much light during these difficult times.

I will be forever grateful to Radek Pintara, Hillel Poland, and the Jewish Polish communities of Warsaw and Krakow for welcoming me with open arms on this unforgettable journey. 

As Radek said in his own reflection of Rebecca’s trip, “Fate has brought me some extraordinary encounters that prove how small and connected the Jewish world is. It was an honor to take Rebecca to places in Poland that have great personal and communal meaning for myself and my friends.”

Thank you for joining Rebecca on her journey! We look forward to sharing more stories of Hillels connecting across the world in the coming months.