January 28, 2020

Connecting Polish Students to Israel

David Wiener

When philanthropist David Wiener is trying to decide what causes to support, one question is often the driving factor: Does it help Israel? Answering this question is how he came to fund Polish students’ trips to Israel.

In the fall of 2017, Wiener, 92, who continues to put in office hours four days a week at the Beverly Hills headquarters of his real estate development and management company, attended a Jewish National Fund dinner in Los Angeles. One of the speakers was Rabbi Leor Sinai, Co-CEO of the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI), which the JNF acquired in 2013.

Wiener asked the rabbi to tell him more about AMHSI, an accredited college preparatory study abroad program about 20 minutes outside Tel Aviv. The school offers various programs, from a full semester to just a few weeks. AMHSI had just piloted a summer program called Roots Israel, targeting the “global Jewish community.” These three-week long summer sessions focus on community service and volunteering.

Wiener, a Holocaust survivor who was born in Lódz, Poland, was intrigued. 

“He said, ‘What are you doing in Poland?’ ” Sinai told the Journal. Sinai himself typically travels to Poland two or three times a year, often with students from the school. And he works closely with the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture, which created the Taube Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland. But Polish students weren’t coming to AMHSI.

Sinai told Wiener they would love to bring high school students from Poland to AMHSI. “Send them back to their country so they can be the future of their Jewish communities,” Sinai said. “[Wiener] loved the idea. That’s when he decided to make this gift that resulted in over 10 Jewish high school students [from Poland] joining us last summer with our program.”

The normal cost of the program is upward of $3,000 per person, not including airfare, although financial aid is available.

“I made a quick decision,” Wiener — whose two brothers died in Auschwitz — told the Journal. “As a whole, young kids have to know what happened to us. So many young kids in Eastern Europe, they are half Jewish. They don’t know. During the war, parents were afraid to say they were Jewish.”

Sinai said all the Polish students who participated last summer identify as Jewish.

“There are young Jewish high school students who deserve to be connected to their heritage. If the Jewish world is calling for us, we have to answer the call.” — Rabbi Leor Sinai

“There are young Jewish high school students who deserve to be connected to their heritage and are thirsty to learn,” he added. “And we want to help ensure that they are connected to their narrative. If the Jewish world is calling for us, we have to answer the call.”

The students who participate in Roots Israel come from all over the world, but primarily from the United States and Europe. Over the course of the three-week sessions, they spend about 70 percent of their time on the Alexander Muss campus. The rest of the time they are “traveling the land … getting to know the communities of Israel from the bottom up,” Sinai said. That includes visiting historic sites and the locations of “modern historical happenings.” But Sinai said the experiences that resonate most with students is their work with programs that serve students with disabilities. 

“We have an opportunity to impact the course of our people’s trajectory moving forward,” Sinai said. “This is an opportunity to be proactive, to invest in our children, to provide them an entry point to their own narrative, which will lead to not only an understanding of themselves but also to a conviction that they are part of something special: the Jewish people.”

That was certainly Zuzanna Wiewióraq’s experience. “These three weeks were the best weeks in my life,” wrote Wiewióraq, who was one of the students Wiener sponsored last summer. “I’ve learned many things about Israel, about people, about really hard work. These experiences changed my mind/life 180. I am so happy that I could learn and help! I had the feeling that I’m really strong and important. This trip really changes our perception of the world. When you are a part of the trip, you are part of the family.”