This New Yorker Is Reviving Jewish Life in Krakow
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the JCC has become the lifeblood for Jews in this once-afflicted city.
By Stephen Starr
Jonathan Ornstein has listened to countless retellings of this city’s ghastly past. The industrial killing. Death camps. The Holocaust. The Krakow ghetto and the Auschwitz concentration camp, an hour west of this Polish city, were the settings for horrific crimes against humanity. Few cities are as infamous for the level reached by the Nazi extermination machine as Krakow: Along its ghettoized city streets, thousands of Jews starved to death or were murdered during World War II. Approximately 70,000 Jews lived in the city before the Nazis invaded in September 1939; today there are thought to be fewer than a thousand.
But while others are mired in the past, Jonathan Ornstein is weaving together a new future for Krakow’s Jews. Born in Queens, New York, the son of an observant father (though not mother), he grew up in a kosher home and attended Hebrew school three days a week. Later, Ornstein says, he “blew off” his law school studies and left for Israel for what he thought would be 12 months. Instead, he stayed for seven years, living on a kibbutz in the Negev desert and serving in the army. Of Hungarian and German heritage, Ornstein followed his heart, and a girl, from Israel to Poland in 2001. He later lectured in modern Hebrew at a local university before taking on the role of executive director of Krakow’s Jewish Community Centre (JCC) when it opened in 2008 with financial support from World Jewish Relief, a London-based charity, and other partners.
With nationalism on the rise in Poland … long-buried fears are emerging once again.
With its bright orange and harlequin green decor, the JCC is a blast for the senses. It sits next to the Tempel Synagogue and is home to a preschool, a space for seniors and classrooms for Yiddish, Arabic and Hebrew language instruction. At first Ornstein didn’t understand the need for a center, as there wasn’t much of a community beyond Holocaust survivors. “It was only when I got involved in the project did I see the potential here,” the 47-year-old says from his bright, retro-decorated office. “Rebuilding life in a place that is so strongly associated with death has a certain value. What we’re doing here can have an impact on the whole Jewish world, and beyond.”
Today, the JCC boasts more than 650 members, 70 of whom are Holocaust survivors. Walk-ins are encouraged, and there’s a genealogist on staff to help anyone interested in researching their Polish-Jewish roots. Last year they welcomed 100,000 visitors from all over the world, around half from the U.S. “Back then, I certainly wouldn’t have imagined what it has become now,” Ornstein marvels aloud.
Much has changed for Krakow’s Jewish community in the decade since the JCC opened — owing in large part to Ornstein’s grit. From fundraising to programming to membership outreach, he’s a driving force that never seems to idle. He’s also the engine behind the annual 50-mile Ride for the Living in which cyclists bike from Auschwitz to the JCC to honor victims of the Holocaust. He tells with raw delight that in its first year just 17 people took part, but last summer the number rocketed to 150, including the U.S. ambassador to Poland. Ornstein used part of the funds raised to pay for a group of Holocaust survivors and JCC members to visit Israel.
“I marvel at his passion for building Jewish life in Krakow,” says Avi Baumol, the rabbinic representative of the chief rabbi of Poland, in Krakow, who has known Ornstein for four years. “His discipline in how he approaches life, his work ethic and his compassion have seen the JCC grow in programming, budget, prominence and status.”
However, with nationalism on the rise in Poland — most noticeably at an Independence Day march in November where people carried white supremacist symbols — long-buried fears are emerging once again. In July, a priest was indicted for inciting hatred against Jews, and an effigy of a Hasidic Jew was burned in western Poland in 2015. With the country poised to celebrate the centenary of its independence next year, some are worried that displays of nationalism will peak further.
“All religious and ethnic minorities should be a bit concerned,” says Joanna Hosa of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank. “The government is creating an environment for the far right to prosper and show how powerful they are.”
All of which worries Ornstein, who is set to embark on international fundraising efforts to help mark the JCC’s 10th anniversary. “People here are concerned, and we talk about it all the time,” he says. “But the worrying, panicking letters I’m getting are not from the community; they’re from people abroad.” Critically, because the JCC is a bottom-up venture, it has never had to depend on the Polish authorities, which distinguishes it from similar organizations in other countries and affords it a measure of independence and stability.
Still, Ornstein is concerned — and not just about the menace of anti-Semitism reasserting itself. He also frets over a more mundane issue: The JCC has grown so much that its four-story structure can no longer meet the needs of its now-thriving community. He must get his hands on more office space.
Undoubtedly, as problems go, it’s not a bad one. The JCC’s expansion is a positive change, serving as it does as the lifeblood of the city’s Jewish community. “We [seniors] meet each other here; it is a place to eat and drink together,” says 82-year-old Holocaust survivor Zofia Radzikowska. “It’s become so important for all of us.”
- Stephen Starr Contact Stephen Starr