The song of Jewish renewal in Poland


The Polish Jewish Renewal movement has a song to sing, and in three concerts, Southern Californians will soon be able to hear it. 

The performances, organized to benefit Beit Polska, the umbrella organization of Progressive Judaism in Poland, will feature Cantor David Wisnia, a 90-year-old survivor of Auschwitz, and his grandson, singer-songwriter Avi Wisnia. Joining them will be two Polish prayer leaders and singers, Rivka Foremniak and Menachem Mirski, a well as Hazzan Michael Stein of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills and Hazzan Paul Buch of Temple Beth Israel in Pomona. 

The concerts will take place Oct. 19 at Temple Aliyah, Oct. 22 at Torrance Cultural Arts Center and Oct. 23 at Temple Beth Israel. Both local cantors will be at the first two performances; Stein will not appear in Pomona.

Beit Polska, an organization that “engages Poles who are curious about Jews and Judaism,” according to its website, was founded in 1995. It now has four synagogues and six chavurot, ranging in size from 30 to 50 people, with the organization’s main synagogue in Warsaw having 150 members, said Rabbi Haim Beliak, volunteer executive director of Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland, the American fundraising arm for Beit Polska.

Yet the Warsaw congregation, called Beit Warszawa, is not what you might traditionally expect in terms of the origins of its members. “Only two families have grandparents, parents and children who are all Jewish,” Beliak said. Of the balance, “all are people who have converted to Judaism or have documents confirming they are Jewish,” he added.

For many of these people, Judaism has been “a process of recovery and renewal,” Beliak said. He first researched the possibilities for a Jewish rebirth in Poland while working on a study in 2011 for the World Union of Progressive Judaism.

In Poland, where memories of the Jewish community that existed there before the Nazis and World War II are hard to find, most of the people who have come to the synagogue in Warsaw “are beneficiaries of a grandfather or grandmother who said they are Jewish” and they begin to explore that, said Beliak, who serves as rabbi at Congregation Beth Ohr in Studio City and as an on-call chaplain for Skirball Hospice.

“There are people like this all over Poland,” explained Beliak. He spends six to nine months in the country each year and estimates that in Poland there are between 100,000 and 200,000 people with a Jewish grandparent.

To aid their exploration, Beit Polska has organized a program for conversion, as well as what Beliak calls a “recertification” program for those who believe they are already Jewish.

“The renewal takes place in an environment where there is a curiosity, interest, even longing for a Jewish presence in Poland,” said Beliak, whose parents survived the Nazis, with his mother having been born in Poland.

“I think that the story of Jews recovering their Jewish identity is something that inspires people,” he said.

Through the life and repertoire of Cantor David Wisnia, the entire arc of the Polish Jewish experience — from pre-war years to Jewish renewal — can be experienced. 

A native of Warsaw, Wisnia sang in the famed Tlumacke Synagogue as a youth before World War II. There, he told the Journal, he was a soloist, performing with cantors Gershon Serota and Moshe Kussovitsky. 

A survivor of Auschwitz, where he spent almost three years, he saved his life though his voice, which he used to perform before the camp’s Nazi officials. On a death march to Dachau “was when I escaped,” said Wisnia, who has a recently published book covering much of his life, “One Voice, Two Lives.” 

While in the camp, he composed a song in Polish, “Oswiecim” (Auschwitz), “a parody on the life in Auschwitz,” he said, which he will be performing at the Southland concerts.

Singing alongside David Wisnia will be his grandson Avi Wisnia. 

“My grandfather will be performing in English, Polish, Hebrew, Yiddish, maybe some German, languages that he also speaks,” said Avi, who has been influenced by his grandfather. 

Though “my music is not Jewish per se — it’s contemporary — I really did grow up watching my grandfather on the stage, always in public, ready to perform on the bimah,”Avi said, “and that definitely had a lot to do with my comfort being on the stage.”

Others involved with the concerts have a continuing relationship with Poland and Judaism there.

Menachem Mirski, a Pole and Beit Polska lay cantor, will be singing songs he performs in his klezmer band. He did his doctoral thesis on Poland’s reaction to the Holocaust and is about to enter rabbinical school, according to Beliak. 

Rivka Foremniak, another Polish lay cantor who will be performing, is a psychologist. She has worked as a coordinator for Beit Polska and is one of the founders of the organization’s congregation in Gdansk.

The concerts’ producer, ethnomusicologist Neal Brostoff, who helped train Foremniak and about eight other lay Polish cantors, visited Poland for the first time in January with the goal of organizing concerts there of Jewish classical chamber music, as well as lieder (art songs). After staying at Beit Worszawa, and sitting in on the conversion classes, his awareness of the Jewish Renewal movement was heightened, he told the Journal.

Brostoff also is organizing another concert of Jewish music from Poland, this one of lieder and chamber music, at UCLA on Nov. 2.

A story about one of the songs that Mirski will sing during the local concerts speaks to the energy that Beliak and others share in their support for Poland’s Jewish Renewal movement. Mirski performed it in Warsaw, where Israeli Ambassador Zvi Rav-Ner was in attendance. 

Beliak still recalls how, after the performance, Rav-Ner, himself a Pole, remarked, almost in disbelief, “I never thought I would ever see the creative Jewish soul in the Polish language again.”

For information about the concerts to benefit Beit Polska on Oct. 19 at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, Oct. 22 at Torrance Cultural Arts Center, and Oct. 23, at Temple Beth Israel in Pomona, visit jewishrenewalinpoland.org.