Day 1: UJIA Glasgow Poland Trip
by Sydney Switzer, Scotland Youth Programmes Coordinator
Today was our first day in Poland. 11 Jewish teenagers from across Scotland, who I have the pleasure of accompanying, set forth exploring the towns and Jewish remnants of Galicia, what was once the centre of the Jewish world.
We started off in Lancut, where we visited a beautifully restored synagogue with elaborate murals painted on the high walls and sculptural forms climbing up the Bima. We visited Lezensk, the resting place of the holy Rebbe Elimelech, where thousands of pilgrims flock each year to receive blessings and divine intervention. We spent lots of time on the bus, travelling between the different villages and taking in the lovely sunshine.
In the evening we sat in a circle debriefing from the day. Most people said the highlight had been visiting the synagogue in Lancut. We did two very special things there.
The first was meeting with Marek, the non-Jewish caretaker of the shul. He told us – in fluent Hebrew – about how he makes it his mission to protect remnants of the Jewish community of Lancut. He showed us Jewish gravestones he had rescued from being used as building materials, even one which had become a knife-sharpening block. He had a framed fragment of a Torah scroll which he had saved from the community’s Geniza as well. Everyone was so touched by how someone who wasn’t even Jewish went to such lengths to preserve the memories.
The second was shaking the lulav. As we’re travelling during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, we’ve brought along our lulav and etrog, the symbolic ritual which Jews perform during the holiday. As we all stood crowded onto the Bima and heard stories of the pre-War Jewish life and how central the synagogue was to it, it seemed apt that we had come on Sukkot. While so few of the Jews from Lancut survived the Shoah, here we were, 75 years later, performing the Jewish rituals they weren’t able to.
Back in our evening reflection circle, the participants were confused. Why aren’t there Jews here today? How is there a synagogue with nobody to pray there, shake lulav there, build a community there? It’s my third time in Poland, and I’ve travelled quite extensively around Eastern and Central Europe. Empty synagogues don’t shock me anymore. I looked around the room and saw the empty museum-like Shul I’ve seen so many times before.
But for most of the participants, this is their very first time encountering these empty spaces. We spoke of the synagogues back home in Scotland, how they’re full of life and host weekly (if not daily) minyanim. We talked about how we have so many opportunities to engage in Jewish life. While most of the participants on the trip are from Glasgow, we have some joining us from as far as Aberdeen and Edinburgh, and our very existence as a group celebrates the fact that we have young Jews across the country looking to engage and explore their own Jewish connections.
This is why I think this trip is so important – it’s an opportunity for these young Jews to begin thinking about the history that they’ve inherited, and the Jewish communities they want to continue building up. Visiting these sites is not easy – looking at rows of empty chairs in empty shuls is difficult, and as the week progresses and we get deeper into the history of the Shoah it will only get harder, but I’m very grateful for this wonderful group that we have, and everything that makes this trip possible!