Grand Leadership Mission to Poland and Israel

At a meeting a few weeks before we embarked upon the Grand Leadership Mission to Warsaw and Israel, we were asked to say one word that came to mind when we thought of Poland. “Shoah,” “tragedy,” and “destruction” were just a few of the images that framed our discussion. 

So it is no surprise that my eyes silently filled with tears while singing the refrain of “Am Yisrael Chai” during Simchat Torah services a few weeks ago at Congregation Etz Chayim, in Warsaw, Poland. The familiar melodies, the enthusiastic dancing, the friendly community – how was it possible that we, along with a vibrant and young Polish Jewish congregation, could be celebrating the happiest of Jewish holidays in a place so closely associated with the death and destruction of our people? This juxtaposition of joy and tragedy, present and past, renewal and history was an ongoing theme during our recent trip to Poland and Israel. What is our story, who is telling it, and how does it inform our leadership? To me, as one of 15 grateful participants in the Grand Leadership Institute’s inaugual mission, those were the seminal questions that guided our travels.

In Warsaw, with our amazing Rhodesia-born Israeli scholar, we learned about the evolving story of Jews in Poland and its centuries-old history. Our young Polish guide – born in the post-Communist era – led us through the overgrown grassy paths of the Okopowa cemetery, one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in the world, where we visited the graves of Ludwik Zamenhof, the founder of Esperanto, and Marek Edelman, a survivor and one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. We visited the memorial at the Umschlagplatz, the deportation site of thousands of Warsaw’s Jews. We immersed ourselves in the experiential galleries of the amazing light-filled year-old Polin Museum, commemorating 1,000 years of Polish Jewish history and rising from the one-time rubble of the Warsaw ghetto. We enjoyed an evening at the opera, taking in the magnificent Aida, with Polish supertitles (no help to us at all!). We sampled a variety of  delicious pierogies, which reminded this San Franciscan of a Polish wonton. 

Participants Richard Fiedotin
and Lori Pilchik with Rabbi
Michael Schudrich, Chief
Rabbi of Poland 

We met with many of the leaders of today’s Jewish community in Warsaw: the Chief Rabbi of Poland, the enthusiastic young director of the Warsaw JCC, one of the organizers of Limmud Poland, and the director of the Taube Center for Jewish life and renewal in Poland. Some are Americans and others are native born Poles, some of whom discovered their Jewish roots and decided to pursue their communal passions.

Many of the members of the Jewish community we met were not so dissimilar from ourselves. Their stories of how they discovered they were Jewish may have been different from our backgrounds but, just like here in the Bay Area, these Jews are “choosing” to be Jewish and working to develop inspiring communities.   

Poland is a land of contrasts and surprises. So is Israel, where we travelled next.

Upon arrival, we were met by another wonderful scholar, and also by Barak Loozon, the head of our Federation’s Israel office, and our guide throughout the trip. We visited many nonprofits that we support through our Federation, from organizations that help the underprivileged in South Tel Aviv, to people creating public art in Jerusalem, to visiting an art studio where at-risk youth are learning job skills. We experienced wonderful Shabbat dinners at the homes of Gvanim participants and made many personal connections.

But, casting a pall on our discoveries and connections, was the recent escalation of random violence against Jews in Israel. Soldiers and police were everywhere. The streets of Jerusalem were quieter than usual as we visited Machane Yehuda market on a Friday afternoon before Shabbat. The tension, particularly in Jerusalem, was palpable.

We ended our trip in Israel with a conversation much like that first one, weeks ago in San Francisco. What word or words encompassed our experience? “Jewish identity,” “Jewish literacy,” “action” and “inspiration” were just a few of the thoughts we expressed – so different from where we began our discussion.

As leaders, we need to know where we have been to know where we are going. And we have just been on an incredible journey – both literally and figuratively. Our travels opened our eyes and hearts to the narratives of our people and our connections to one another – whether in Warsaw, in Jerusalem, or in San Francisco. This experience, so beautifully organized through our professional staff, will inform our leadership, our relationships, and our community for years to come.

Our heartfelt gratitude goes to Nancy and Stephen Grand for creating this program, for enabling us to participate in this ongoing leadership journey together, and for lighting the way by their example. Dziękuję! (Thank you in Polish).

Trip participants pose in Israel with Shimon Peres

The Grand Leadership Institute is a 15-month program launched by Nancy and Stephen Grand with the goal of bringing a strong cohort of talented individuals together to create a corps of leadership for the Federation’s key positions over the next 5-10 years. For more information, contact either Debbie Berkowitz or Katherine Tick.

Categories: Israel, Overseas, Leadership


November 04, 2015


Jackie Shelton-Miller